Challenging tomorrow’s teachers to learn Te Reo

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 6.e

Graduating Teachers demonstrate respect for te reo Māori me ngā tikanga-a-iwi in their practice.

Image by Kara Reuter via Flickr

During my first time at university I was one of the student representatives on the university council. Aside from arguing with the powers-that-be to keep student fees down, I sat through A LOT of graduations. I think in one year I went to 15 ceremonies. The one ceremony that I remember quite vividly was where the projection screen went offline halfway through Gaudeamus igitur. This meant that the audience not only had to stumble through that song but then the national anthem without lyrics. While I expected that very few people knew the words to the Latin song, I was stunned at the sudden increase in volume when the English version of the anthem rolled around. Here were a group of university-educated people who didn’t know the Maori verse to our national song.

The reason I bring up this story is because today is Waitangi Day, which for any non-New Zealand based readers is the day New Zealand commemorates the signing of our founding document. Not many New Zealanders seem to know that the actual Treaty, yes the very one signed on this day in 1840 by Captain William Hobson and the assembled chiefs of the northern tribes at Waitangi, is on permanent display in the Constitution Room at Archives NZ in Mulgrave St, Wellington. Archives should be open today. Go there.

For anyone not in Wellington then I suggest you read this pre-released this chapter of a Waitangi Tribunal report on the state of Te Reo. In short the language is in danger of becoming extinct: the diminishing numbers of younger speakers of Te Reo Maori mean older speakers passing away are not being replaced.

Reading that report should be a call to arms to all those entering teaching to learn Te Reo. Instead of viewing the maintenance of Te Reo as  being a Maori issue which will only be resolved in the Maori education system, we all need to take ownership of the problem to keep the language alive. One private school has already taken up the challenge and made Te Reo a compulsory subject for all its year 9 students.

There are many Pakeha, myself included, that pepper their conversations with Te Reo and have abandoned the use of English greetings in their emails. In some ways, this is a positive development. We acknowledge that we have, or at least are supposed to have, a with relationship Maori and are expressing this relationship through language. The increasing usage of Te Reo both in daily life and through the media has undoubtedly contributed to a far richer New Zealand culture.

But is learning a modicum of Te Reo and trotting it out on regular basis enough? When I’ve pressed a couple of friends why their level  hasn’t progressed much beyond a few dozen words and a couple of set phrases the answer is all too often that they don’t have the time to learn the language. However if learning Te Reo really was a priority, wouldn’t they find the time to learn it properly?

I’m sure the economically minded would immediately assert that such as an exercise is a waste of time. Shouldn’t New Zealand students, who already have low rates of second language learning, study something useful like Mandarin. This assumes that the two activities are mutually exclusive, when in fact they are complimentary. The skills that you need to learn a second language are in fact readily transferable to learning a third, fourth or even fifth language.

But why Te Reo? Because despite their sometimes vocal protestations of, dare I say it some Pakeha, Te Reo is actually a language for all New Zealanders. Over the coming hours many a drunken Hakas or screeching versions of Pokarekare Ana will be performed by Expats in various watering holes around the planet in celebration of Waitangi Day. The presence of an indigenous culture is one of the few ways Pakeha New Zealanders can easily differentiate themselves from the other white countries that were former British colonies. But its a shame it takes a visit abroad for many New Zealanders to acknowledge the importance of this relationship. Surely if we seek to benefit from biculturalism, we all have a responsibility to actively nurture the culture and learn more about it including the language.

I know things have changed a lot since I left school (which was 15 almost years ago) and that it would be a lot harder to a child  to go their entire schooling career without ever taking a class in Te Reo (my fancy-pants primary school taught students French). But to get started here is a list 100 words of Te Reo every New Zealander should know. Oh yeah and the anthem

5 thoughts on “Challenging tomorrow’s teachers to learn Te Reo

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  1. The Te Reo part of my course last year was probably the one I enjoyed the most. Our marae visit was a highlight. Doing some in-depth learning is on my to-do list. Unfortunately, finding a job is top of the agenda at the moment….


  2. Kia ora. Te Wānanga o Aotearoa offer a free ‘Te Ara Reo Māori’ course. It involves a three-hour evening class one night a week, a noho marae and one day classes on 4 Saturdays during the year. It runs from March until November. I don’t know if any teacher trainees are feeling brave enough to add this to their workload, but I can personally recommend the course in any case, the Level 1 and 2 classes I took last year were great fun.


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