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Making Te Reo ‘cool’ essential to language’s future

Dr Hinurewa Poutu says young Te Reo Māori speakers need to be encouraged to make the language cool

Māori youth fluent in Te Reo Māori need encouragement and examples of language used in social situations to ensure the language becomes more appealing and widely used, according to Massey University PhD research written entirely in Te Reo Māori.

Creating opportunities and examples for Te Reo to be considered “cool” by youth is one of the key findings of research by Dr Hinurewa Poutu (Ngāti Rangi, Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi, Ngāti Maniapoto).

Dr Poutu’s first language is Te Reo Māori and she teaches secondary school level at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Mana Tamariki, a Palmerston North Māori language immersion school. She says young people are contributing to the future of the language and making it relevant to their lives by creating words like wekeneru – a slang term coined by teens to mean awesome, wicked or to convey a sense of wonder.

Dr Poutu graduated last Friday with a PhD in Education. Her thesis is one of two written in Te Reo Māori and one of 11 PhDs of a total of 52 at Friday’s ceremony to be conferred on Māori scholars.

Her research explored the role of youth in Māori language revival, and the factors that influence the use of Te Reo Māori among those who've been educated in Wharekura (Māori-medium secondary schools).

She carried out a national online survey of 478 participants, from high school students to those in their early 30s, and did face-to-face interviews with 51 students, staff and graduates of Māori medium schools. Wharekura graduates are employed in a wide range of jobs, from medical doctors to sheep shearers, and in education, media and professional sport and many have been successful in overseas jobs.

“One of the reasons I chose this topic is that our recent census data has suggested a decline in Māori language speakers,” she says. “If any generation is likely to show the future of Te Reo Māori it’ll be those who can speak Māori, and it’ll be the younger generation who’ve been raised through Māori medium education.”

School is the place most teens speak Te Reo

Her research shows that while school is the main domain where the language is spoken – at least in class when the teacher is near – youth switched to English for social interactions and on social media.

“English tends to be used socially as there aren’t enough opportunities to hear Māori in social situations or to learn Māori expressions for gossiping with your friends, courting, playing. For most kids, Te Reo Māori is used in formal contexts only.

“As educators, we need to put more emphasis on colloquial usage. ‘Make it cool’ is a key message.”

Comments from the older participants in her study who have been educated through Māori medium schools offered hopeful insights. Of 134 who have come from language immersion, half now have children and half of those speak only in Te Reo Māori to their children, while more than half use Te Reo some of the time.

“It’s looking promising because none of them would have grown up in a home were Te Reo was spoken all of the time,” Dr Poutu says.

This highlights another challenge in ensuring language revival takes hold and flourishes, with Māori still not the main language at home for some students currently attending Māori medium schools.

Te reo speakers realise gift of language beyond teens

Dr Poutu, 30, says her parents’ generation didn’t grow up speaking Māori either, but made sure she was raised at Kohanga Reo (early education) and Kura Kaupapa Māori (primary school) and Wharekura (secondary schools). “My generation and the current generation are a product of the hopes and aspirations of previous generations who didn't have the luxury of choice to learn in Te Reo Māori.”

She says her mother’s father (her only living grandparent) is a native speaker and Dr Poutu speaks in Māori with him. That her parents didn’t grow up speaking their parents’ first language is a reflection of attitudes of earlier times when children were punished or strongly discouraged from speaking Māori. Her parents learned Māori in their 20s, and decided they would only speak Māori with their children.

Dr Poutu says most teens attending Māori-medium schools “don’t realise how lucky they are to be fluent Te Reo speakers. There’s no appreciation till their early 20s and then they do realise; ‘wow, I’ve got a very special gift knowing how to speak Māori. You take it for granted because it’s been normalised [at school].

“Some of those in their mid-20s to mid-30s have gained almost a profound appreciation of their ability to speak Te Reo, which many had commented on. They, too, had taken it for granted.”

They commented on the value of being bilingual in opening up two worlds, of being comfortable in Māori situations, and more deeply connected to the spiritual element – wairua– of their culture.

Along with this comes certain pressures that may not otherwise be present at their age, like being asked to speak in formal situations, and conducting traditional chants or prayers.

Some participants reported a change in family social dynamics through being more fluent than their parents. But this was mostly in a positive sense, with the young helping parents to improve in fluency.

Complacency may undermine gains in language revival

With 1200-1500 students in Māori immersion high schools – and with numbers in Kohanga Reo and Kura [primary] going down – Dr Poutu detects a sense of complacency about language revival efforts. 

“In the 1980s there was a big, passionate movement and drive. Now that you see buildings like ours [Mana Tamariki], and with Māori Television on air, it gives a false impression the language is alive and well. But we’re at that critical stage now where we have to be proactive engaging in revival efforts.”

Dr Poutu, who was appointed to the board of the Māori Language Commission this year, would love to see Te Reo available more widely at mainstream schools and taught more rigorously at earlier levels, as a way of overturning New Zealand’s steadfastly monolingual culture.

She feels her own experience writing a PhD in Te Reo offers an example to younger scholars. “People said ‘Aren’t you limiting your audience by writing in Māori?’ But I feel it will add to the growing body of academic work produced in Te Reo Māori, and it’s important to show kids who are growing up in our kura that you can get to the highest level at university and use Te Reo.”

She says writing her PhD in Te Reo is the “ultimate compliment” and acknowledgement to those who raised her.

Her research has given optimism about “the passion out there. There’s a love for the language and desire to pass it on to the next generation, and to use it. A desire for it to be normal, to go to Pak ‘n Save and speak Te Reo! That's the long term goal.”

The title of her thesis is: Kia Tiori ngā Pīpī: Mā te aha e kōrero Māori ai nga taitamariki o ngā wharekura o Te Aho Matua?, meaning: ‘May the chicks sing: What leads to Māori language use among youth raised in wharekura that adhere to Te Aho Matua?

(Te Aho Matua is the guiding philosophy of kura kaupapa Māori).



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