Janaye Henry’s satirical video about Te Wiki o Te Reo was a viral hit on social media this year, but the writer and comedian wasn’t joking about her commitment to te reo.
At the start of the year, I couldn’t speak te reo Māori. I could say “kia ora” and “kei te pēhea koe?” but that was the full extent of my abilities. So I decided to jump in the deep end and go full immersion; to learn te reo Māori in a rumaki environment. I considered going to Te Wānanga o Aotearoa for the free night classes, however the thought of only being able to go once a week for an hour felt too slow. This isn’t to discredit the work they do, I think it’s incredible and – spoiler alert – I will attend Te Wānanga as soon as I can. But I wanted to jump-start my journey. I’d done a lot of work already unpacking who I was, thinking about my cultural identity and how it could shape how I lived my life. It was never a question of if I would learn te reo Māori. For a long time now it’s been a question of when.
The need to learn te reo Māori felt urgent, it sat in my stomach for a long time. My immediate whānau can’t speak te reo Māori; my grandparents, who could, passed away a long time ago. I didn’t attend kura kaupapa and wasn’t surrounded by the culture all the time as a child. Everyone has a different starting point, and this was mine.
I made the choice to return to my hometown, Tauranga. I was very lucky to be able to move back in with my parents; having their support throughout this year has been crucial. They happily housed me, fed me, and were an evergreen source of encouragement as I started attending Te Tohu Paetahi through Waikato University at the Tauranga campus.
At the start of the year, I genuinely believed I could learn an entire language in one year. From zero to hero! I don’t know where I got this idea from since I’ve been speaking English my whole life and still haven’t clocked it. On the first day, our kaiako was speaking to us in te reo Māori and I felt so overwhelmed. My classmates around me were nodding, even laughing at some parts and I was confused. Wasn’t this a beginners course!? If you’re nodding, you’re understanding. “How are you understanding?” I thought. I learned very quickly that we had all come from varying backgrounds and wanted different things from this course. Some had come from kura kaupapa, others had been heavily immersed in te reo throughout their lives. I went home on that first night and Googled my course again, to check if this was an introductory course. It was. Immediately all dreams I had of being a beautifully, proficient te reo Māori speaker by the end of this year left and I instead focused on how I was going to get through.
Mahia te mahi! We were in class from 9am until 2pm, Monday to Friday. For the first month, it felt very sink or swim. I didn’t find school hard when I was a child. I’d never experienced sitting in a room and feeling stupid for hours. I say feeling stupid on purpose – it was a feeling for me. Whenever I felt stupid, a wall went up and I couldn’t absorb anything. I had to find ways to work through feeling this way. My kaiako had told us from the start: “You are each other’s biggest resource,” so I began studying every single day with my classmate Waiora. “Classmate” heavily understates who Waiora is to me; she became my lighthouse, someone I would look to when I felt too far out of my depth. She would ground me and guide me back to where I needed to be. It would be redundant to write about my te reo journey without mentioning Waiora, because without her I don’t know if I would’ve finished the course. Our entire class became very close and, slowly but surely, it became easier – and then harder, and then easier.
There were some truly magical moments, like the first time I listened to another classmate speak and realised I could understand what he was saying. The first time I dreamt in te reo Māori and the first time I realised I was actually capable of learning te reo Māori. It’s also important to mention, my kaiako and kaiawhina are two absolute legends. They push but never too hard; it’s rare to meet people who are innately aware of everyone’s personal thresholds. This whole year, no matter how hard it’s been, I’ve never felt I’ve been asked too much of or asked to do the impossible. I’m very lucky and grateful to have met them at the start of my reo journey. The joy I’ve felt this year, the excitement, the reawakening of te reo Māori has far outweighed the mamae. This journey has been both the scariest and the best thing I’ve done. It feels almost irresponsible to recommend something to other people that brought you so many tears, frustration and late nights but you forget about those days. Every day you walk into the room and it’s vibrant and full of life. The morning gossips and catch-ups go from English to Māori, the in-class jokes grow daily and the waiata get louder!
Being Māori and learning te reo Māori is a unique experience. You have expectations of yourself, others have expectations of you. It’s hard. I found the duality of life confusing, I was in such a rich environment all day, singing waiata, reading stories, learning kupu. I’d go home and on Facebook I’d see some news article related to Māori and make the fatal mistake of reading the comment section. I still find the ignorance hard to grapple with. However, I don’t read comment sections anymore. I flex that block feature when I need to, I don’t give my emotional energy to people who don’t deserve it. I encourage others to do the same.
My course has ended and it feels very bittersweet. I’m not where I thought I would be at the start of the year, but I’m proud of where I am. I describe myself as an “intermediate” level speaker although admittedly I’m closer to the beginner end of that spectrum. A lot of people in my class are in the “advanced” level now. This course is about your personal levelling up and not how you move compared to others, but it’s important to note if you go into this course wanting to be an advanced speaker and have prior te reo knowledge, it’s absolutely obtainable. I’ve done things I never thought I could do. I wrote an essay, I spoke for five minutes on the spot, I did a debate – all in te reo Māori. My language.
I’ve referred to my year as a journey because it is. This will be a lifelong journey for me, my goal now is simple: keep speaking, keep listening, keep reading.
There is a whakataukī we’ve come back to throughout the year and my advice to anyone thinking about doing this course. “Tūwhitia te hopo, mairangatia te angitū!” Feel the fear and do it anyway!
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.