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Emma Espiner: Te Wā Tuku Reo Māori

To mark Māori Language Week, Emma Espiner reflects on the importance of her daughter belonging in her reo, in te ao Māori.

Our daughter has consistently refused to speak te reo Māori with us since she was five years old. I eavesdropped on enough of her online classes during lockdown to know that it’s not that she can’t, just that she won’t. Te reo Pākehā is all around her, so of course she defaults to it.

One afternoon in July I picked her up from her Māori medium school. “E kōrero ana ahau i te reo Māori anake Māmā” - I’m only speaking te reo Māori, mum. It turns out she and her mates realised they have a secret language that the after-school care staff didn’t understand. Parenting is universally like this; your children seek to thwart your efforts at everything from bedtime to nutrition to hygiene, and sometimes they’ll do what you want but only for their own perverse reasons.

Three years ago I wrote a column when we were at a crossroads, deciding whether to send our daughter to the local school - just a few blocks away, an easy walk - or to add an hour each way to our commute so that she could attend a Māori immersion (rumaki) unit. We chose the latter and, in retrospect, it frightens me that we could have gone the other way because we have all gained so much from this decision.

I’ll admit that we were semi-stalking the Morrisons - Stacey and Scotty - when we chose to send our daughter to the same kura as their three impossibly cool, bilingual children. Tireless and omnipresent advocates for our people in places seen and unseen, why wouldn’t you want to follow their example? They have been nice about it, and haven’t held our creepiness against us.

I didn’t believe people when they told me about the bond you form with other parents once your kids go to school. Pfft, I thought - I’ve got plenty of friends already, this sounds like an antenatal coffee group but worse. It turns out to be true and it’s even better with a rumaki unit because there’s a shared set of values which self-selects families into the community and that makes it easy to expand your lives to include these new friends. Everyone here is passionate about advancing te reo Māori and giving our children the opportunities that most of us didn’t have. An added bonus is that there’s no risk of awkwardly unmasking a racist parent at a school fundraising night or class picnic.

My husband frets about whether we’re speaking enough at home, if she’s getting enough exposure to exclusively reo Māori environments, if one day she’ll decide not to speak te reo Māori at all - what if she gives it away in favour of some other interest and forgets everything? He’s the driver in a lot of our practical efforts – making up games, coming up with ways to trick his brain into remembering kupu hou (new words), reading and rereading Māori Made Easy 1 & 2 until the pages start falling out, inserting whakataukī into any relevant conversation gap. You haven’t seen a labour of love until you’ve seen a forty-something year old monolingual man learning a new language for the first time.

I have a slightly different perspective on it. One of the worst effects of the attempted destruction of our language and culture was the separation of Māori from our confidence in ourselves as Māori. So many of us are devastated by shame and guilt that our language is hard for us to learn, that it’s so damn hard to retrieve after generations of suppression. We’re gutted when we stand in our whare tipuna and do not know the kawa of our marae, when we mumble in the back row, pretending to know the words of the waiata tautoko. Our eyes burn and our throats close with shame and sadness and anger. I don’t want that for my daughter. Of course I’d love for her to become a champion orator at Ngā Manu Kōrero and a Matatini star, but mostly I just want her to know that she belongs in her reo, in te ao Māori.

Those of us who are clawing back every precious inch of our language have to celebrate the little successes. Each new kupu is a taonga, every time someone respects our language with correct pronunciation my day is improved, every environment enriched by the korowai of our reo and our tikanga is healing.

That’s why I’m writing this column in support of te wiki o te reo Māori. All we’re being asked to contribute is a moment for te reo Māori - we can all spare that and be together with this taonga which is uniquely ours. I’m going to spend my moment reading a story of my grandmother’s. Kura Wehipeihana was a writer (among many other things) and she wrote in te reo Māori. Last year my father gave my daughter a collection of Nanny Kura’s stories for her birthday, and I’ve chosen the one she wrote about him as a little boy, selling papers with his brother Kevin on Lambton Quay.

Please sign up to the Māori Language Moment taking place at midday today (Monday September 14) and join us in celebrating te reo Māori .

Here are some of my favourite places to nourish te reo Māori. Kia kaha e hoa mā xx

\Tāringa podcast: this is a warm korowai of a podcast - welcoming, rich in humour and traversing everything from grammar to history to pūrākau. Reo rua (bilingual). https://www.twoa.ac.nz/hononga-stay-connected/taringa?sc_lang=en

Speak Māori podcast. Nā Scotty Morrison ēnei pāhorangi - these are podcasts hosted by Scotty. There’s a beginners series which is reo rua, and the advanced series is te reo Māori anake. http://www.maorilanguage.net/speak-maori/

Listening to songs in te reo Māori is a great way to hear and practice pronunciation. My waiata Māori playlist includes Maimoa, Stan Walker, Moana and the Moa Hunters, Maisey Rika, Uru Whetū and every awesome track from the Waiata Anthems album.

Disney+ has Moana in te reo Māori and if you’re not a subscriber you can get the reo Māori waiata for free on Spotify.

Toro Mai is an online course by Stacey and Scotty (told you they were everywhere) hosted by Massey University

Te Wananga o Raukawa has awesome online courses in te reo Māori and tikanga Māori and for in person courses Te Wananga o Aotearoa has locations all over ngā motu.

Shannon Haunui-Thompson and that husband I mentioned earlier in the piece made this series in 2018 and it’s pretty cool, especially since it’s a rare glimpse of RNZ’s awesome, indefatigable Kurahautū Māori on screen 

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