Nicola Bright, New Zealand Council for Educational Research
Te reo revitalisation is personal for Māori
One of my earliest memories of te reo Māori is of being in a warm dark room at night, listening to my Nan and Koro quietly speaking Māori while I lay on a mattress on the floor next to their bed. Having been brought up speaking English first, I didn’t understand their words then, but I have no doubt that these experiences helped form my deep love of, and commitment to, my language and culture. As a Māori researcher of Tūhoe and Ngāti Awa descent, the work to revitalise our reo is personal to me; it is personal to Māori; and it is personal to future generations of Māori.
Te reo Māori is the latest ‘cool kid on the block’
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.
Over the weeks of Mahuru Māori and Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, the commentaries and passionate debates by Māori about who is using te reo Māori, their motivations for using it, and who is missing out overran my social media feed. As Māori, we are grappling with what it means and feels like to share hard-fought-for space for our reo, where we may soon be outnumbered by non-Māori and their aspirations for the reo.
Education will drive change
Our nation is on the cusp of a growth spurt in our understanding of identity, language and culture. Strong direction from government about reo Māori provision in schools, new draft curriculum content for Aotearoa New Zealand Histories and Te Takanga o te Wā, and a NZ Curriculum refresh that aims to be bicultural and inclusive, are all priming the education system for change. These changes will impact how people see their place in this country and their relationship to te reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa. Māori and non-Māori, learners, teachers, whānau and communities will be affected in different ways.
What are the roles of Māori and non-Māori in revitalising the reo?
As this sea change occurs in the education system, I am reflecting on what it means for researchers who are working to support reo Māori revitalisation through education. I work in a research organisation that has contributed to reo Māori revitalisation research for many years, and has recently made a commitment to becoming bicultural. As a group, we are beginning to have hard and critical conversations about what our roles as Māori and non-Māori researchers in reo revitalisation will be. Sharing the language revitalisation space with increasing numbers of non-Māori brings challenges and tensions that must be worked through so that we do not lose sight of who this work is most important to – Māori.
Reo Māori revitalisation has to benefit Māori first
Māori have experienced the power of the education system being used against us and our reo. The assimilationist agenda that actively deterred the use of our language in schools from the early to late 1900s is a prime example. Now the focus of the English-medium education system – a system which has been a very effective tool of assimilation and colonisation – is changing to support reo Māori revitalisation. The interest in te reo Māori amongst non-Māori is snowballing, a juggernaut that could easily swallow up resources and people before it. How do we make best use of this interest and support, while making sure we are not submerged in another wave of colonisation, this time of our language, however benevolent and well intentioned? As recent research into reo Māori in schools shows, we need to prioritise resources for Māori – especially Māori speakers of Māori, who are the best resources – to ensure that te reo Maori will survive and flourish.
What is our responsibility as researchers?
As researchers, we have to prioritise and hold space for Māori. While everyone is welcome to learn the reo and enjoy the many benefits that come from understanding and using multiple languages, it remains crystal clear to me that this work must benefit Māori first. In the flurry of activity and enthusiasm from non-Māori to learn our language, we must ensure that Māori, for whom the reo is most important, do not get left behind.
It is important to have conversations about what holding space for Māori does or could look like in language-focused projects that are kaupapa Māori, Māori-led, Māori-centred, or Māori-informed, and to be careful that we don’t try to artificially separate the reo from tikanga and identity.
It means encouraging non-Māori colleagues to have critical conversations about who benefits from the work they want to do in language revitalisation; to understand what it means to be a good ally; and to strive for social justice and equity. It means not only focusing inwards on aspirations for the reo as an individual but to look outwards and embrace collective aspirations for Māori, understanding that Māori must lead the way in saying what those aspirations are.
I’ll admit that change on the scale that is currently occurring makes me uneasy. But I also know that I want to react to it with positivity and aroha. For me, that means staying true to the purpose of the reo Māori revitalisation movement, to support whānau Māori first and always to pass the language on to our mokopuna.
Nicola 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.
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