Professor Alison Jones. (Photo supplied).

Will the Māori language blossom if many more Pākehā jump on the reo waka? Not necessarily, writes Alison Jones, a professor at Te Puna Wānanga, the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland.


The legendary Māori-language advocate Sir Tīmoti Kāretu says about Pākehā learning te reo: “Anyone who wants to come on board, we say: ‘Hop on the waka and let’s go. If you don’t want to, then stay on shore.’” 

Timoti’s big-hearted invitation to join the waka is being taken up with enthusiasm by Pākehā. 

Free classes in introductory Māori language are crowded, and many have waiting lists. Pākehā presenters on RNZ National make valiant, though sometimes excruciating, efforts to use the language. Māori names are now commonly used for state organisations such as Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Agency) and Ngā Pirihimana o Aotearoa (the Police). The University of Auckland’s new name, gifted by Ngāti Whātua, is Waipapa Taumata Rau.

But once Pākehā are on the waka, what if they start grabbing the paddles? What if they try enthusiastically to control the direction and speed of travel, or misunderstand the task, rather than hopping in the back and quietly following orders? 

We have already done some inadvertent paddle-grabbing; Pākehā have forced te reo into a new shape. The creation of a written language using the English alphabet inevitably erased sounds that an English ear could not hear. The rhythms of English speech have influenced Māori mita (rhythm, intonation and pronunciation) and English sentence structure influences syntax.  

We are now self-conscious about correctly speaking the language. But, implicit in the interest of many Pākehā in learning te reo Māori is a call to “teach me your language”, which unsettlingly echoes the colonising demand to “let me on to your land”. 

Māori have always been good at sharing. We Pākehā, not so much. And I worry that te reo, like land, may be in the process of becoming yet another thing that Pākehā can acquire from Māori, like a unique new jacket that we think suits us. 

The language can be simply an additional skill, something to put on the CV, a cool display of identity, or a sort of virtue-signalling.

Most non-Māori reo learners don’t proceed beyond learning a few waiata, some greetings and a pepeha. Perhaps they find it too hard. Perhaps they think they have done their bit. Some knowledge is better than none, after all. 

But, as the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” He warned that “shallow draughts” from the fountain of knowledge “intoxicate the brain”. And we must “drink deep” to “sober up again”. 

In other words, it’s easy to become excited with a little bit of knowledge — the “shallow draughts” of vocabulary and grammar, or pepeha and standard mihi. We may think we know far more than we do. Only if we “drink deep” can we begin to properly understand as well as realise how much we do not know.

To drink deep is to learn that a language is not merely a set of alternative words to name the reality around us. It has long been a truism in social philosophy that language creates the world we know. To learn Māori is to enter another world. Te reo names a different reality from the one named in English. Bilingual speakers live in two worlds. 

Māori language is full of terms that cannot be translated into English, and these words give hints of that other reality. Take the word mauri, for instance, which can refer to the life force of inanimate objects, something many non-Māori do not recognise. Mua means “ahead” and also refers to “the past” located in front of us rather than behind us where it is normally positioned in European thinking. 

What does all this have to do with my anxieties about Pākehā learning te reo Māori? In an ideal world, te reo Māori would be a normal and compulsory part of the school curriculum, just as English is. But that would require something momentous: that we accept the possibilities of two worlds, two different meaning systems that may not always overlap. 

Are we up for hopping on that waka? This is what I allude to when I worry about Pākehā grabbing the paddles. We are very skilled at assimilation. If we consume te reo as an alternative language without it being another way of seeing, we run the risk that we will domesticate it, weakening its power to bring into being a different, more Māori, world. 

That is, although our “little learning” might champion te reo as an aspect of decolonisation, the language can be instrumental in further colonisation. Aaron Smale of Ngāti Porou has challenged us to “stop colonising the Māori language” by garnishing with Māori words institutions that mistreat Māori — words such as “Oranga Tamariki” (Ministry for Children) which refers to children’s wellbeing, or “Ara Poutama Aotearoa” (Department of Corrections) that uses “poutama”, the steps to superior spiritual and intellectual knowledge.

Aaron doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t use these Māori names, but rather that the names should lift the institutions to radically new Māori-knowledge-informed places, to give life to their given names. 

The opposite seems to be happening quickly. Today I received an ordinary institutional email signed, with good wishes, “Te Tari Rautaki Rangahua, Matatika”. I deduced from the sender that it was from “the Office of Research Strategy and Integrity”. There was no name of a human. 

Surely, integrating te reo into our institutions requires being more relational — showing human qualities such as manaakitanga, aroha, whanaungatanga — rather than less? It seems that we are encouraged to use the Māori language at the same time as we are encouraged to be “less Māori”.

Will the Māori language blossom if we all learn te reo? Or will we Pākehā simply find ways to use te reo to boost our own power, or to broaden our ideas, unaware that they are clothed in our own limited understandings? 

We must be grateful for Tīmoti Kāretu’s generosity, but the worry remains about how we Pākehā hop on the language waka. I look to the past to get a sense of the future. We’d be good at grabbing the paddles, heading off enthusiastically, swamping the hull. 

To properly respond to the invitation, we have to learn to be light, attentive, and open — and to take our lead from Māori paddlers. 


Alison Jones, a Pākehā born in Auckland, co-teaches with a Māori colleague introductory Māori language, history and culture courses for non-Māori at the University of Auckland. She is the author of This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir (BWB, 2020)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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