Siena Yates, wrapping up a year of confronting but rewarding full-immersion reo Māori learning. (Photo: Charlotte Marama)

Siena Yates has spent this year learning te reo at the full-time, full-immersion Te Tohu Paetahi programme run by Waikato University. Now, at the end of her course, she reflects on what she learned and how the course has changed her.


Ka mate te kāinga tahi, ka ora te kāinga rua — when one door closes another one opens.

The door is closing on my reo journey this year, as our final reo Māori paper draws to a close.

As such, this seems like the best time to try summarising my experiences this year, especially as I know that, around the country, people are now considering their options to study the reo next year — me and many of my classmates included.

I’ve been documenting certain aspects of the journey almost every month since we started TTP (Te Tohu Paetahi) in March, and it’s been oddly cathartic to share these experiences along the way.

Especially as, every time I do, I hear from classmates, friends and complete strangers about how relatable those experiences are — and how we all get to feel a little less alone.

So, with that in mind, I’ve had a wānanga with some of my fellow students about things we’ve learned (or things we wish someone had told us before we started our journey this year). And here are a few observations or lessons from our experience.

At the start, it’s gonna suck and you’re gonna want to cry — and probably want to quit as well. But it does slow down, and you’ll catch up. Nō reira, no matter how hard it is, just keep turning up and don’t be too hard on yourself.

One of my columns this year was titled, “If you’re listening, you’re learning”, and that has been true throughout the course.

You’ll see the progress, and probably sooner than you realise. It’s not only visible but also obvious. And it’s as rewarding as you’ve been dreaming it would be.

That said, you should set your own goals. Grades and test scores are all good and well, but they’re not the only marker of progress. My biggest achievement by far this year was doing a karanga, and that wasn’t even part of the course, let alone something that was graded. Only you know where you want to be at the end of a journey like this, and what it’s going to take to get there.

It’s okay to not know stuff. Otherwise, what’s the point of taking the class? If you don’t know or you’re not understanding something, just ask the kaiako. You’re wasting your own time (and money) if you don’t. Besides, chances are someone else also wants to know.

There are a lot of holidays, but, for once, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Yep, rest is good, but if you don’t keep using your reo, you’ll find it’s easy to lose.

You’re never too old or too young. We had school leavers and retirees in our class, and everyone had their own reasons for being there, and their own strengths and  weaknesses. And everyone had something to offer others in the class.

Make time for study. You’ll need it. Maybe you can coast along, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. If you do, you’re cheating yourself. As another old saying goes, you only get out what you put in.

It’s okay to cry. In fact, it’s often encouraged. This is te ao Māori. My thinking is that, if you feel like crying, it shows how much you care — and that isn’t a bad thing. It’s also cathartic. Sometimes you just need a good cry to be able to pick yourself back up and carry on. Trust me. I’ve practised.

On your reo journey, you’ll hear one whakataukī more than any other: Tuwhitia te hopo, mairangitia te angitu. The gist is: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Of course, it’s a whole lot easier said than done. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need to take the advice.

The reo journey is hard and confronting, and a lot of the time you just have to push through. There’s no skirting around it, especially if you’re Māori and carrying the language trauma that many of us do.

There’s no other option but to embrace the whakamā and embrace the mamae. You have to learn to let it sit next to you instead of focusing on trying to get rid of it. You have to acknowledge it because, otherwise, like a clingy two-year-old, it’ll climb all over you trying to get your attention. And it’ll hurt.

I heard once that anxiety is just your mind trying to protect you. That’s all whakamā is. It’s your mind trying to protect you from whatever judgment or embarrassment you’ve been exposed to before, by avoiding whatever led to that the last time.

But the thing about a reo class, especially one like TTP where it’s a full-time, full-year affair, is that it truly is a safe space. And you can rest assured that everyone in that space is just as terrified as you are, even if they seem confident and damn near fluent. Everyone is there for a reason, and you just have to focus on your reason.

As I said at the start of this column: Ka mate te kāinga tahi, ka ora te kāinga rua. It’s supposed to be a comforting notion, but it isn’t always.

Te Tohu Paetahi finished at the beginning of November but for the small handful of us who carried on to the optional summer paper, we’re just finishing up our studies for the year now.

The door is closing, and it’s become obvious that another one isn’t going to magically appear and swing open. We have to find one and kick it down.

That means starting a new journey and meeting a new kind of whakamā for another year. That won’t necessarily get any less scary, but it does get a bit easier. That’s the point of “tūwhitia te hopo, mairangitia te angitū”.

Not every door will open easily. Some doors need specific keys. Others need brute force and sheer force of will. But the good news, if you’re thinking of studying te reo Māori next year (and you absolutely should), is that some doors open while you’re not even looking.

This year has changed me a lot, and it has changed the world I’ve built around me. I’m more confident in my identity than I ever dreamed of being. I’m happier. I’m less anxious. My priorities have changed. My relationships have changed.

My worldview has changed completely as my mind and ways of thinking have begun decolonising more and more.

Most surprisingly, I have a sense of purpose that I’ve never had before in my life, and that is to whakakaha i te reo Māori, and share it with whoever will let me.

And that, for me, is the other door opening.

Koirā tōku painga, koirā tōku hōnore hoki. That is my privilege and my honour.


Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) has worked for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty. She has just completed Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme, a full-time, full-immersion reo Māori course, in Tauranga.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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