Half of the 6000 languages spoken around the world are in danger of disappearing and Ruamata school principal Cathy Dewes says te reo Maori is not yet out of the woods.

Although the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) degree of language endangerment has moved the Maori language from severely endangered to endangered, Dr Dewes said: "We believe te reo has moved from severely endangered to definitely endangered but our language needs to be spoken by all generations, be transmitted intergenerationally and spoken everywhere and anywhere to survive."

She had seen many changes in New Zealand since she first lobbied for action on te reo in 1972.

"When I first become involved in lobbying for te reo Maori, we had nothing. Now we have kohanga reo, kura kaupapa Maori, wharekura [secondary school subjects taught in Maori up to NCEA level 3] and aatarangi, an army of te reo tutors. That is a huge progress," she said.


Dr Dewes said not enough Maori realised the importance of speaking Maori and it was not just about the survival of the language but the survival of Maori people, culture, values and customs which were transmitted through language.

"The language conveys the soul, the spirit, the culture of the people and the best quote I ever heard was, 'English is a language of commerce, French is a language of romance, Maori is a language of the soul,' and that is what we are reclaiming."

In 1972, Dr Dewes supported Hana Jackson's petition to Parliament for Maori language to be an option in all schools throughout the country and the next year commemorated Maori Language Day. "We lobbied for lots of legislation and we knew once it was in place, resources would follow and we needed resources."

Maori Language Day eventually became Maori Language Week in 1975 and, three years later, New Zealand's first officially bilingual school opened at Ruatoki in the Urewera. Unesco works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilisations, cultures and people, based upon respect for commonly shared values.