Scotty and Stacey Morrison have spent 10 years bringing up their bilingual kids, and speaking only Māori to them. It hasn’t been easy. Now they’re ready to pass on what they’ve learned in their new book Māori at Home —to help other whānau use te reo Māori, not in some distant fluent future, but right now. Here’s an extract from Māori at Home, which is being launched next week.
We grew up knowing virtually nothing of Māori language apart from basic words most New Zealanders know: whānau, aroha, marae, Māori, kia ora.
As adults, we learned in different ways, for different reasons.
Scotty chose Māori as a schedule-filler at university then fell in love with it, and in learning Māori, found a sense of purpose (a polite way of saying he was going to varsity for mostly social reasons until then!).
Stacey learned Japanese first as an exchange student and then realised she yearned to learn her own language, too. A sensitive soul, Stacey had often felt awkward and left out in Māori settings, and even after starting her learning, she went through years of fumbling through Māori scripts on television, and trying to laugh at the right times when she couldn’t quite understand entertaining Māori speakers.
Both of us knew we wanted our children to have a different experience from our own, to be brought up with te reo Māori as their mother tongue, and to experience all of the benefits that would bring.
We started researching bilingualism when our mātāmua (eldest child) Hawaiki was still in the womb, learning that bilingual experiences can activate language-learning pathways in babies’ brains.
We liken it to a pathway forged through virgin snow — cutting the path is always the hardest, but once it is created, in this case, the “language pathway”, our brains know the way and can get to where they need to more easily.
It’s definitely harder to learn a second language as an adult, so don’t ever beat yourself up about it — we’ll remind you of that a lot!
While we’re talking about your self-esteem, let’s talk about how your kids are feeling about themselves, too. Another fascinating raft of research shows children gain increased self-esteem from learning their heritage language.
The challenges of bringing up kids with te reo Māori
English does a great job of being a dominant language — it really is everywhere: in public, on TV, online, at the shops, at the playground, in our wider families. Our kids hear English most places they go in New Zealand.
So, creating Māori-language environments without quickly giving in to the natural default language of English can be hard.
There are also schooling challenges. When you want Māori language to be part of your children’s schooling, it’s not as simple as going to the school around the corner from you, because they may not offer what you’re after.
Even in Māori-language schooling, there are decisions to make around proximity to the school, the amount of reo, the kaupapa (philosophy) of the school, your capacity to support your children in homework, your hopes for their English literacy, and so on.
Expectations of parents with kids in Māori-language schooling are high. There are whānau hui to attend, kapa haka, marae noho (overnight stays on marae) and fundraisers, and sometimes expectations around the amount of Māori you speak at home.
This is a challenge for many of us because, as second-language learners, many of us have sent our kids to kura hoping that they will “get the reo” in a way we didn’t (and still haven’t quite mastered).
Many kōhanga and kura see the benefit of having Māori language at home to support the child’s learning, and some ask the whole whānau to be engaged in reo learning or speaking.
When we were considering which school to choose for our son, we asked one of our mentors Sir Tīmoti Kāretu for advice. He said, in his inimitable way: Ko te kāinga te mauri o te reo (The home offers the vital essence of language).
He hit a home run with that one, and we’ve referred to this statement ever since. When you accept this concept, though — that language vitality emerges from your own home — it means you’re picking up the challenge of the opportunity to ensure at least some of that vitality comes in the form of Māori.
Māori-language resources for children are so much more accessible and numerous than they used to be, but they’re still not as readily available as English books, games, TV shows, and digital apps.
Kids are very perceptive and pick up on how much a language is valued. Having ways of expressing themselves in Māori that are relevant, fun and cool for them builds the value they place on being a Māori speaker.
So, you know, speaking Māori with your kids in your community can start conversations you may not expect.
A wise woman said to us when Stacey was carrying our third child: “It’s chaos. Just embrace the chaos and you’ll be fine.”
Although this was a mildly terrifying concept at the time, she was right. The same can be said of language learning as an adult: it’s chaos, just embrace it and you’ll be fine.
This is especially true when you’re part of a busy family aiming to raise your tamariki with Māori as a vibrant language of your home.
Every single day is a learning opportunity for kids; we can’t waste one of those days that could be a chance for them to hear, use, learn and speak Māori. Today is the day to go for it!
Drop the excuses and simply enjoy speaking Māori in your home. Not “when I’m fluent”, not “one day”, not “when I’m not so busy” — today.
