Despite being indigenous to Aotearoa, the history of te reo Māori is a fraught one – it wasn't until the late 1980s that it was even designated as an official language of this country. Decades of advocacy in the face of adversity, however, first ensured that te reo would survive the assault of colonisation, then restored the status of the language. Now, individual engagement is riding a wave of popularity.
Long-term education and information initiatives have helped to revitalise and modernise te reo, and between free classes, online resources like the Te Aka Māori dictionary, and tools like Spark's translation app Kupu – which uses Google-powered augmented reality tech to identify objects captured by users' phone cameras, then quickly translate their names into te reo – prospective learners have access to a huge range of resources to facilitate their study. It's never been cooler to kōrero, and The Spinoff's Ako series – produced in partnership with Spark NZ and powered by Kupu – shines a light on three te reo Māori learners with very different stories.
Simon Day in his own words
My great grandfather, Tom French, was born under a tree at Waipapa marae in Kawhia, overlooking the black sands of the town's harbour on the North Island's west coast. As a young man he appeared destined to line up on the back row for the All Blacks until he lost his left arm in World War I where he fought with the Māori Pioneer Battalion.
I was born in the Auckland suburb of Herne Bay. I grew up in te ao Pākehā. I was always raised to be proud of my taha Māori. Tom's story was always vivid in my mind, and I felt a connection to the Tom French Cup winners as I watched them run out for the All Blacks. But I've always questioned my right to claim his legacy. I didn't speak te reo, I couldn't recite my pepeha, I didn't visit his marae until my late 20s.
When I talked about my Maori heritage, I'd be asked "but how Māori even are you?". And honestly, for a long time I didn't feel very Māori at all.
But slowly I learned that Māoriness isn't a measurement of blood quantum, nor is it a scale based on whether you can speak te reo or perform kapa haka. It's binary fact, defined by if you have Māori ancestors and then an individual desire to embrace that taha Māori. My disconnection from my family's history and its tikanga and reo is not my fault. Nor is that disconnection something I should be embarrassed about.
On December 26, 2019, my wife gave birth to our twin sons. The boys carry the names of our respective marae as their middle names – we wanted their names to be the first step in reclaiming their whakapapa.
The next step has been surrounding them in te reo Māori as best we can. We try to speak to them in Māori as much as our limited vocabulary will allow. And we've already seen our vocab and understanding hugely improve as we try to guide the boys into the language.
Tech developments like the Kupu app let us fill in gaps and have the language at our fingertips as we teach the boys about the world around them. The more vocabulary I have access to, the more I find myself deferring to te reo Māori instead of English. The Kupu app has empowered us to upskill our language on the fly while we go through the simple stages of teaching the boys the names of the things that fill their world. And it means that I've learned as I teach them.
I want the boys to feel like the language is theirs, an intrinsic part of who they are. I want them to grow up proud of a language their tīpuna were denied. I want to give them an opportunity to understand this part of their ancestry and embrace te reo Māori.
Jacinta Gulasekharam by Arihia Latham
Growing up in Feilding, Jacinta Gulasekharam felt both safe and strange. Her mother is Pākehā and her father is Sri Lankan, and she didn't know anyone else with Sri Lankan heritage at her school. Most kids couldn't pronounce her surname, and from some the racism was blatant, classmates asking her "what boat [she] came off". She eventually found a comfortable place in the kapa haka group at school, dressed in piupiu, swinging poi and singing waiata. Somehow those kupu made their way into her bones and the whanaungatanga and manaakitanga of that rōpu helped her to feel part of the community.
In secondary school Jacinta opted to learn French over Te Reo Māori, as it was what her peers were taking. At the time it felt like a relatively innocuous decision, but it's one that she somewhat regrets these days – albeit one that she's happy to laugh about.
"[French] has been literally useless for me. I wish I had taken te reo Māori then!"
In the summer of 2016, after reading an article about how young women were having to miss out on school due to a lack of access to sanitary products, Jacinta and her Victoria University classmate Miranda Hitchings co-founded period poverty not-for-profit Dignity.
