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Why Am I Learning Te Reo?

Language is a tool. It allows us to communicate with one another, to express our hopes and dreams and desires. It gives us a common footing with the people around us, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And it is something that most of us take for granted.

When you speak the second most spoken language on Earth, English, finding this sense of connection and belonging is relatively easy. With approximately 983 million speakers globally, you won’t often need to look far to find others who can understand you.

But as a professional communicator, it feels a bit lacking to ignore the other two official languages of Aotearoa – Maori and New Zealand Sign Language. If we’re going to call New Zealand a multicultural society it feels slack for Kiwis to avoid learning Te Reo. The language is often dismissed as useless in the face of other, more widely spoken languages internationally. To which I have to ask, if we don’t speak it here, then where?

The history of learning the language is pretty nasty. Between the 1930s and the 1960s the percentage of Maori speakers decreased from 96 percent to 26 percent. Tangata whenua experienced racial discrimination and were discouraged from learning Te Reo or speaking the language. It’s great that we are starting to see a resurgence in Te Reo and things like Maori Language Week I believe are excellent ways for us to encourage more of us to korero in Te Reo. But personally, I felt I could do more.  

Last year I made the decision to start learning Te Reo. It was something I had thought about before, and when I saw classes advertised at Unitec, I decided to sign up. The first class was incredibly welcoming, and I thoroughly enjoyed being brought into the Te Noho Kotahitanga Marae with exciting and foreign ceremony.

There’s a genuine excitement from ngā Kaiako (the teacher) to leave your nerves at the door and to throw yourself wholeheartedly into learning and practising Te Reo. The supportive atmosphere and sense of learning with your classmates made it a safe space to mispronounce and develop an understanding of the language.

Part of why I’m learning the language is to understand the history and culture of the tangata whenua of this land we call home. There’s a beauty in the mana of Te Reo and the use of language to communicate concepts of health, wellbeing, and existence – language that often doesn’t translate directly into English.

I am only just getting started on this learning path. But already, the value is immense. I feel as though I am learning new skills that make a difference both in my personal and professional life. Being able to speak Te Reo (albeit slightly broken) and understand words and phrases helps me feel like a more well-rounded communicator. With clients like Māori Television and the Matariki Awards, having a baseline of understanding makes our work in this space fulfilling.

Even in the office, it’s been excellent to work with the Māori Language Commission to suggest appropriate, valuable engagements for our clients around Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week).

Often these can feel tokenistic and people can see right through bullshit corporate social responsibility. But there’s value in brands making a genuine attempt to incorporate Te Reo and Māori culture into their day-to-day operations.

Spark’s Kupu app from last year is a golden example of the type of work I want to be doing with my clients to help proliferate and celebrate Te Reo in Aotearoa. Being able to understand and communicate with Te Ao Māori is the goal behind why I’m learning Te Reo.

I am eager to elevate my own understanding of – and engagement with – Māori culture, to recognise the history of Aotearoa and do my part toward embracing everything that makes our country beautiful and unique.

I’m only just starting my journey, but already I am discovering the power of understanding. Even if it is just one class at a time.

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