What if we threw a party and didn’t invite English?

by Nadine Millar
Sun 9 Oct 2016
5 min read

Nadine Millar on what happened when she took on the Mahuru Māori challenge to quit English and speak only in te reo.


Last night I dreamed in Māori. They say that when you start dreaming in another language, that's when you know you're becoming fluent. I am not fluent. I am nowhere near fluent. But over the past six months I've begun to think that maybe, one day, I might be.

I was enrolled in a rumaki course last year, but much of the time I dragged my feet. I resented the pressure to speak before I was ready. I was annoyed that “total immersion” only existed inside the four walls of the school. Mainly, though, I was critical of myself. My ability. My effort. My lack of confidence. I was never good enough.

Last year wasn't about learning Māori, it was about clearing the path so that I could learn Māori.

Now, I feel like I'm ready. I've found a wonderful Te Ataarangi teacher. I never miss a class. I have the motivation, the drive and the tools — I even have the opportunity. At work, there are people who are more than happy to kōrero Māori with me. But, after the greetings and a few simple exchanges, we switch to English. That's my fault. I'm embarrassed when I stumble. I feel bad for making a simple conversation drag on and on. I revert to English, as much as anything, out of politeness.

At home, I'm the only reo speaker. In practice, this should be a boost to my confidence. After all, it's my home. I can speak whatever language I like. But beyond basic greetings and karakia, English prevails. Even with my reo-speaking friends, we slip into English out of habit. Why would we speak in Māori, when English is faster and easier?

I sometimes think that if languages were people, English would be the noisy one in the middle of the room waving his arms around talking louder than everyone else. When English is around, no one else can get a word in.

But what if we threw a party, and didn't invite English?

That's essentially what Paraone Gloyne proposed with “Mahuru Māori”. The concept is based on Dry July and Junk Free June. In the same way that people are inspired to quit booze and junk food, Mahuru Māori encourages people to do the seemingly impossible and impractical: to quit English and speak only Māori for the whole month of September (Mahuru).

The idea appealed to me. It achieves so many things you need when learning a language: most importantly, it imposes a lack of choice. It's like moving to a new country. If English isn't an option, you can't just sit there in silence. Eventually, out of necessity, you have to learn the local language.

Look around for a Māori country to move to. We're already in it.

When I read about Mahuru Māori, I thought: I want to be good enough to do that one day. As soon as I said it, I realised what a dumb statement that is. Who'll be the judge of when I'm good enough? Do I need someone else to tell me when I'm ready to speak Māori? The truth is, I could wait my whole life to be good enough, and never get there. So I decided to take a punt on a slightly smaller Mahuru goal: To speak Māori every Friday for the month.

I made preparations in advance. I let people know. I told my kids to get their dictionaries ready. I cleared it with my manager and made arrangements so that I could still do my job.

As the day dawned on the first Friday of Mahuru, I was full of trepidation. I expected it to be difficult, awkward and potentially embarrassing. I predicted frustration, confusion, perhaps even anger.

But what I hadn't anticipated was just how much fun I’d have. Colleagues I rarely talked to in English came over to greet me in Māori and to practise the few sentences they knew. Friends sent me slightly odd text messages where it was obvious the clunky hand of Google Translate was at work.

At the supermarket, I managed to have a whole conversation with a girl at the checkout, even though she didn't speak a word of Māori. At our team hui in the morning, the default language was Māori instead of English. Everyone was on board.

Well, maybe not everyone. A few people questioned the point I was trying to make. A couple of people avoided me. One person even started talking louder, as if my inability to communicate in English had affected my hearing. I suppose this type of reaction is inevitable to some extent. Refusing to speak English is a challenge to the dominant culture we live in, that most people don't even see. Speaking Māori in situations where English is the norm shines a spotlight on that bias. In a very tangible way, people begin to understand what it feels like to be marginalised.

Overall, though, people were supportive. It's amazing how much can be communicated with body language, tone of voice, and the odd familiar word. People were often surprised by how much Māori they could understand, and felt inspired to learn more. Afterwards a few colleagues said how much they enjoyed hearing Māori spoken around the office in a casual, everyday way. That's because Mahuru Māori brought all the reo speakers out of the woodwork. There are more of us out there than we realise, of all levels of ability, but we don't always see each other because English is drowning us all out.

Even my fear of making mistakes didn't materialise. I learned more in one day than I had in a whole month. Those fluent reo speakers weren't so scary, either. When I stumbled over sentences and lost the words, they helped me out. I sent emails full of mistakes and could see where I'd gone wrong by reading the replies. And talking with my mates in te reo wasn't hard — it just took a bit of discipline. What Mahuru Māori made me realise is that I needed to reorientate my thinking so that the goal is communication, not perfection.

The real highlight, though, came on the last Friday of Mahuru. I was sitting in the kitchen with my Samoan friend, Ina, sharing a cup of tea. It was a normal relaxed afternoon catching up at the end of a busy week — except that I was speaking Māori and she was speaking Samoan. The Mahuru challenge had inspired Ina to change the default language in her home on Fridays too. So there we were, drinking tea, waving our arms around in two different languages, and understanding each other perfectly.

I don’t know if refusing to speak English is extreme, but for some of us, Mahuru Māori is just the kickstart we need to overcome the barriers around us. Not just the barriers we put in front of ourselves, but the ones that society puts in front of us too.

My hope is that next year there’ll be so many signed up to Mahuru Māori that people won’t be at all surprised or threatened when the kitchens and corridors and elevators are noisy with conversations in Māori. That will just be normal. And if Māori can be the default language in September, who’s to say it couldn’t be the default language any given day of the week?


© e-tangata, 2016