Reo Māori, Pākehā Voices: The Bilingual Land our Hearts Know is Possible

Reo Māori, Pākehā Voices: The Bilingual Land our Hearts Know is Possible

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Te reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand, is intricately connected to these islands and their peoples. Despite herculean efforts to reverse language decline, mainly by Māori, it continues to be an endangered language. Pākehā comprise a small proportion of speakers of te reo Māori, but have a significant effect on the language as they comprise the majority of the wider population.   

This research aimed to understand in depth the experiences of fluent Pākehā speakers of te reo Māori. It found many commonalities across this group, despite its diverse composition. The findings were complex and may appear paradoxical. These people have found ways to carry our colonial past, our complicated present, and our aspirations for the future, through their words and their actions. Their experiences can help to inform us about the multitude of challenges and advantages involved in becoming bilingual Pākehā citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand.   

Fourteen Pākehā who are fluent in te reo Māori were interviewed for this research and four key aspects of their experiences were explored and discussed in relation to te reo Māori revitalisation and re-normalisation: 1) motivations for learning te reo; 2) challenges on the path; 3) ways they navigated through these challenges; and 4) the value of te reo Māori for them.  

The primary learning motivation identified was an inherent pull, and all other motivations, such as the encouragement of others, knowing about this place, and social justice, were secondary by a long way. As time progressed, learning and contributing to the language and the relationships that developed were compounding motivations, until the language became inseparable from the person.  

The internal and external challenges that arose for the participants related predominantly to the context of colonisation, the dearth of education about our history, language loss, lack of societal support for the language, and personal identity, particularly in relationship to the language.   

The participants had independently developed very analogous detailed internal processes for determining appropriate behaviour as manuhiri of te reo. These ethical practices guided them to navigate challenges and adapt to complex situations, while being cognisant of power dynamics and maintaining their own authenticity.   

They accorded a high level of value to te reo. All previously defined values of te reo Māori were confirmed, namely that te reo holds intrinsic, social, cultural, educational, intellectual, spiritual, and monetary values. Additionally, two significant new value categories were proposed – well-being and nation-building.   

A trilateral Tiriti o Waitangi-based approach to language revitalisation and re-normalisation is proposed in this report to honour the respective roles and relationships of Māori, the Crown, and other citizens to te reo, and ensure that they interweave synergistically for the benefit of Māori, the language, and the nation as a whole. 

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