Not long ago, I realised that I’m an expert in Māori. I can’t string two sentences together, get muri and mua mixed up constantly, and I need to use my fingers to count. But, hey, in my whānau, I’m the expert.
My husband, though hugely supportive of me and my reo journey, isn’t enrolled in reo classes himself. And, much of the time, our two youngest kids have to rely on good luck, timing, and the direction the breeze is blowing, if they’re to hear any Māori outside the home.
I’m urban Māori — that’s a proxy for “don’t judge me” — and I don’t have ready access to my marae.
Any time we do find ourselves immersed in the reo, everyone looks at me to translate, interpret and decode, assuming that, because I’ve done a little bit of study, there’s nothing I don’t know.
Naturally, this makes me panic. I make a lot of excuses. I blame myself for being slow to learn and quick to hide, too shy to initiate conversations in te reo with people I know are more matatau (knowledgeable) than me.
After I’m done kneecapping myself, I blame circumstances. I complain that it’s not fair that my kids aren’t able to learn the reo every single day. I know there’s kura kaupapa, but for a whole bunch of practical reasons, it wasn’t an option for us when our kids started school.
My favourite source of blame is 200 years of colonisation. This is the best one, because no one can argue with it. The government acknowledged its responsibility for the decline of this country’s indigenous language in 1986, following the Māori Language claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. That’s why agencies like Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori, Te Māngai Paho and, most recently, Te Mātāwai, have been set up.
Trouble is, making excuses is both tiring and boring. I’m like a broken record. Blah-blah-blah can’t. Blah-blah-blah not fair. Even the dog won’t listen to me anymore. The thought of being an expert at anything is terrifying, let alone te reo and tikanga Māori. But, a little while ago, I came to the realisation that, if we’re to become a reo-speaking family, I’m the best hope this whānau has.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one in this situation. So, on the eve of another Māori Language Week, I’ve put together a short list of practical things you can do to keep the reo going in your home, especially when you feel as though you’re out of options.
Tahi. Stop kneecapping yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s not about being the best. It’s about turning up. Initiate conversations with people who are more matatau than you and don’t worry if there are big glaring gaps in your sentences where words should be. Mime it out. Mistakes are how we learn. If people have a heart for the reo, they’ll encourage you.
Rua. Find a learning style that works for you. There are so many courses and programmes available now, it’s like rocking up to Denny’s on an empty stomach. But bear in mind that what works for someone else, might not work for you. Don’t quit just because one style of teaching doesn’t gel with you. Above all, make sure the atmosphere is encouraging, not punitive. No one can learn when they feel stupid.
Toru. Take the whānau on your reo journey. Why spend hours and hours learning Māori outside the home, unless you’re using Māori inside the home. After all, if we can’t communicate in Māori with those closest to us, what’s the point? That might mean going at a slower pace but at least you’ll have the whānau with you. Check out Māori for Grownups. This support group offers practical wānanga and fun get-togethers that include the whole whānau.
Whā. Normalise te reo at home. Whatever you’ve got, however little, use it. Karakia, waiata, basic commands. You don’t need to translate everything. Just use wild hand gestures until people understand what you’re on about. One of the advantages of being the expert in your own home is that you don’t need to worry if you’ve constructed that hangū sentence correctly, because who’s going to know?
Rima. Find ways to teach the kids without their realising it. Every word they bank now is one they don’t have to learn later. For us, the trick is singing. You can find the words and music to almost every waiata ever composed online. I stick the words to new waiata to the door of the shower, and every time I hear a sweet little voice drifting into the hallway in the morning, I give myself a high-five.
Ono. Get down to your kid’s school and see what you can do to help. Instead of complaining, find out what the barriers are. Motivated parents are often a key part of the solution. We bring ideas, connections and support.
Whitu. Adjust your goals. When I first started learning Māori, my goal was fluency. That’s still a goal, but it’s not the ultimate one. What I really want is to enjoy the process along the way. For most of us, the point of learning te reo is not to become linguists, but to communicate.
Waru. Let go of the guilt. If you don’t have the reo, it’s not your fault. As Stacey Morrison likes to remind people during the Māori for Grownups workshops: “You’re not responsible for colonisation.” Just support each other to overcome your fears, Stacey says. “Tautoko (support and encourage) each other all the way.”
Iwa. Embrace your expertise, whatever level it’s at. Too often, we let ourselves think that if we can’t speak fluently, we shouldn’t speak at all. But, as the whakataukī says: Ahakoa he iti, he taonga. Though it may be small, it is a treasure.
Tekau. Most of all, celebrate the reo: whakanui i te reo. Not just during te wiki o te reo, but every day of the year.
This article first featured in E-Tangata on 3rd of July 2016.