Kia kaha te reo Māori!
August 31, 2023 | Stories

By Niki Partsch

Understanding the decline and revitalisation of te reo Māori. 

NATIONAL: History tells us that during the early 1800s many Māori quickly picked up the English language. At the same time a great many early Pākehā traders, missionaries and settlers became fluent in te reo Māori. In these early years it was about acquiring an additional language, essential for trade and better communications.  

For a time, te reo Māori continued to be spoken within Māori communities but as Pākehā settler numbers outgrew tangata whenua, English became the more common language. The use of te reo Māori, and indeed all things Māori, was often discouraged and disrespected.  

A push towards assimilation was facilitated through the establishment of native schools which taught lessons only in English, and by the 1860s there were many of these schools up and running. The ideology of assimilation was that Māori would simply be absorbed into the larger and by now more dominant culture.  

Unfortunately, absorption would prove to be very painful for Māori and reveal some horrific ‘teaching’ methods. For children caught speaking te reo Māori at school there were routine and often cruel punishments, regardless of why they spoke, or how young they were. Some parents sought to protect their children by encouraging them to speak English and many ceased speaking Māori to their little ones, even at home. 

The loss of te reo Māori unsurprisingly caused a cultural disconnect and created a void in knowledge for Māori children as they grew up. By the 1960s, in cities, towns and even on many marae, it was unusual for Māori children to be fluent speakers of te reo. Older generations passed on, taking a wealth of knowledge with them. Acutely aware of this rapid loss of culture, many elders and some of the younger generation rallied in urgency to do something about it. 

Some sought higher education at universities and through study, including law, began to push for the revitalisation of te reo Māori within our education system. There was support from many Pākehā too, for this to happen. 

Fast forward half a century and there is plenty of evidence that te reo Māori has been saved from the brink. There are around 460 kōhanga reo and a significant number of Māori-medium schools where children are taught in te reo.

Last year a celebration took place on the grounds of Parliament to acknowledge the passing of 50 years since the petition calling for the introduction of Māori language and culture in the curriculum nationwide, was delivered to the government of the day. Of the 33,000 signatures on the 1972 petition, the majority were Pākehā. 

This year Te Wiki o te Reo Māori begins on Monday September 11th and ends on Sunday September 17th Hepetema (September) 2023.  

The theme this year is Kia Kaha Te Reo Māori: making the language stronger.  

At 12pm, on 14 September all of Aotearoa is invited to stop what they’re doing and celebrate te reo Māori together in the nationwide Māori Language Moment

Those looking to strengthen te reo understanding in use in their homes or workplaces can find several useful resources at the Reo Māori website

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori
Partsch, Niki (author)

Niki Partsch | Kaitohutohu Whanake - Māori Heritage Advisor
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