29 Jul 2018

Insight: Should te reo Māori be compulsory in school?

From Insight, 7:30 am on 29 July 2018

What could come from a greater understanding of te reo Māori and New Zealand's past? With enduring calls to make language and history compulsory at school, RNZ's Māori News Correspondent Leigh-Marama McLachlan asks current learners what they get out of it.

Yellow folder with Te Reo on the spine

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Across the road from a basketball court where teenagers shoot hoops in South Auckland, Mariam Arif and her two younger sisters escape the darkening sky and head through the sliding doors into Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Māngere.

Every Monday evening, Ms Arif has to get herself in the zone for her weekly two-hour total immersion reo Māori class.

"Ko Mariam Arif tōku ingoa - nō te Rāwhiti Waenganui ahau, no te ao Aripi," she introduces herself proudly. "Kei te aroha au i te ao Māori me ōna tikanga."

The 27-year-old has been learning the Māori language for a year now and adores it. The Māori culture reminds her of her own, she said, having moved to New Zealand from the Middle East, 20 years ago.

Young woman in green headscarf

Mariam Arif taking notes in her total immersion te reo Māori class in Auckland Photo: RNZ Insight / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

She considers herself a staunch advocate for te reo Māori becoming a compulsory subject at school.

"I feel like I missed out as a New Zealander, having to pick it up as an adult...And because language is married with culture, you naturally understand an entire people by learning that language.

"The fact that Māori are so misunderstood, in a lot of aspects, and people just do not listen to their needs, essentially that is because no one bothered to learn their language."

Ms Arif said learning about Māori concepts has helped her better understand current political issues.

"The kaupapa of whakapapa is enough to make you understand why the maunga, the awa, the whenua is so important and why they anchor themselves to all these things.

"Once you understand just that particular point, you straight away will drop all the politial issues that people just do not understand these days - of lets say, the seabed, and things like at this particular time Ihumātao at Māngere.

"People think it is separate but it really is not. If you do not understand the world view of tangata whenua, you can not possibly understand why they are fighting for the things they are fighting for."

"If you do make it compulsory in primary schools, you are literally bringing up a generation which will naturally understand all the things that their parents and their grandparents failed to understand."

Insight is on Apple Podcasts: subscribe and give us a review - Or head to Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts

Male te reo teacher at table

Niira Te Moana showcases one of his resources for his te reo Māori studies at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa Photo: RNZ Insight / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Sitting on the other side of the classroom, mental health worker Niira Te Moana practices his adverbs with small coloured sticks - a common tool used in the learning of the Māori language.

"Kei kōnei te rākau karera, I kōna te rākau karera," he explained correctly to the class. (Here is the light green stick. The light green stick was over there.)

He has wanted to speak his native tongue his whole life, but said he was told as a child that he would have to pick it up on his own.

"My father and my mother were not able to speak Māori because their parents were given the strap for talking Māori at school, so they did not get that.

"I did a lot of kapa haka, as you do growing up, but I was just missing that passion. Being brought up on the marae, I was surrounded by the tikanga side, but not actually encapsulating the reo."


Photo: RNZ/Tom Furley

Mr Te Moana said te reo should be compulsory. He wants to see rangatahi flourish in any career by utilising tikanga, te reo and doing what works for Māori.

He has been taking classes now for two years, and said it has been great for his wairua, or soul. His friends and family, and colleagues, are also hearing him use more te reo, and some are keen to learn themselves, he said.

"That pebble, you drop it in the pond and it is rippling out. I feel like I am doing something, not just for myself but it's for the people."

But he is not just calling for more te reo Māori, but also for a greater understanding of New Zealand history.

"There is a lot of history out there about how our lands were taken, there may be hurt around that - but it is about supporting each other and moving on, and what we can do now as a huge whānau."

Mireille Izabayo moved to New Zealand when she was nine, and loves learning about NZ history.

Mireille Izabayo moved to New Zealand when she was nine, and loves learning about NZ history. Photo: RNZ Insight / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Year 13 Auckland student Mireille Izabayo is so passionate about history studies that she took time out of her school holiday to share her thoughts on how 19th Century New Zealand History has opened her eyes.

"It is not just this happened, it was not just Britain came and they colonised and that is it," she said.

"I think there is much, much more to it and the unfairness of it - and there is so much more that people don't know."

Miss Izabayo was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and also lived in Kenya. She moved to New Zealand when she was nine-years old and said she feels it is important to understand the past of the country she calls home.

"A lot of people view New Zealand as a harmonious place where Māori and Pākehā are living together. But there is inequality between the two of them and it all dates back to the treaty signing.

"People have ignored that gap is there and that is the biggest problem that we are facing, the fact that people are ignoring it."

She said she has only just become fully aware of the Treaty of Waitangi and how the founding document had shaped New Zealand.

Lauren Parker didn't think she would enjoy New Zealand history before taking it in Year 13.

Lauren Parker didn't think she would enjoy New Zealand history before taking it in Year 13. Photo: RNZ Insight / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Lauren Parker 'ummed and ahhed' about taking 19th Century New Zealand History at Northcote High, but much like her classmate Miss Izabayo, her passion for history in general compelled her to sign up.

"There is definitely a sense that it is boring - there is not enough history, it is not as exciting as say European history," she said.

"I felt like I had done the treaty many times but then when it came to learning it this year, I did realise how little I actually knew about it and how little my insight was."

2 students sit on a couch at home

Year 13 Northcote High history buffs Lauren Parker and Mireille Izabayo catch-up in the school holidays Photo: RNZ Insight / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

The subject is only offered to year 13 students at the Auckland school. Despite not being keen on it, Miss Parker said she felt a responsibility to know her own history - if she wanted to pursue history as a career.

"It has really blown me away! I have been so much more fascinated with it than I expected to be.

"I do feel like I view New Zealand slightly differently now already and the parts of the course we are leading up to will probably be the ones that bring out even more of the issues that we face today.

"I have definitely noticed a difference in feeling in myself and in just knowing so much more about my past."

Follow Insight on Twitter