Upon reading statistics which showed 19% of Māori youth have experienced period poverty, and 16% have missed school because they couldn't afford menstrual products, the two young entrepreneurs quickly realised that not only would this business need to be consider equality and empowerment, it would also need to be culturally sensitive and to cater to different needs, beliefs and cultural settings.
For Jacinta, it was important to her that when pitching Dignity to different businesses or speaking in public, she'd be able to mihi in te reo Māori and offer her own pepeha.
"I signed up for te reo classes this year, as a personal and business goal is to increase my reo, which in turn increases my understanding of tikanga around periods"
That same drive to ensure cultural sensitivity meant that the Dignity team soon found themselves with a very simple, yet very important need – and one which was met perfectly by the Kupu app's translation functionality.
"I remember I downloaded Kupu and took photos of sanitary items to start to diversify our vocabulary." she recalls. "The app offers such a great place to start learning te reo Māori, because of that accessibility."
While Jacinta is aware that she's early in her te reo Māori learning journey, she recognises that although she's not an expert in the language, she's in a privileged position both as a learner and as a businesswoman.
"I'm learning as I go, and all of the innovation and support out there is helping me achieve my goals: to end period poverty in Aotearoa, and to increase our understanding of genuine partnership, so that we can authentically celebrate the taonga that is te reo Māori."
Haider Khan by Alice Webb-Liddall
Haider Khan was inspired to take up te reo Māori at precisely the wrong time. After hearing a coworker at Spark delivering a mihi to open a conference, he describes feeling as though the words, though he didn't understand their meaning, were calling to him specifically.
"He spoke with such resonance and it was more than just a foreign language, it was as if he was presenting himself for a reason, I thought he was speaking to me."
But being the early 2000s, te reo Māori learning resources were few, and Khan found it hard to find a place to start. Then he moved to Dubai and the language journey was stopped before it began. When he and his family moved back to New Zealand three years ago, it didn't take long for Khan to once again decide to start learning the language. In the two years since his first conversational Māori class, he's discovered more about the history of Aotearoa and formed his own connection to the land.
"Learning te reo opened up new facts for me. I never knew that it was only in '87 that it became an official language. Talking to some of my fellow students who are Māori, there was another revelation about how their tipuna were told not to speak the language, and that whole sense of colonialism came directly at me."
"I grew up in a family where English was our first language, but luckily the majority of people spoke the native language, Urdu, so it could never be stamped out. The colonists created classes of society in Pakistan so suddenly I was drawing parallels. There is no class that has been created here as such, but there's an evident divide between Pākehā and Māori."
Māori cultural values were another place Khan saw huge overlaps from his upbringing in Pakistan. The Māori value of manaakitanga was one he found familiarity with. The idea that it's a blessing to have and care for guests is one he recognised.
"In a strange way, rather than the guest saying thank you it's our job to say thank you for bringing this prosperity into our lives. That filters through the culture. When I started learning about te reo Māori and seeing things from the Māori world view, all of these things started becoming clear."
Khan gives a lot of thanks to his workplace, Spark, for supporting his journey and for developing apps like Kupu, which helps people to learn Māori vocabulary using AI technology.
"Kupu for me has been the fun introduction that merges technology and the fascination of learning a new language. To say it's magical comes pretty close, because by using AI, the app recognises my quest to expand my vocabulary," explains Khan.
He's proud to be part of growing number of people taking up te reo Māori learning and encourages everyone who's thought about giving it a go to have a look at the many ways the language can now be learnt, so we can stick it to the colonists who thought they could make te reo Māori disappear.
"We are in an awesome time in Aotearoa, with so many people at the political front as well talking about it – whoever thought te reo Māori would be dying a slow death will be turning in their grave, because it ain't."
This content was powered by Kupu and produced by The Spinoff in paid partnership with Spark NZ. To learn more about Kupu and to download the app, click here.