“Our language is in a state of recovery because of the brutalities of colonisation,” says Awanui Te Huia. (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

The journey to reclaiming language requires far more than celebrating individual learning, writes Awanui Te Huia. 


Here in Aotearoa, the desire to learn and use te reo Māori has increased noticeably in recent years.

There are much larger numbers of Pākehā now taking Māori language classes. Newsreaders and politicians are far more likely to attempt to incorporate te reo into their presentations, and there are many more common kupu, beyond basic greetings, in use by all people around Aotearoa.

These things signal a shift in a positive direction for our language survival. However, there remain critical underlying tensions that remind me of the urgent need for decolonising thinking to accompany our pursuit of reo revitalisation.

A number of persistent legitimising myths undermine our efforts. These myths allow continued colonisation by permitting discrimination to go uncontested. For these myths to work, they must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-evident truths.

The most damaging of these, I think, is the myth that the past decline in the number of Māori who can speak te reo was a problem of our own making. That we made our own choices and decisions to prioritise English and must now live with the consequences.

Many of us have been at dining tables where those who are unfamiliar with the politics of colonisation have asked: “Why don’t more Māori just speak their language, if they care about it so much?”

There is also discourse that links the limited number of fluent Māori speakers to conditional ideas about the individual. If only Māori were more motivated and less lazy, it goes. If only we prioritised our language (over other necessities for survival) and signed up to more night classes. If we just went ahead and spoke our language, te reo Māori wouldn’t have so few speakers who are able to converse with high levels of complexity.

While these statements seem fairly benign on the surface, there’s a whole layer of structural violence missing in such conditional framing. The truth is that our language is in a state of recovery because of the brutalities of colonisation.

Through understanding our colonial history, we can start to unpack why “just learning” or “just speaking” for some of our people is a task laden with emotion — and, in some cases, is an insurmountable challenge.

Most of us know someone in their whānau or friends who, despite their best efforts and multiple attempts at learning te reo, still find it challenging to get kupu Māori out of their mouths because of the deep-seated whakamā that can paralyse some learners. Many of our older tauira (students), in particular, show real tenacity and persistence, but the historical trauma and shame of being wrong at the very thing you desire to get right is heartbreaking to observe.

The methods that the Crown used to strip iwi of the ability to be self-sustaining are directly linked to language loss. Land loss and language loss went hand in hand — however, these connections are silenced when our histories remain unexplored.

Damaging legitimising myths can only be fully understood if we’re open to exploring the colonial history of this country and its ongoing consequences for tangata whenua. We should all know about the New Zealand Wars, the Native Lands Act 1862 which established the Native Land Court in 1865, and the Native Schools Act 1867 — because they each have specific consequences for us today.

As historian Vincent O’Malley reminds us: “The Native Land Court wouldn’t have been possible without the New Zealand Wars, neither would the native school system. One of these stripped Māori of their lands, and the other of their language. We live with the consequences of that today. We are living the New Zealand Wars: actual fighting might have ended in 1872, but their legacy continues to be felt in many ways.”

So, when I hear people ask why more Māori don’t “just learn” te reo Māori if they want it to survive, my stomach tightens. The notion that Māori are responsible for our own language decline is a convenient argument. It absolves the Crown of its responsibilities to make right its many wrongs. It takes the pressure off tangata Tiriti to take part in understanding their own role in the decline of te reo, and to consider what is required of them to improve the situation.

It’s vital that we remember the strength, aroha, and endurance of our pakeke, who, despite experiencing multiple forms of discrimination, have managed to change the trajectory of te reo Māori. Their collective determination has been a driving force behind many of the positive changes that we’re now experiencing in te reo resurgence.

These legitimising myths need to lose their credibility across our society. They need to be seen for what they are: an easy out for those who are responsible for our language decline.

It might seem like focusing on historical injustice overlooks the role of individual rangatiratanga and the agency that Māori have over our own learning. But pouring effort into motivating a new language learner, or recognising personal aptitude for learning, doesn’t result in speakers gaining access to a language community. Nor does it improve their opportunities to use te reo within their existing lives, particularly when those around them aren’t speakers of te reo.

Learners and users of te reo need contexts where they can use te reo Māori for both functional and ceremonial purposes. This requires a systematic approach (and appropriate Crown investment) to make language shifts across all spheres of public and private life. It requires an active undoing of damage that goes beyond encouraging or celebrating individual language journeys.

Te reo revitalisation can’t be uncoupled from decolonisation. We must address the systemic injustices that have contributed to the decline in its use. Only then will it be possible to say that the language is no longer in danger.

It’s important to dismantle myths from reality, to create space for a more accurate and holistic approach to dealing with the challenges that we face in revitalising our reo.

So, to those aspiring tangata Tiriti allies who are keen to support te reo Māori, I encourage you to make it a priority to understand colonisation. Learn about our history before, or alongside, embarking on your language path. Kia kaha tātou!


Dr Awanui Te Huia (Ngāti Maniapoto) is a senior lecturer at Te Kawa a Māui, Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington, where she has taught and researched te reo Māori for over a decade. She also teaches Māori research methods to postgraduate students. Awanui recently moved to the bilingual town of Ōtaki with her husband Tai and their two children.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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