The number of adults learning te reo Māori has increased over 50 per cent in the past several years, but only about a third carry on to higher levels. Michael Neilson spent an evening with a full immersion class to see why they have "taken the plunge", and how they stay committed to the kaupapa
You can hear the laughter from down the hallway.
It is just after 6pm on a Wednesday night, and while most Aucklanders are heading home, a group of dedicated students are packed into a classroom, learning te reo Māori.
These are level 5 students, in Te Wānanga o Aotearoa's (TWoA) full immersion unit, which means all of their classes are in te reo.
As each describe their weekends - rangi whakatā - smiles cover their faces, often boiling over into hearty laughter as they crack jokes, buoying each other on.
If one stumbles, or can't find the kupu (word), encouragement rings out: "Ka pai e hoa."
As kaiako Maria-Pare Te Whiu says, "Learning a language, especially as an adult, can be scary, so we aim to make the classroom a safe space, where you can make mistakes, and have fun."
These 24 tauira are part of a small but vital group who have pushed passed the beginner stage, and are committed to becoming fluent speakers.
Ben Thomason (Ngāti Raukawa), 28, grew up on the North Shore, and while he was always surrounded by his Māori culture through kapahaka and being on marae, he never sat down to learn the reo.
It would hit home for him when he and his whānau would be on marae or at tangi, and somebody needed to speak on their behalf.
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"The only other person who could speak some reo was one of my cousins, who is 49. I just thought, 'I really need to do this for my whānau'."
This group is not an anomaly. Across the country, Kiwis are flocking to such night classes - many fees free - in droves.
According to the Tertiary Education Commission, those enrolled in Māori language courses at polytechnics, universities and wānanga had grown from just over 16,000 in 2014 to nearly 25,000 in 2018.
Those taking beginner – level 1 and 2 – classes had nearly doubled in that time, from 7134 to 12,835. The majority of the growth had only occurred in the past three years.
But only about 30 per cent of students took the leap from beginner to full immersion.
Linda Edge, who identifies as Pākehā, has been through that whole journey.
When she started her reo was "virtually nothing".
The importance of learning hit her when, working as a nurse, she visited communities where for some people te reo was their first language, and she struggled to converse with them.
"I felt ashamed as a Kiwi that I couldn't understand them and they were feeling uncomfortable. It really hit me the need for us all to be bilingual."
She is dedicated to her learning, which at this level involves a three-hour session a week and eight weekend classes - noho marae - over the year.
As with her fellow students, the biggest barrier is time.
"I kept saying I would learn, but then put it off. Then I just decided it was something I needed to do, and once you'd made that decision, you find time."
Jennifer Williams (Te Aupōuri, Ngāpuhi) was learning to break the chain in her family of non-speakers, that started when her grandmother gave up on her reo to avoid getting the strap.
"My mum and her siblings never learned as a result, and so me and my siblings were also raised without it. But I want it to be the first language for my children."
With six children, time was also a big issue for her, but she found spaces outside the classroom to keep up her reo.
The Government has a target of having one million New Zealanders speaking basic te reo by 2040, which is a long way off the 2013 Census that shows just 148,400 New Zealanders can hold a basic conversation in te reo - 84.5 per cent of whom are Māori.
But TWoA chief executive Te Ururoa Flavell believes the demand is there to reach that target, they just lack the teaching and funding capacity.
About 7000 of those adult students were enrolled at TWoA, and Flavell said they could probably more than double that number.
For one of next year's courses in Hamilton there was already a waiting list of more than 150 people.
Flavell was encouraging of recent government efforts to increase the number of teachers, and online tools, and also wants to see a funding cap on students enrolling lifted.
Auckland University of Technology te reo Māori lecturer Hēmi Kelly said numbers across their three year groups had nearly tripled since 2014, from 594 to 1595 last year.
The teaching team of five had doubled, and still they had waiting lists for all first- and second-year classes.
Students included people from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and Kelly said he believed as the language was further normalised it would continue to grow.
"I think the future lies in maybe ours or the following generation, that doesn't have that awkwardness in pronunciation, or fear of making mistakes."
Kaiako (teacher) Maria-Pare Te Whiu is a native speaker, and has been teaching for nine years.
"The biggest change I've seen is the increase in non-Māori learning - people of all ethnicities, all ages, and they are really committed."
For Pākehā barriers often included feelings of embarrassment around pronunciation or a sense of colonial guilt. Māori often faced a sense of whakamā, or cultural shame, in not being able to speak their reo.
Te Whiu said she made sure her classroom environment helped all tauira move past those feelings.
"I want to cater to the 99 per cent who are starting out on their journey, and to inspire them to carry on to those higher levels."