Rosie Remmerswaal is used to people asking why she decided to learn the Māori language.
Te reo Māori – the Māori language – is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s three official languages, along with English and New Zealand sign language. However, it is estimated that only about 4% of the population can hold a conversation in it.
Nonetheless, there are signs that New Zealanders will succeed in revitalising the country’s indigenous language. There are strong iwi-, or tribal-, led initiatives aimed at restoring it; every year, the government spends millions of dollars on Māori-language programmes; and recently, there has been a surge of interest in Māori culture.
Unsurprisingly, most speakers of te reo Māori are Māori themselves. However, a small number of committed tauiwi, or non-Māori, are pursuing te reo to fluency.
Remmerswaal is a Pākehā, or New Zealand European, speaker of te reo. Although Pākehā comprise the majority ethnic group in New Zealand, very few speak te reo Māori. For Remmerswaal, learning te reo has enhanced her relationship with Aotearoa: “The reo is an opportunity to take that relationship to a deeper level, and a more reciprocal level.”
Prominent reo Māori advocate Stacey Morrison (Ngāi Tahu, Te Arawa) believes that, for the language to flourish, non-Māori must support it. Māori – who make up 16.5% of the population – do not have the numbers to revitalise te reo. “I think that Pākehā have an opportunity and a role to play in Māori language revitalisation,” she says, “but in observing what has happened as revitalisation grows, I ask that they never embarrass Māori who can’t speak Māori, and that will require a lot of self-monitoring.”
Acquiring a language as an adult can be difficult: it can be hard to find the time and space to learn; and with so few speakers of te reo, many students lack opportunities to converse regularly with others.
However, Māori and non-Māori face distinct challenges, and there is not always a shared understanding of how their respective experiences differ.
Māori learners of te reo often grapple with whakamā (shame at being unable to speak their ancestral language) as well as historical trauma. Other people’s expectations can also make learning more difficult. And for Māori who have become disconnected from their iwi and hapū, regaining the language involves a journey of self-discovery as they reclaim their tribal heritage.
Morrison says that Māori experiences of learning te reo often differ significantly from those of non-Māori. “The way that Pākehā engage with te reo is going to be different to a Māori person who has grown up without their ancestral language, seen it battered – literally, beaten out of their whānau – had the perception that it was not valued, they’ve been denied it at school, denied it at home; and so therefore, it’s not just an intellectual exercise of going, ‘Now I shall turn my hand to learning Māori.’”
‘It’s about doing the right thing’
Tauiwi face their own challenges. For example, Pākehā learners of te reo often have to grapple with their forebears’ role in New Zealand’s colonial history, and manage their own privilege. And competing messages can leave them feeling confused: non-Māori are sometimes told by Māori that they have an obligation to become familiar with te reo, while hearing from others that the language belongs to Māori and is only for Māori to speak.
For many Pākehā, this leads to paralysis. “It’s easy to go, ‘Oh, this is too hard. I don’t want to cause damage, and clearly you can’t do right by everyone. Maybe it’s better to just steer clear,’” Remmerswaal confides.
Jeremy Roundill, known to his Māori-speaking friends as Purū, is another Pākehā speaker of te reo. “It’s about doing the right thing,” he says. He understands why some Māori are suspicious of Pākehā involvement in the language. “Pākehā interference with te reo over the past two centuries has overwhelmingly been negative.” Nonetheless, he thinks Pākehā have a responsibility to help set things right – and his approach is to “jump in and do it”. The language is suffering, he says, and that’s a result of Pākehā actions. “It doesn’t mean it was the result of my actions. But the only cure to that is to pick up a shovel and get digging.”
Morrison says that it is possible for non-Māori to learn te reo without “re-colonising” it. “If you’re coming from a place of respect and thinking that learning te reo Māori is a way to show respect, that’s a really good place to start,” she says. “What I’ve seen with awesome Māori-speaking Pākehā is that it’s completely possible to do this with humility, with respect, and also in a way that’s not defensive.”
For both Remmerswaal and Purū, ensuring that their actions support Māori is important. Remmerswaal and her friend Kuruho Wereta (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Kahungunu) have created Kaupapa, a word-description board game for speakers and learners of te reo.
As well as supporting tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty), Purū actively contributes to activities in which te reo is spoken. For example, he practises mau rākau (Māori martial arts). “The goal there isn’t just to preserve the art of the taiaha, but to create spaces where te reo Māori is an expectation,” he says.
Joanne McNaughton (Te Arawa) believes that in order to really thrive, te reo needs non-Māori speakers. McNaughton is a leading member of Kapa Kōrero, a multi-ethnic reo Māori conversation group which gathers regularly in Tāmaki-makau-rau. She says having tauiwi who speak te reo means there are more people with whom Māori speakers and learners of the language can converse, and more opportunities for te reo to be heard.
McNaughton acknowledges the politics surrounding te reo, but she also thinks we should trust in the language-learning process. “The language takes hold of you, and it’s a beautiful, deep, meaningful language, and you can’t help but fall in love with it and respect it.”
Morrison, however, encourages Pākehā to proceed carefully. “I would ask respectfully that they make sure that they are not taking a space that a Māori-speaking Māori person is therefore missing out on, and also to lead from behind sometimes, not lead from the front.”
If non-Māori are gentle, respectful, and humble, all of us will benefit. “This is the language of our land, so it will help us all to understand this whenua and understand ourselves better.”