Revitalising te reo a three-generation process: Prof Rawinia Higgins

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Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders joined together to speak, sing and celebrate te reo Māori at midday on Monday. This “Māori Language Moment”, part of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, was the single largest celebration of the Māori language in Aotearoa’s history.

So how can events like these contribute to the goal of getting 1 million Māori language speakers by 2040? Professor Rawinia Higgins, a te reo expert, advocate, Waitangi Tribunal member and chair of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori  The Māori Language Commission, talked with Saturday Morning about the opportunities ahead.

Te reo expert Rawinia Higgins

Professor Rawinia Higgins Photo: Supplied.

Higgins says the response to her team’s efforts in creating “Māori Language Moment” has been “wow”.  The final numbers are still being counted, but participants exceeded the 250,000 people she had in mind as a base level for success.

“I’m just so overwhelmed and ecstatic about how many people out there were keen to take a moment out of their day to celebrate Te Wiki o te Reo Māori. Because in the past … a lot of what we’ve seen in the past was anecdotal .. our hīkois would bring in… a few thousand … we knew people were doing it in their offices and their schools, but I probably never fully appreciated how much of that was happening.

“One of the things we’ve learned, particularly from the Covid experience during lockdown is how do we engage our people, our communities… in celebrating te reo Māori. There’s so much going on in our world, people are being asked to look at things… our Covid messages that we’re receiving on a daily basis… so I was anxious that it would be a little bit noisy in that space.

“In the past we’ve focused on hīkoi, where we want to celebrate by bringing people out onto the streets to demonstrate their commitment and passion for te reo Māori. This year it was reframed into creating a platform for people to register what they were proposing to do for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, and we’ve had many many submissions come in, from people writing anecdotes, to sharing pictures, to sharing their videos, and we’re hoping to archive those.”

What is the most important objective of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori  The Māori Language Commission?

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“The main objective is ensure that the language is heard and seen and felt widely across the country, and spread across the country. So that can’t just be with Māori, that’s with the whole of society.  So part of that is how you engage people to show some value toward the language, because that helps to provide the conditions to support those who are speakers of the language to engage more freely and comfortably with te reo.

“The big challenge for us going forward with the Māori language moment, is ‘how do you capture that enthusiasm for a moment, and encourage that to happen on a regular basis?’ Because you need to use it more regularly as a way to build more and more confidence.”

Higgins says it’s great to see wins, but the process to thoroughly revitalise te reo Māori is a long one.

“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. It’s a three generation process. It can take one generation to lose the language and three generations to restore.

“And you might not be part of the generation that is at the fully immersed, fluent proficiency. You might be just at the beginning, and that’s very much part of this. There are lots of elements to language revitalisation. And acquisition is one of them, but sometimes we get caught up in acquisition being the only part.

Higgins says there’s five different aspects to language revitalisation theory, and all are important:

* Status; the value we attribute to te reo. She says Te Wiki tries to help us engage people to show value towards te reo.

* Acquisition; engaging people in learning te reo, and continuing to learn more.

* Corpus; the resources needed to support the use of te reo use.

* Critical awareness; “Why do we want to have te reo? Why would people want to engage with te reo Māori? Strategies that help switch people’s hearts and minds as to why they might want to start engaging with te reo Māori.

* Use; “The biggest and possibly the hardest: If we create better conditions in our society to enable people to use what little, or hopefully a lot – that they have, then that can only help us towards achieving that goal.”

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Would she like to see te reo Māori become a compulsory language taught in schools?

“At this stage, no. I feel we need to develop our workforce now, our teachers, we need to support them. My biggest fear around saying ‘yes’ to compulsory today is that it will drain out the talent from our kura kaupapa, and we need to ensure that base is strong before we deal with everybody else. ”

Higgins says a number of language revitalisation programmes and entities are doing the māhī, and the clever strategy is for everyone to work collaboratively, to complement each others’ different focuses. The programmes at work vary widely, long-term inter-generational approaches, to providing different mediums for learning, like tutoring or audio materials.

“So we’ve got 20 more years to get that audacious goal from Te Maihi Karauna (The Crown Strategy for te reo revitalisation),” she says. And at one end of the skill levels is te Mahuru Māori challenge, which calls te reo users and learners to try to go a month using only te reo, at the other end, Te Wiki o te Reo Māori encourages beginners to be part of the movement too.

“I think there’s a place for everybody, I think it’s not an or, it’s an and- and; because there will be non-Māori people who may in the next generation have tamariki Māori, so they also are important as part of the language revitalisation journey.

“If we exclude people from te reo, we ourselves in many ways are pulling the language back, because we’re not encouraging users.

“Use, as I see it as the hardest part of language revitalisation theory to engage with, if we don’t have users of te reo Māori and speakers of te reo Māori, then that makes the challenge even greater.”

Those who oppose giving a platform to te reo are out there rattling their chains, but they’re now very much in the minority, she believes. And she comes back to the pragmatic and inclusive approach where the language is not an or instead of English, but is an and-and that is complementary.

“There’s always squeaky wheels, right? But I think what you see particularly this week, is how people have demonstrated, particularly the media and broadcasting have managed to demonstrate how you can incorporate te reo Māori as part of your presentation, and translate at the same time. And often in a way that’s quite seamless that a lot of people probably don’t even register that someone was speaking te reo Māori, because you can still continue to follow what they’ve said.

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“So I think for those ones, the challenge back to the squeaky wheels, is give it a go. And appreciate that actually our English, the New Zealand English, is already influenced by te reo Māori, And those who try to say that it doesn’t will probably not realise that they’re speaking Māori words, and we can always smile at that.”

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