11 Feb 2019

Keeping indigenous languages alive

From Here Now, 7:00 am on 11 February 2019

Languages are tightly bound up with culture and are the key to unlocking indigenous knowledge, stories and traditions. Sadly, many are at risk of dying out with many more already extinct.

The United Nations wants a global focus on native languages and has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous languages.

For migrants, moving to a new country can sometimes take a toll on their own native tongue.

In New Zealand, our indigenous language is te reo Māori. And while many migrants need to learn English when they come here, a surprising number are also taking the time to learn te reo.

Rachael Ka‘ai-Mahuta, Māori (Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tahu), Hawaiian, Cook Island Māori.

Rachael Ka‘ai-Mahuta, Māori (Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tahu), Hawaiian, Cook Island Māori. Photo: Supplied

Aucklander Rachael Ka’ai Mahuta has spent some time tutoring te reo Māori and noticed an influx of migrants to the language class.

“I thought it was amazing because they [migrants] have no preconceived notions about te reo Māori in general really,” she says.

“Migrants just want to learn the language of the land that they’ve moved to and I think it’s beautiful and I got to meet so many different people from all walks of life.”

Rachael, of  Māori and Pacific descent, has had her own personal journey that’s led her to where she is now – sharing her love of language with family and migrants. 

“I loved Kōhanga. I still have memories of Kōhanga and being with all the nannies and all the native speakers of the language. Then I went to Kura Kaupapa.”

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But she says it is easily lost, such as the time her family moved to the South Island for a time.

“We moved to an area where at the time it didn’t have a very strong language community,” she says.

“It was the first time I went into mainstream.  It was a huge shock to me and for sure my language or te reo suffered.”

Rachael picked up te reo again at university, where she met her now husband Dean who is Māori. 

“We have been together for a long time and it was always a shared value of ours to speak te reo to our future children.”

Rachael also does research focused on indigenous languages within families, and te reo Māori is the language spoken at home where she lives with Dean and their 14-month old daughter.

“It is a huge priority, as it is a window into our traditional cultural practises and traditions,” she says.

For Rachael the effort is worth it. At the back of her mind she knows that one of the world’s many indigenous languages dies every two weeks. 

“Language provides us with I guess a huge touchstone for our identity and we really want that for our baby, for our daughter.”

Dean says migrants don’t tend to bat an eyelid or have any problems with learning a language.

“They come with a cultural background that can be similar, in a way that they appreciate the Māori culture more,” he says.

Cook Islands Maori flash cards

A Cook Islands language class in Porirua Wellington, use flash cards to expand their vocabulary. Photo: RNZ Daniela Maoate-Cox