Virginia Saccomanno says she thinks Argentinians and Māori have a lot in common.

"Māori people are more Latin American than Kiwi people," says the Argentinian mother of two, who is living in Taupo. "They are more open, more touchy-feely, more 'let's party, let's drink, let's eat,' or at least it looks like that."

Maybe that's why Virginia was drawn to learning te reo Māori when she moved to New Zealand two and a half years ago.

Her husband, a chef, had landed a job at Cape Kidnappers near Napier and Virginia, a singer and singing teacher, had always been curious about Māori culture.

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Virginia enquired about learning te reo Māori in Napier but as she was not a New Zealand resident, she did not qualify for any subsidised courses. But when her family moved to Taupo for her husband's work, she found out via Facebook about Te Ataarangi, a three-year te reo Māori course. It was free too. It was a great way of meeting people and Virginia found the group of other students - some older people who wanted to connect with their reo, others who were studying it for work purposes or just for interest, friendly and welcoming.

Virginia Saccomanno, with baby Maia and daughter Isabella, says learning te reo Māori is about being part of something bigger. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
Virginia Saccomanno, with baby Maia and daughter Isabella, says learning te reo Māori is about being part of something bigger. Photo / Laurilee McMichael

"I think for me [learning te reo] is about being part of something.

"I felt very accepted in the class. They were quite pleased that I took an interest in learning about their culture and the language.

"You really learn, they are really good. You don't waste your time and there's no judgement. Everybody helps each other."

The Te Ataarangi method of learning Māori uses coloured cuisenaire rods as a learning tool. It's an effective language-learning technique with the emphasis on speaking and has so far supported more than 50,000 people to speak Māori in homes and communities.

Virginia's native tongue is Spanish and she also learned English growing up but she says learning Māori is totally different because unlike European languages, which often share common words, it does not have its roots in Latin. She thinks in Spanish so she has to convert the words in her head to English, and then to Māori

She attended Te Ataarangi every Thursday from 9am to 3pm, working her way through the first two workbooks, each of which took three to four months. The first was on greetings, karakia, waiata, mihi, pepeha and whakatauki, and the second was on parts of the house. She had to stop part-way through the third book, on places, when her baby Maia was born, but intends to go back to classes as soon as she is able, and is grateful that she has been told Maia is welcome to come too. The entire course is expected to take three years.

Virginia says she finds the Te Ataarangi method good because the students use the rod-based system to learn various sentence structures which they can then insert the appropriate vocabulary into.

"It works because you learn the colours and the numbers by repeating it and then you pass it to the person next to you. It's like a game. "For example, the parts of the house, that was really clear for me to learn because you make a house with the rods."

Virginia says while she has found Māori people are happy when they hear she is learning te reo, the reaction of non-Māori New Zealanders has often been different.

"Most Kiwi people, when I told them I was learning Māori, they would say 'why are you doing that? It's a waste of time'." Virginia doesn't think so. Coming from a country where the indigenous people are largely invisible, she thinks it's wonderful that Māori is such a big part of New Zealand culture and learning te reo should be mandatory in schools.

Te Ataarangi tutor Mark Tamaira, known as Toru, says learning te reo Māori is proving a life saver for some of the people who are doing the course.

"Some of these aged people have found te reo has given them a lease of life with something to do, especially those who have lost a partner."

• To enquire about learning te reo Māori using the Te Ataarangi method, email Toru at toru4tamaira@gmail.com.