If you use a couple of sentences here and there — great. If you decide to make breakfast time your Māori-speaking time — wonderful. If you’re aiming for full immersion — go for gold. The most important thing is to make a plan that works for you and your whānau, your stage of learning, and your abilities. Then as you all grow, your plan will adjust with time.
Having a whānau plan
Here’s a hack we’ve learned the hard way: goals and a plan to achieve those goals are two ways to fast-track your learning as a whānau.
As newlyweds and newly hapū (pregnant), we proclaimed we would only speak Māori to our tamariki. That was the full extent of our “plan”. We hadn’t really assessed our situation or formally put plans in place. So as needs arose we had to adjust quickly and create solutions for our challenges as we went.
Since then, and through working with whānau to develop their language strategies at Kura Whakarauora (language revitalisation workshops), we have seen the benefits of having a plan.
The key is, it needs to be tailor-made and designed for your whānau, stages of learning and learning styles, personalities, challenges, desires and talents. If we gave you a standard plan, it wouldn’t necessarily work for you because a reo plan is not a formulaic journey, there’s no “one rule” that will work for all.
We always say that learning te reo Māori is not just an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one too. Your plan can take different forms, but there are some touchstone points you could consider.
Vision: What’s your long-term vision for the reo in your whānau? This could be very long-term or medium-term.
Short-term goals: What are the short-term goals you want to achieve? Perhaps using Māori during trips to the playground, or making your car a Māori-only waka!
Stocktake: What are the reo abilities in your whānau, both immediate and wider?
Investment: What investments can you make, in terms of investing time, investing study efforts, investing in schooling options, and so on? It’s important to be realistic about this.
Challenges: What are the challenges you face, and may have to overcome, to reach your goals and vision?
Support: Who will be on your team? Teachers, kaumātua, perhaps a pou reo, or mentor for your whānau? This is where Māori-language-speaking communities, online groups, and whānau from your children’s school can help you sustain your efforts, and actually enjoy the experience!
Methods and approach: What are the tactics and approaches you will take? Perhaps the parents take turns doing night classes or whānau-learning programmes, or you decide to use this book to help you create immersion environments for certain times of the day, or at certain places or events.
Wins and rewards: How will you celebrate the wins as you achieve them? A sense of achievement helps everyone build good feelings towards the reo. It could be a whānau outing, or quick rewards like time on the computer, or getting to choose what’s for dinner. It could be a big road-trip to your marae.
Perhaps you name the plan and what it means for your whānau with a vision of four years of strategies to ensure the family has become fluent within that time, for example, Te Whānau Morihana — Whā Tau for a Fluent Whānau (The Morrisons — Four Years for a Fluent Family).
We’ve seen many forms of whānau language plans. Some are PowerPoint presentations, some are posters or a treaty of agreement, or even a tree that signifies the growth of the reo in the whānau. We can say for sure that spending some time considering these sorts of questions can help whānau achieve the Māori language goals they are aiming for.
Whether you make a plan or not, as you use this book, please do celebrate whatever Māori language successes your whānau has, no matter how small.
Our kids’ first words being in Māori was one of the biggest highs in our parenting lives! Using Māori at home is a big gig; cut yourself some slack when it’s tough.
Scotty Morrison (Ngāti Whakaue) is the presenter of current affairs programmes Te Karere and Marae. He holds a Master’s degree (Education), is working towards his PhD, and has been an Adjunct Professor and the Director of Māori Student and Community Engagement at Auckland’s Unitec Institute of Technology. He is the author of the bestselling The Raupō Phrasebook of Modern Māori and Māori Made Easy.
Stacey Morrison (Ngāi Tahu, Te Arawa) is a radio and TV broadcaster whose projects have spanned 25 years. She is the co-host of the Drive show on The Hits, having previously worked on Mai FM and Flava, and her most recent TV credit is Whānau Living, which includes the whole Morrison family on screen, offering lifestyle ideas and projects, all while speaking te reo Māori. In 2016, she won Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori’s champion award for te reo Māori.
Stacey and Scotty have been foundation members of the community group Māori 4 Grown Ups and are both graduates of Te Panekiretanga o te Reo Māori Centre for Māori Language Excellence. They live in Auckland with their children Hawaiki, Kurawaka and Maiana.
A few handy parenting phrases: