Te Ahu o Te Reo – The Health of the Māori Language

Nicola Bright, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Ko tēnei te wiki o te reo Māori. Nā, ko te tikanga o tēnei wā (otirā mō te tau katoa) me whakanui tātou i tō tātou reo rangatiranga. Nā reira, e tika ana e matapaki ana tātou i ngā kaupapa reo Māori. Ko tētahi o ngā pātai nui, me pēhea te reo e ora ai i roto i ngā kura katoa o Aotearoa?

“If the language is to survive as a vernacular for another generation, radical steps will have to be taken to give the language greater status within the schools in the remaining Māori-speaking areas.”

— Benton, R. A., (1977). Survey of language use in Māori households.
NZCER: Wellington

The question of how te reo Māori will survive and thrive in schools was topical in the 1970s and remains so today. In the past 5 years we’ve heard strong messages from government agencies about supporting ākonga Māori (Māori students) such as:

  • all Māori students must have access to high quality Māori language in education
  • education is a key vehicle to revitalise and sustain the Māori language and
  • te reo Māori has a special place in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Where are we at?

The good news is that the Ka Hikitia goal that 22% of (all) students will participate in Māori language in education in primary and secondary was met in 2015 when 22.2% of all students in years 1-13 were participating in Māori language education at immersion levels 1-5.  In 2016, that increased to 22.8%. The same year 31% of all primary school students (Years 1 – 8) were participating in Māori Language Immersion Levels 1 to 5.

The not-so-great news is that 48% of ākonga Māori were not participating in Māori language in education in primary school at all, and around half (53%) of ākonga Māori in the immersion level 1-5 group participated at the lowest level, level 5, which equates to less than three hours a week. Further, nearly all (92%) of non-Māori students in the immersion level 1-5 group were participating in these level 5 (lowest level) programmes. We’re not sure how ‘high quality Māori language’ is being defined, but we do know that in primary (if not secondary as well) most participation is happening at the lowest level. May, Hill and Tiakiwai argue that at least 50% immersion (Levels 1 and L2) is required for effective language acquisition – in which case the low-level immersion that most ākonga are participating in now (if they are participating at all) is not enough to produce good speakers of te reo Māori.

Where to from here?

Radical steps are still required, then, if the reo is to thrive. The Te Ahu o te Reo report (released in July), identifies one of those steps as being to:

“raise the status and increase the use of te reo Māori by making te reo Māori a core curriculum subject in the compulsory education sector”.

The report also urges the government to:

“significantly increase funding to Māori-medium education, in the early years and primary sectors in particular”.

This will be essential if schools, English-medium and Māori-medium, are to be properly resourced to make a difference for learners of te reo Māori in their schools.

Reflecting on te ahu o te reo

In this 30th anniversary year of The Māori Language Act 1987 and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, NZCER is re-releasing 143 booklets covering each of the communities involved in the linguistic survey of te reo Māori use in Māori households completed by Dr Benton and his research team in the 1970s. That survey involved interviews with over 30,000 people in 6,450 Māori households in the North Island. These short reports are a fantastic resource for schools to look at how te reo Māori was being used in their communities in earlier generations, and to think about how the reo is being used today.

Benton booklets.JPG

We’ve also released the Te Ahu o te Reo community reports on the use of te reo Māori in nine communities in the present day.

Community reports.JPG

“The main factors that made it easy for tamariki to use te reo Māori at school were when kaiako supported them, friends and classmates spoke Māori, and te reo Māori was compulsory.” (Christchurch Community Report, 2017)

“I changed schools, went to mainstream, and forgot how to speak [te reo Māori].” (South Auckland Community Report, 2017)

Older participants shared many stories of their time at school where they were made to feel ashamed of their culture. As a consequence they did not teach or encourage their children to speak te reo. However, their drive to ensure their own children will grow up not only immersed in te reo o Tūhoe and in Tūhoe tikanga was apparent. (Rūātoki Community Report, 2017)

The education system is under pressure to perform well for Māori language learners now, and to prepare for the forecast growth in the number of Māori children aged 0-14 years from 216,000 to 225,000 students by 2021. The government (however it shapes up) must respond to these challenges, but the question remains: Will they be ready to take the radical steps that are needed?  

NicolaNicola Bright is of Tūhoe and Ngāti Awa descent. She is a Kairangahau Matua (Senior Researcher) in the Te Wāhanga team at NZCER. Her primary interests are in contributing to the revitalisation of te reo Māori, and exploring the ways in which kaupapa Māori research approaches can contribute to making a positive difference for Māori learners. 

One comment

  1. […] I clearly remember when generally only Māori were interested in reo Māori revitalisation. Now, we are seeing the fruits of generations of hard work by reo proponents and advocates, as te reo Māori is becoming valued and used not only amongst Māori, but also amongst non-Māori. The annual celebration of te reo Māori in September has been gathering momentum in recent years, and never more so than in 2021, when we saw big name singers releasing reo Māori tracks, and phrases like “e whai ake nei” rolling off the tongues of non-Māori news readers. Our language is in the non-Māori public eye, so to speak, and – for now – it’s getting a lot of attention. The positive interest and enthusiasm for our reo from many non-Māori are at once both a reason to celebrate, because we are more likely to have a positive linguistic environment for our language to thrive in, but also a reason to think critically about the new challenges ahead. […]


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