This article was originally published in The Spinoff on 28 March 2018.
My motivation for learning Māori has changed a lot since I first enrolled in a total immersion te reo course three years ago. Back then, I was all about the fast-track to fluency. I memorised vocab lists and labelled every piece of furniture in the house. I rote learnt karakia and buried myself in grammar rules. Nowadays, I’d sooner take the scenic route.
It’s not that I’ve given up my dream of becoming a fluent speaker. Not at all. But these days I’m more focused on something language revitalists call “intergenerational transmission”. In other words, passing te reo on to my kids.
For me, this is really hard. My children are 15, 13 and 11. Until three years ago, they barely heard me say a word of Māori at home. Unlike babies and toddlers, teenagers are not as receptive to a second language in the home if they haven’t grown up with it. In fact, at times they can be downright resistant.
To say it’s hard to nurture te reo at home, especially when there’s only one parent to foster it, is an understatement. Some days I feel like I’m too late, and the task too big. If te reo were a garden, my house would be the tragic one on the street, overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubbish. In my world, thinking about intergenerational transmission is an even loftier goal than fluency.
On days when I feel like this, I try to remember the whakatauki “whaia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe me he maunga teitei.” My interpretation of these words is that you can’t let the size of a challenge put you off. The things we value don’t always come easily – we have to strive for them.
But striving doesn’t mean it should be all hard work and no fun. Learning te reo shouldn’t be a burden. It should enrich our lives, not make it harder.
This is one of the key mātāpono, or philosophies, underpinning the Reo 2 Go Social Club based in Te Awakairangi (Lower Hutt). This is a new initiative run by Te Ataarangi teachers Sharee Adam and Moana Kaio of Toku Reo Trust. The focus, first and foremost, is tamariki and whānau. The idea is to create total immersion environments that promote te reo as a living, vibrant language that can be used in any domain, time, place or situation. The classroom is the community. The place of learning is everywhere. From zoo trips to games nights to craft days.
The Reo 2 Go Social Club was partly inspired by Māori for Grown Ups, a group set up by a motivated group of Māmā and Pāpā in Tāmaki Makarau to support whānau wanting to nurture te reo at home. The group has grown to over 11,000 members nationwide, organising get-togethers in the community, weekend wānanga for the whole whānau, as well as sharing resources, advice and support.
Connecting like-minded whānau to the support they need hardly seems like rocket science. But it’s surprising how hard it is to find the practical tools you need to raise bilingual kids in Aotearoa. Unless you’re connected to marae, or have kids enrolled in kura kaupapa or kapa haka, opportunities to be immersed in te reo outside the home, as a whanau, are few and far between. For most of us, English is the language that dominates our daily interactions.
And we’re busy. Our lives are full. Formal study in te reo sits on the “wishlist” for a lot of us. Night classes and weekend wānanga are a great way to get ahead, but when learning Māori takes us out of the home, away from the kids, it all feels a bit counter-intuitive.
I sometimes hear people talk about the commitment it takes to raise bilingual kids, and it’s true. You have to be willing to put in the effort. But it doesn’t matter how dedicated we are – sheer determination alone isn’t enough. Our kids aren’t raised in a vacuum. We need community.
This is where groups like Reo 2 Go come in. The idea is that you learn to speak Māori in a context that you’re already familiar with, and in a way that’s fun and includes the whole whānau. It’s more than just a goal to speak Māori. It’s a desire to think, see and interact with the world with whaakaro Māori – a Māori world-view. You can’t experience this if you never leave the classroom.
Before each event takes place, parents attend a wānanga to equip them with “reo to go”– the key vocab and phrases they need to stay in te reo. This is crucial, because one of the reasons people often switch back to English is because we lack the vocabulary we need to express ourselves fully in Māori.
Scotty and Stacey Morrison raised this point when they came to Wellington to support Reo 2 Go’s first wānanga a few weekends ago. Their new book Māori at Home is a treasure trove of domestic vocabulary and handy phrases. Unlike books that dissect the rules of grammar, Māori at Home is a survival kit for busy parents who want to hit the ground running. Everything from “spread some butter on it” to “you better hold on tight to that flying fox!”
There are party games for birthdays, rules for sports, and expressions to describe the most specific of injuries. The level of detail might sound daunting, especially for a beginner, but it’s surprising how quickly you learn the patterns of the language when they’re put into a context that makes sense. You’re not reading an exercise book trying to construct an obscure passive sentence, you’re simply telling your kid to “spray the air freshener because the toilet stinks.”
In effect, you’re learning te reo the same way children do – not by becoming a linguist, but through repetition, imitation and daily use.
In an environment where te reo Māori classes around the country are full to overflowing, with waiting lists longer than a year in some places, it’s tempting to think that initiatives like Reo 2 Go and Māori For Grownups represent the new wave in te reo Māori instruction. But in fact they build on a long tradition of te reo Māori revitalisation activities that have always known that the home offers the vital essence of te reo. As Timoti Kāretu says: “ko te kāinga te mauri o te reo Māori.” In other words, we can’t outsource our desire for te reo to the state or to schools or to anyone else. It rests with us, at home.
For me, this knowledge represents both challenge and inspiration. I get up in the morning and look out at my garden and see how much work there still is to do and can’t help but feel overwhelmed. Some days are hard. Some days I’m shovelling clay in the rain.
But more and more, I have come to see that I’m not alone. There’s lots of us out here in the neighborhood working our gardens. We’re all at different stages, we all have different stories and challenges, but we can help each other. Sharing tools, giving advice, offering support.
The truth is, in my lifetime, I might never get to see this garden flourish in the way I can picture it in my mind. But that’s no reason to quit. May as well get started. That maunga teitei of intergenerational transmission is immense, but that’s exactly why it’s worth it.
The Reo 2 Go Social Club is based at Koraunui Marae in Stokes Valley. There are five whānau events planned this year, including a trip to Matiu/Somes Island, a treasure hunt, a games night and “My Kihini Rules”.