THE number of New Zealanders identifying as Maori is growing, the Census found last year.

But while more than a fifth of these said they could hold a conversation in te reo Maori, this had actually fallen nearly 5 per cent since 2006.

Efforts to preserve the language have seen the growth of language immersion schools around the country and other initiatives such as Maori Television.

But while te reo is now a widely-accepted part of New Zealand culture, the slide in usage is cause for concern.

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The evolution of te reo

Once the main source of communication in Aotearoa, te reo Maori was widely spoken in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Protection for the language as taonga - or "treasure" - was agreed under the Treaty of Waitangi but never honoured until being made an official language in 1987.

In the years between, the harsh enforcement of English in schools and the belief the colonial tongue would yield more wealth and opportunity saw the use of Maori slip.

According to the Maori Language Commission, the migration of rural Maori to urban centres from the 1940s to the 1970s diluted te reo further and many parents stopped speaking it to their children altogether.

These factors, combined with policies that invariably favoured English as the dominant language, caused a huge language loss within the Maori population, reaching a crisis point in the 1970s when the number of speakers dwindled so drastically many feared te reo was facing extinction - thus giving rise to a push for revitalisation.

Initiatives to bolster te reo included Te Ataarangi (a language learning system), kohanga reo (Maori language pre-schools), kura kaupapa Maori (Maori language schools) and Maori broadcasting.

The Maori Language Act was passed in 1987, acknowledging the Crown's responsibility to protect te reo and declaring it an official language of New Zealand.

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The legislation also introduced the right to speak Maori during some legal proceedings and established the Maori Language Commission.

However, official recognition hasn't pushed te reo into the mainstream.

Commission chief executive Pita Paraone says while efforts to revive the language haven't been as rewarding as envisaged, the act has had its successes, not only achieving wide acceptance of te reo as an official language, but also the establishment of hundreds of Maori language schools.

He says an increasing number of non-Maori are also wanting to learn te reo.

Maori Television, launched in 2004, has also played a significant role in making te reo more popular and widening its audience, despite not all programmes being in the language.

"It's good it's reaching [people] and making people aware of the Maori language but, for a lot of us, we'd like to see more Maori language used."

The challenges

Mr Paraone says the growth of te reo still faces some significant barriers, including a shortage of qualified teachers and threats to linguistic quality.

Changes to grammar and vocabulary have engendered a modern version of te reo Maori far removed from the vernacular of the elders.

"As a comparison between Maori and English if I was to ask you if you were a fluent speaker of English, you would say yes, but if I were to ask you if you were a speaker of English in the sense of William Shakespeare then you'd have to think about that."

The language has changed so much over the past few generations that Mr Paraone said his father would struggle to understand young people.

He also believes calls to make te reo compulsory in schools "have merit" but should only apply to primary-aged children.

"Once you get to NCEA level, then there should be a choice."

Ultimately, the commission wants to see "the human landscape of Aotearoa resonate with its indigenous language".

"People should be encouraged to learn te reo because if you're going to call New Zealand home, then that's the basis of being a New Zealander."

Kura kaupapa Maori

As of July last year, more than 17,340 students were enrolled in Maori language immersion schools, a number that has grown from about 16,800 five years earlier.

While New Zealand already has 93 kura schools and 500 odd Maori language preschools, the Labour Party recently indicated it planned to make te reo compulsory in every school.

Initially downplayed as an "aspiration", Labour Maori affairs spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta was more direct during a debate held in Gisborne earlier this month, saying: "We've made a clear commitment that te reo Maori will be compulsory in our schools."

Maori Party Tai Tokerau candidate Te Hira Paenga said more was needed to save the language.

"If we are serious about making te reo Maori compulsory in our schools, then we need to increase the number of Maori language teachers, we need to ensure there are quality reo Maori resources, and we need to fund our schools appropriately to implement the new measures."

The comments come in the wake of proposed legislation that would transfer control of the agencies that safeguard te reo Maori over to iwi.

The bill, spearheaded by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, would see a Maori language governance entity called Te Matawai run the Crown's strategy for te reo Maori.

Labour is calling for the immediate withdrawal of the bill, saying the proposed agency would effectively replace the commission without any evidence it would protect te reo Maori.

A partnership

Tuhourangi kaumatua Anaru Rangiheuea says we should never have got to the point where support has to be "drummed up" to include te reo in schools.

"Years ago it should've been automatic, a partnership Maori and Pakeha living together. I speak your language then you should speak and understand mine."

But the sole use of English in schools over time has made that impossible. "There's not too many us who are fluent in te reo."

However, he says the emergence of kapa haka competitions is bringing te reo back to young people.

"It's been helpful. They're beginning to understand te reo and the history and the culture through that. You hear them singing in the language ... it doesn't matter where they come from."

Mr Rangiheuea didn't speak te reo growing up, learning it only later in life.

"If I wanted to converse with [the elders] and wanted to converse with them, then I had to get on my bike and learn the language."

Young people today should be encouraged to do the same.

"People of my age would like to see [te reo] incorporated in schools, but will our young people pick it up?"