Opinion: Te Reo 'must be nurtured and protected'

  • 08/07/2016

By Māori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell

The school principal in me longs to head to the front of the class and begin our te reo Māori lessons for this week. Kei te pēhea koe?

It is 41 years since Māori language week was first launched. I, of course, was very young when this occurred - well, at university anyway.

It was a time when visionaries and leaders from across Māoridom and enlightened non-Māori decided it was time the country paid more than lip service, excuse the pun, to our country’s unique voice.

More had to be done - not only to stop, but to reverse the decline of te reo Māori speakers.

Language is the thread that binds a culture together. It is the vessel that transports a culture's history, it is a taonga of unique expression which stands one culture from the next. It must be nurtured and protected.

The way to nurture language is to use it, to communicate with one another, to keep it fresh and vibrant, like a flowing stream. And this is the essence of Māori Language Week - to remind us of the importance of te reo Māori and to encourage all to embrace and share the beauty that is our language.

There are many aspects to ensuring the reversal of the decline in speakers of Māori. We must encourage more to learn - not just Māori, but all New Zealanders. When we are children we have an amazing capacity for language. A baby has very limited control of most parts of its body, yet it is quickly mastering understanding language. When its vocal chords are fully developed, then a pēpi rapidly learns to communicate in the language or languages shared first by mum and dad, and then wider whānau and peers.

A baby has an almost unlimited capacity to learn language - not just one, but many. I see this already with my mokopuna, and my own children are testament to that with Māori, Spanish and English.

As adults, I believe the moment we stop learning, we start dying. Learning a language is challenging but the rewards are immense. The satisfaction in participating and being able to take in the wisdom and insight of those revered speakers on the paepae. The joy of sharing our unique national voice with international visitors or when on the international stage. The chance to support our tamariki as they embrace te reo Māori and are able to communicate in the home.

I urge non-speakers, whether you're Maori or Pākehā, to enrol in courses, to utilise online tools, to expose yourself to immersion in the language, to ask questions and to grow your kete of words.

While we have made good progress with kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori, Wānanga and the proliferation of Māori radio networks and Māori TV, we are still seeing a decline in the numbers of those who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori.

At the last census 125,352 or 21.3 percent of Māori could speak Māori. This is a decline on the 130,485 or 25.2 percent who could in 2006. The decline is because not enough people are learning the language to replace the older generation who are passing on.

Despite our best efforts over the years, the health of the Māori language remains fragile. Recent reviews have stressed the importance of iwi and Māori leadership of Māori language revitalisation.

As Māori Development Minister, supported by Te Puni Kōkiri, I have been proud to drive Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori 2016.

The purpose of the new act is to revitalise the Māori language, and to affirm the status of the Māori language as; the indigenous language of New Zealand, a taonga of iwi and Māori, a language valued by the nation, and an official language of New Zealand.

An essential part of this is the creation of Te Mātāwai - the new legislative body set to lead the revitalisation of te reo Māori on behalf of iwi and Māori.

Budget 2016 allocated funds to support the establishment and operations of Te Mātāwai. Another $12 million is for Te Reo Māori Whānau and Community planning to help whānau, hapū and iwi to develop Māori language strategies within their communities. Māori Television will receive $10.6m to reach a wider audience via high-definition broadcasting on multiple platforms.

Through Te Mātāwai, iwi and Māori will be in partnership with the Crown. Each have a role to revitalise te reo Māori and they will each develop language strategies that will work together.

The focus for Te Mātāwai is that by being closer to communities, it will have a greater influence in ensuring te reo Māori is spoken across all aspects of our society. It will encourage inter-generational conversation and will support whānau, hapū and iwi to drive local language initiatives so that te reo Māori extends beyond the marae and the classrooms.

My dream is to be able to walk into a bank or a shop and conduct my business in English or te reo Māori.

The kaupapa for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2016 is te reo tautoko - behind you all the way - which is about using te reo Māori to support people, to inspire, and to cheer on.

I urge all whānau to do your share to tautoko, inspire and cheer each other on!