How a Wellington kindergarten is raising a new generation of te reo Māori speakers

A Wellington kindergarten is doing its bit to train up the next generation of te reo Māori speakers.

It's the 10th anniversary of Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano, where staff, students and whānau are on a speaking journey together.

The tamariki spend half of each day fully immersed in the language, and they carry it home with them to their whānau, sometimes teaching them.

"These kids come home home with amazing things, amazing kopu and kaupapa that only enrich our family," says parent Pirimia Burger (Ngāi Tahu, Rangitāne).

Ms Burger sends her son Kahukura to the centre, and says it's helping her and her whānau extend their use of te reo Māori.

"He has no sense of being whakamā or embarrassed or ashamed about having a Māori name, because he's only ever had it pronounced correctly and with respect," she says.

"I didn't have that experience as a child."

Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano co-tumuaki Erin Robertson says the centre was created because there was a gap in the community, and there aren't enough like it.

"We cater to people who are uncomfortable or nervous about using Reo, or haven't had a lot of experience."

She says it's a journey for everyone - kaiako, whanau, and tamariki. The centre has always used a lot of te reo Māori, but this year it's committed to using it for half of the day, in two separate sessions where no English is allowed.

"We've had our bumps - it's not easy to do. It's about switching your mindset. I wouldn't say that there aren't challenges with it, but it's been a really positive thing for our kaiako and their development," she says.

"I think for all of us, we've felt that there was a loss in our growing up, that we didn't have that sort of solidness of reo Māori.

"This is what we want for the next generation and the generations to come."

Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano kaiako Daveda Wainohu (Ngāti Kahungunu) says previous generations in her family grew up at a time where speaking Te Reo wasn't acceptable.

"I learnt my Reo through listening to my tupuna kuia, going to the marae, going to kohanga reo and learning my reo through karakia."

She's passionate about teaching and growing the language, saying there's "great need" for everyone within Aotearoa to learn about the indigenous language and culture.

"This is a big part of who we are. How we communicate with people was never through writing, really - it was always through verbal communications, waiata, mōteatea, karakia where a lot of our whakapapa sits.

"Once tamariki know who they are and where they come from, they have a better understanding of how they can walk through this life."

Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano's pouako for two to five-year-olds Mahea Tomoana says working at the centre has "changed [her] life".

"It's helped me ground myself, it's taken me back to my roots as a child growing up on my pā, my marae, in Hastings."

He says for both whānau and their tamariki, the centre is a safe place for them to learn and to not be afraid to make mistakes.

"They're surrounded by their Reo and tikanga Māori in such an urban environment - I think it's just a real pleasure for our tamariki to find such a place deep in this concrete jungle."

Ms Burger says bilingual education can seem intimidating at first for families, especially those who don't know a lot of te reo but want their children to learn.

"I would say be brave and try it... you'll be giving them the advantage of two languages already - and what a foundation to start with, and components to solidify their identity, whether they're Māori or not," she says.

"Even as non-Māori New Zealanders, Te Reo non-Māori has a really important place in our identity too."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford have also committed to raising their daughter Neve Te Aroha Gayford Ardern to speak both English and Te Reo Māori.

Ms Ardern said not learning the language as a young person is "one of her great regrets". She says she wants to see 1 million people capable of speaking and understanding Te Reo by 2040.

AUT associate professor and Head of School for Language and Culture Sharon Harvey says the teaching style being used by the centre "naturalises the whole nature of language use".

"So the language isn't being explicitly taught, but it's used as something that's just natural. Playing for example, or singing in a language that everybody's using."

She says young children under five having these types of immersion experiences are given the opportunity to communicate in another language without having to think about it too hard.

"Young people are brilliant mimics, so I guess if they've got good language models - the people who are teaching them - they'll pick up great pronunciation, which hopefully will carry on through their lives."

Ms Harvey says the issue New Zealand has with trying to increase immersion schools and preschools is that there needs to be enough proficient teachers available.

But there are ways around this lack - and the best way is getting more people learning the language and then getting them into teacher education.

Ms Robertson says part of the work that the centre is doing is "saving the reo".