Te Reo Māori usage: tokenism, or cultural inclusion?


I am a Pākehā  – a white skinned New Zealander of European ancestry. My native language is English. I also speak Japanese, have studied German and Spanish, work with Languages teachers – and am an advocate for the usage, celebration and revitalization of Te Reo Māori. It’s not what people expect me to say I’m passionate about – but it should be. We should all be passionate about language.

I’ve been in the position, living in Japan, where I needed to hear English sometimes. I was living in a culture that wasn’t mine, speaking a language I wasn’t born to, and some days, the simple act of someone saying a few words in English- making an effort to cross that barrier – meant the world. It’s no different for those from other cultures and other language backgrounds living anywhere. It’s incredibly isolating to have a whole part of who you are that you have to close off. It’s incredibly simple to open that door for those in your wider community – just by making language choices.

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL 2019) – a United Nations initiative developed to prompt action towards the preservation, revitalization, celebration and promotion of these languages.

The official website for IYIL 2019 talks about the role of language as a vehicle for culture, freedom of thought, access to information, and so much more.

Language is more than just words. Language is identity. Language has power.

New Zealand, where I live, has dedicated movements towards the revitalization of Te Reo Māori, the Māori language. As a nation, we have recognised that this taonga (treasure) is at risk, and we are doing something about saving it.

This hasn’t happened overnight. I was born in the very early 80s, into a different era for language. There has been a shift in the culture, in the thinking, and in the recognition around Te Reo Māori in my lifetime. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but we’ve come a long way already. We still have a long way to go – and teachers are (as with most societal change) going to play a key role in what happens next.

At the heart of this, for me, is the reality that by using Māori words in my English language communications, and normalising the code-switching that is so prevalent in multilingual speakers who share mutually intelligible languages, I am not just making a ‘token effort’ to speak Māori. In fact, let’s lose the term ‘token effort’ entirely when it comes to this conversation. There’s simply no such thing. Start with the few words you do know. Learn a few more. Use them.

As a teacher, think of the ripple effect. If you use the vocabulary, your students will become used to it, adopt it, use it, and thereby influence those outside your classroom as well. Students hear these words in the community, on TV, and on the radio – but the impact is greater if people they know are the ones making the effort.

Every single one of us has had the experience of learning a language – and we all started the same way, as small children adding in words or phrases periodically until we were comfortable expressing what we needed to.

We all, therefore, can learn words in another language, and we can use them. We should use them.

By making the choice to use vocabulary from another language, you are:

✔️telling a person that you value their culture and language, and the person themselves

✔️opening your own brain to language – the more you try to use, the more you will acquire

✔️actively showing your support for diversity and inclusivity of language and culture

✔️generating thinking, conversation, and imitation of this with those around you

You are making a difference. 

As a teacher of any subject, simply making an effort to learn and use words in the language of students in your classes helps them to feel like you genuinely want to help them  to learn, and to feel respected. Using an indigenous language – even when there is no-one of that background present – helps to raise the standing of that community, to acknowledge the importance of a culture, and to normalise the use of a language. Usage could be verbal, or written on the board and incorporated into tasks and assessments, feedback, corrections and displayed on walls and online.

In New Zealand, we have gradually incorporated more and more Māori into our specific dialect of English. Most New Zealanders recognise greetings, numbers, and other simple vocabulary in Māori. We know that we can get our kai from the moana and it’s therefore kaimoana. We can’t talk of the All Blacks without mentioning their mana, or their haka skills. We know that our pounamu is a taonga.

Until we become a truly bilingual nation, this code switching and vocabulary inclusion is what we have. It matters, and it’s so simple to do.

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu- though it is small, it is greenstone (ie a treasure).

Every effort helps.

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