Siena Yates is spending this year learning te reo Māori at the full-time immersion reo course at Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme in Tauranga. Here’s her latest progress report.


What no one tells you about learning te reo Māori is just how much un-learning it takes — and just how bloody hard that is.

At Te Tohu Paetahi, we recently had a guest speaker who told us about a language revitalisation strategy that comes in three steps: identification, acquisition, and repetition.

I don’t know if it was on purpose, but that seems to be how our course is set out. It’s split into three levels over the year.

In the first two papers, we learned uncountable kupu hou, new sentence structures and grammar rules at an almost blinding speed.

Back then, we didn’t just learn something new every day — at times, we’d learn five new lessons in one hour. That was our identification phase. It was learning what we’d need as a foundation for our reo.

As I write this, we’ve finished our two intermediate papers and started our first advanced paper, all of which have been in full immersion, as opposed to the introductory papers which were bilingual.

Let me tell you, it’s been an adjustment. Not only did we switch to full immersion, but we also had a change of kaiako, which meant a massive change in our teaching and learning styles.

There’s been another change too. While the first two papers presented a major revelation every other day, these days, the big “a-ha” moments come a lot less often.

To be honest, because of that, I felt like my learning was stagnating. Sometimes it felt like we were spending hours just chatting, playing games and making up stories. And the part of me that’s used to Pākehā styles of learning thought: “Why are we wasting all this time? We should be learning!”

But we were. It just took me a few weeks to realise that. Even then, I didn’t appreciate just how much I’d been learning until I sat down to write this column and thought about how far I and the whole class have come.

During one assessment, I noticed how much every one of us has improved. It was the first time that most of us spoke without notes or cue cards — and it was the first time I followed all the kōrero.

I spoke with one classmate about how it also wasn’t as nerve-wracking as usual, because now we’re at a stage where, if we forget or mess up something, we can speak off-the-cuff and save ourselves.

We’ve been speaking Māori more and more as well — and with far more ease — outside the classroom. Not only are we having more of those moments where the reo just slips out automatically, we’re also having full conversations among ourselves in te reo Māori during lunch breaks and weekends. Even over a few drinks, and in online messages.

Of course, I’m still lacking. Every day I still get flustered and lost and switch back to reo Pākehā for a bit. But, even in those moments, I try to say what I can in Māori and insert what I need to in Pākehā, even if it sounds dumb. Which it often does.

All of this has come purely from being in a full immersion environment and learning in the acquisition phase.

I was blind to it before, but now I know that every time we read out loud, we practise our pronunciation. Every time we make up stories, we learn new words and new ways to phrase our ideas. Every time we listen to someone speak, we learn new kupu, new structures and even dialectical differences.

The best lessons I’ve learned are the informal aspects of the language which help the flow of the reo, so the sentences aren’t so long and clunky. Words like “koinei”, “taua” and “ki reira” (“this is”, “that” and “there”, referring to something previously mentioned). Or “hei” and “kia” (“for, in order to” and “so that . . .”).

It’s not like they sat us down and made these points one by one, as they did in the first two papers. Instead, we picked them up by listening. We heard them in daily conversation in different contexts and we worked out how to use them among ourselves — and that was it.

So, while I was sitting around with one foot still in te ao Pākehā, worrying about the lack of bookwork or that I’d barely made any notes in the last month or two, I was learning a lot more than I realised, just by being there.

I have a goal in my reo journey of being able to visit friends whose whole whānau can kōrero Māori, and be able to spend time with them all, without them having to kōrero Pākehā. Now, for the first time, I’m starting to feel like that’s within my reach.

I had to unlearn Pākehā ways of learning before I could appreciate this next level of te reo Māori, and no doubt I’ll have to do it again now that we’re into our level three papers.

But there’s something important that I’ve heard countless times in my reo journey, and I’ll remind everyone of it now, including me. And it’s this: “Trust the process.”

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes, it’s unbearably hard and you want to quit.

But, if I’ve learned anything in these past two papers, it’s that as long as you’re listening, you’re learning.

*This week, for Māori Language Week, Siena has tried to speak only te reo Māori for the entire week. She’ll write about her experience here, in her next column.


Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) is a journalist who 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, where she’s now studying te reo through Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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