One night my six year old son and I were debriefing his day after his bedtime story. He wanted me to tell him about my day before he told me about his. I listed off everything I’d done that day at work, including my Te Reo lesson. He excitedly said, “I’m learning Te Reo too!” He was so excited to hear that I was learning, just like him. The divide between adult and six year old shrank a little in that moment, and sharing that experience helped us to connect with each other.
I’ve heard that to try to understand how difficult it is for a child to learn to write, take off your shoes and try to write with the pen between your toes. I’ve done that, and it’s difficult! It was a totally absorbing, and frustrating experience. Learning Te Reo is kind of like writing with my toes – it’s giving me empathy for what my kids go through on a daily basis. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s stimulating, and it’s also really fun.
Why I’m learning Te Reo Māori
In short, because the opportunity came up! Currently about 75 percent of Parenting Place staff across the country are learning Te Reo through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. I’m at the beginner level of a year-long course, attending a three-hour lesson per week. I’m also learning because I’m interested, and because I really enjoy it. Since I’ve started however, I’ve discovered a new reason to learn – because of my kids. I’ve started using Te Reo i roto i te whare/in the house and have seen how it impacts all of us.
Te Reo in my childhood
I went to a primary school that was, in retrospect, very embracing towards cultural diversity. Even as a child I had a natural interest and curiosity about Māori culture and I remember enjoying learning Te Reo, especially waiata/Māori language songs and kapa haka (which at my school was called the ‘Māori culture group’).
I don’t remember it being hard, and I’m grateful that now, as an adult, I have a basic understanding of some very common Te Reo Māori words that were sown into me as a child. Almost by osmosis I learned and remember words and commands like kia ora (hello), tamariki (children), e noho (sit down), taringa (ears), pakipaki (clap) and a handful of others.
Te Reo in my children’s childhood
Te Reo in schools has come a long way since then, and it makes me happy to think that my kids’ Te Reo base will be even more expansive than mine was, at a much younger age. In my class recently we were learning about time. I studied the days of the week and the months of the year by writing them up on a whiteboard at home and asking my six-year-old son each morning, “Ko te aha tēnei rā?/What day is it today”? He asked the same back to me, because he was learning the same thing in his Year 2 class. When I made mistakes, he corrected me.
I imagine that seeing me learning and making mistakes is a great learning experience for him. Seeing me learn helps him realise that learning is a valuable lifelong endeavour, not just for when he’s a child in school. Not to mention the excitement that he’s able to correct his mummy for once, instead of the other way around!
Is learning Te Reo relevant?
I’m aware there’s a huge range of opinions about the necessity and relevance of Te Reo Māori in modern New Zealand society and of teaching it to our kids. If I look at it from one perspective, will proficiency in the language help my son get a job one day? Is it a waste of his time? I’ve been asked similar questions from adults when I tell them I’m learning Te Reo. Why am I learning Te Reo Māori? What’s the point? Is it going to help my work?
There’s numerous pieces of evidence about the advantages of bilingualism. The majority of the world’s population is bilingual. More than half of all Europeans speak at least one language other than their mother tongue. I remember a humbling and perspective-shifting experience I had in Brussels on my O.E, sitting at a café with my German friend and meeting a group of her friends. All of them could speak at least one, two, or even three other languages. At that moment I felt like a very un-cultured monolinguist!
Growing up as Pākeha New Zealanders, giving my children an opportunity to speak another language is preparing them to be global citizens. Later on in their school careers they’ll have the chance to learn Mandarin, French, Japanese, and a host of other languages. But learning Te Reo is more than just an intellectual exercise and an opportunity to teach them about other countries – it’s an opportunity to teach them about themselves.
Language as a gateway to identity
There is a deeper level to learning the language that’s related to what I believe being a New Zealander is about. I’m finding my journey in Te Ao Māori/the Māori world is impacting my core identity and my relationships.
It’s helped me to investigate my whakapapa/ancestry. It’s made me think about my connection to the land I live in and on. It’s given me the space to talk about my grandparents and my dad who have died, and about the people who have gone before me to give me and my family the life we live today. It’s helped me to be a more inclusive person and has ignited in me a hope for the future of New Zealand society.
Of course, my six year old doesn’t care about the politics or philosophy of learning Te Reo Māori when his teacher asks him, “How are you?” in Te Reo each morning, but that doesn’t matter. At the very least, he will grow up knowing there’s more than one way of saying something, of looking, seeing, and thinking about things. And knowing there’s more than one way of seeing leads to empathy, compassion, openness, and kindness. That’s really something.
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