24 Sep 2020
Another September rolls around and my anxiety as a non-reo-speaking Māori is in over-drive.
Pride and excitement at the increasing profile of Mahuru Māori and Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori clash head-on with the whakama, shame and frustration of being a monolingual dinosaur.
I’m in that in-between generation – two generations removed from first-language speakers, with vague memories of my grandmother speaking the reo to her relations when we ventured north for school holidays. Kohanga reo and kura kaupapa schools were a few years behind my time.
In the mainstream schools I attended in the 1970s and 80s, the reo was not taught, other than by correspondence for the one tenacious Māori girl in my year at high school. I think of her often and kick myself for not joining her, while I ploughed away in my inexplicable journey to learn French. I’ve often imagined she’s now a fluent speaker, with children who’ve been bilingual since birth.
At the end of high school I won the Ngārimu VC 28th Māori Battalion scholarship, which paid my way through university. In the 1980s most recipients of the Ngārimu did not have the reo, a fact commented on by the principals of their schools in a report of the Ngārimu Board published in 1987.
Several principals remarked that they had “no idea” of the language competence of the winners, with some claiming they were not even aware that the student was Māori, as my own principal declared on my receiving the award in 1990.
I recall the conversation I had with him about this – in which I said that without the opportunity to learn the reo, and the lack of kapa haka (due to the absence of a reo teacher), there were few ways in which Māori identity could be openly expressed or celebrated in the school.
This highlights the place the teaching of reo Māori and the presence of our own teachers to lead that teaching has in centring Māori identity and culture in mainstream education.
By the time I got to university fear had set in – in my mind I was now “too old” to learn the reo. I told myself I didn’t want to learn the language in a university setting – I’d wait till I could spend a year in Hokianga. Like many, I dabbled in a few night classes and day-long courses, but nothing sustained.
Over the years the excuses have dwindled, as it became obvious that fear and anxiety were and are the core barriers.
I’ve read recently that the commonly held perception that adult language acquisition is exponentially more difficult than it is for children is a myth, and that the challenges are more psycho-social than cognitive.
Learning a language is humbling, and when you’re an educated professional who is used to being competent at everything you do, stumbling over pre-school level language activities in front of a group is a challenge.
While this is likely an issue in relation to learning the reo, in my heart I know the real issue is quite simply that it matters so much, not because it is A language, but because it is THE language.
Reo experts such as Scotty and Stacey Morrison articulate the “language trauma” felt by people in my position – the very real gut-wrenching sense of loss, embarrassment and inadequacy at being unable to tap into what we view as our rightful inheritance.
This frustration is doubled down when you see non-Māori students flying through classes, a phenomenon my fellow embittered Māori adult learners have also shared. I’m embarrassed that I resent the lovely Pākehā and tauiwi who value our language enough to learn it and who are successful at it. I shouldn’t, but I do. They do not carry that same wairua/spirit injury that is language dispossession sourced in the harms of colonisation.
The task is compounded when that language is seen as the magic key to cultural enlightenment and the secrets of the wisdom and insights of our ancestors. Frankly I’d be happy to be able to tell the kids to unload the dishwasher in Māori – seeing as the instruction has little effect in English.
I certainly felt differently about learning French – sure, I connected the culture to the language, in the sense that I liked to watch Gerard Depardieu movies and eat good pastries, but I never felt bad about stumbling over my conjugation of verbs or misgendering nouns.
I’m now the mother of three teenagers, all of whom are on their own reo journeys at the same mainstream high school their father and I attended, and where the reo has been a real subject taught by a real teacher for 30 years.
Within months my kids exposed the limits of my reo, and were perplexed as to how I could have any standing in, or understanding of, the Māori world without it. This has been a reckoning for us all.
My son is now a pretty accomplished self-taught speaker, who is the first in our large extended whānau to have any competence in the reo for three generations. More than that, as the saying goes, his acquisition of the reo has been the awakening of his Māori soul.
Three years ago, at 15, my boy undertook his first whaikōrero in front of an audience of hundreds. I was a sobbing mess watching him stand tall, powerful and clear, channelling the reo of his Ngāpuhi ancestors. That task was tough, but his next may be the toughest he ever faces – to teach his mama all he knows.
This article first appeared in Stuff. Read the original article