In recent years, te reo Māori has experienced a huge surge in interest, as scores of New Zealanders seek to learn our native language – their own experiences inspiring others, and helping to ensure the language's survival. Now BNZ, together with Te Aka Māori dictionary, is among those embracing this movement, by encouraging the use of everyday kupu (words) into daily conversations. As the BNZ team embark their own journey to ako (learn/teach) during Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, they're keen to empower all of Aotearoa to have a go. The more we try, the more we learn. And the more we speak te reo, the more we teach it, as Stacey's journey to ako will attest.
"It was through learning Japanese that I came to learn te reo Māori. I was an AFS [international exchange] student in Japan in my 7th form year, and I really loved the intellectual challenge of learning the language in an immersion environment. It helped me see what language does, in terms of giving insight into culture and people. When I reached a conversational level of fluency in Japanese, I thought, this is crazy — I can speak someone else's language and I can't speak my own.
My grandmother was a te reo Māori speaker, so you'd think it would be logical that I learned more than I did. But I was of the generation where it wasn't passed down, it wasn't celebrated, it wasn't seen necessarily as a good thing, which makes me feel sad now. I felt embarrassed at school that I couldn't speak Māori. My cousins went to the total immersion unit at our school and I didn't, so I tried to act like it didn't matter. But it's one of those things that you can push into the background for so long until it says, guess what? It does matter.
Even though I set that intention to learn Māori when I came back from Japan at 18, it was actually a really slow, painful process. I didn't get much momentum until I started working on TVNZ Māori department programmes like Marae and Mai Time. I was forced to do it because of my job, but it was a really uncomfortable way to be learning in that environment, stuffing it up and having my mistakes pointed out — which they needed to be. But I'm grateful for the resilience it gave me.
I had a really piecemeal learning path. I would go to night classes and get some momentum, then fall off and start again, then do a little more at work, then run away from the fluent speakers at work! And it wasn't until I started going to monthly live-in wānanga, an iwi-supported initiative through Ngāi Tahu in Christchurch where you stay from Friday to Sunday, that I felt I could actually stay in conversation. And then I started going to higher level classes. Immersion helped me get to an intermediate level.
Then I married well! I actually met my husband [Scotty Morrison] at a reo learning environment. Once we started dating, we'd speak in Māori about 50 per cent of the time, and we realised it could be a possibility for us to bring our kids up with te reo Māori as their first language. It was part of our love affair. I recognise the privilege of being married to a fluent speaker but he's had to learn a lot as well, because raising kids with te reo was different again. That's why we've created books like Māori At Home because we've realised it's hard.
You're always learning — that's what I love about it. It feels like you're always in a creative, learning state. And it's helped me feel comfortable in my full self. Because growing up, while my mum and her parents were Pākehā, and I could speak English and all of that was easy, my face told the world that I was Māori, but I didn't really know what that meant to me.
There have been so many 'aha' moments that have helped me express something that I knew to be true but couldn't put [English] words to. A lot of the time in te reo we talk about them in a spiritual sense. I love how my kids can talk about how they're feeling on a spiritual level so naturally. It's been the fulfillment of a dream to bring our kids up with Māori as their first language, and I still have moments where I have to catch myself and go, 'wow, this really happened'. To be able to do that, to grow up with no Māori language at all, then for my kids' first words to be te reo Māori and their first language to be Māori, I probably won't be able to comprehend it until I'm quite a lot older. That was a stupendous and very lofty goal but we're actually getting there and it's doable.
That's emotional to me, particularly because on my Ngāi Tahu side, we haven't had fluent speakers in quite a few generations of our family; it disappeared long ago. We have returned the language, but we need to be really careful about it because if we don't have a good critical mass of speakers by 2040, we could still lose the language forever. And that will be on us.
Learning and using words that are relevant to you will always be the easiest way to bring them into your life. So you might say 'good morning' by saying 'Mōrena', and as well as saying 'Kia ora' as in 'hello' you can also use it to say 'thank you'. If you're talking to somebody, use the words you do actually know: tamariki, mana, whānau, aroha. Give yourself challenges. I have my ATM settings with BNZ on te reo Māori, and when I first started, I was like, what is this? Receipt? I could figure it out, but I wasn't used to using those terms because I didn't talk about banking much but it was great! Use what is relevant to everyday life and get some confidence on board so that you can at least know you're saying the words correctly. And know that people will respect the fact that you're trying.
There are lots of online resources now — books, audiobooks, quizzes, videos, games — and one really helpful thing about engaging with language is that it tells you about yourself as a learner. Some people say, 'I need to see it written down'; others say 'I need to hear it'. Make a plan of how you bring the language into your life and find a way for it to work for you.
I recently spoke with three fluent speakers who are not Māori who all said to me that learning Māori actually made them feel stronger about who they are as Pākehā. I thought that was really interesting. A Pākehā woman is head of the Māori unit at school that my kids all went through. So [not being Māori] is not a barrier and learning the language will be enriching for everybody. We can't just rely on Māori to keep the language alive — there's not enough of us!
I really respect the growth mindset that it takes for an adult to learn. Everyone can get something from it, even if that's just being able to say words without hesitancy, to know a little bit more about what they mean or where they live. The challenges people go through in learning a new language are helpful because they provide different perspectives. We have such a great opportunity. You don't lose something by learning, you just gain more."
Keen to start your te reo Māori learning journey? Visit Letsako.co.nz