Siena Yates: “I’ve come to accept that the most important part of the journey is figuring out how to make the reo a part of your life without the regular classes and wānanga.”

As wānanga and universities get set to swing into the first semester of 2024, Siena Yates reflects on life after full-time immersion reo-learning, and what happens when you’ve chucked the rule book out the window and can’t find it again.


This time last year, I was full of hope for my reo.

I had completed Te Tohu Paetahi, a year-long, full-immersion te reo Māori course. I was enrolled in not one but two different night classes, as well as an online rōpu that also had occasional weekend wānanga. I’d just been to a kura reo and had another couple lined up for later in the year. And I’d made pledges with my TTP classmates to have reo Māori coffee dates and to hold each other accountable.

And then life happened.

I started work again, and soon after, I began Te Aupikitanga (level 6) at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. But I quickly realised that I was going to struggle to keep up with one class, let alone two, so I dropped out of my second night class before it even started.

Learning te reo in a full-time course when that’s all you’re doing for six hours of the day is very different from learning it in a night class. You’re trying to keep your brain firing till 9pm after a full day’s work, with the next day’s to-do list on your mind and your stomach loudly asking the whole room when dinner is. Not to mention that most of my classmates also had the added pressures of families, second jobs, and the various hats they wear in their communities.

What really sealed the deal for me were the assignments, roughly one a month, which meant that I was adding more deadlines to a life already full of them. Then there were the (almost monthly) weekend wānanga. I don’t sleep during wānanga because I don’t sleep well anywhere other than my own bed, and I’m an anxious introvert who’s exhausted by socialising. So, while the wānanga were fuel for the soul and I loved them, they were also utterly depleting.

All this is to explain why, in the end, I dropped out of that class too. It was bloody hard to do, but for my mental health, job performance and general wellbeing, I didn’t see another choice. I agonised over it for weeks, if not months, and when I eventually plucked up the courage to talk to my kaiako about it, his encouragement to push through and carry on made me feel even worse.

I felt like I wasn’t just quitting a class but giving up on the reo. Like, I’d worked so hard towards this thing that meant so much to me and had completely changed every aspect of my life and my whole worldview — and then I was giving up all of it.

I asked another kaiako last year if I could still go to Pīnakitanga (level 7), even though I didn’t finish Aupikitanga (level 6). He asked me why I didn’t finish and, after I explained, he looked me dead in the eye and said: “What’s going to be different next year?”

He was right. As life got harder and more things started cropping up, it was the reo that kept being put on the back burner — something I swore I wouldn’t do. And yet now, more than a year after finishing TTP, I’m staring down another year and this time, I have no plans. And it terrifies me.

A group of us tried to start a reo book club where we would gather up and review a chapter of Hare Pōta(Harry Potter) in te reo Māori. We never even made it to the first hui. Why? Because life did what it does. There are partners and kids and jobs and trips. No one had time to read, let alone gather around to chat about said reading.

When we do catch up, we make an effort to kōrero Māori. On a good day, it comes out without effort, but too often, we get hōhā to say what we need to say and switch to te reo Pākehā because it’s faster. Easier. At least for me, it means I don’t have to think about how much my reo has slipped. How many rules and structures I’ve forgotten.

Many of my classmates kept on the kaupapa with admirable kaha. Some went on to do another year of full immersion, some managed to keep up multiple night classes like I’d planned to. Some started kura reo and kaupapa-hopping with the best of them.

But many others are in the same position as I am. Many of us are feeling the guilt, and worse, the fear that this might all have been for nothing.

Here’s the thing, though. There are no magic bullets on this haerenga. Just as a year of full immersion isn’t going to magically turn you into Tā Timoti, quitting a class won’t suddenly revert you back to being too scared to say “kia ora” either. Not if you don’t let it.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll keep saying it. Learning te reo Māori — especially if you’re privileged enough to learn it in a full-immersion environment and live in it all day, every day — isn’t just about acquiring a language. It becomes part of who you are.

The only way I could truly give up on it now is if I were to completely deny a part of my identity. It’s as much a part of me as my wāhinetanga, takatāpuitanga, and all the pieces of my whānau and tūpuna that stitch together to make me, me. I can cover it up or push it into a closet, but it will always be there. Knowing that, I can face the future with a little less fear, but not complacency.

Last year, I went to a couple of kura reo and took time off work to fully engage. That was magical because, when I got there, the reo came back to me even though I had neglected it, and even when I thought it might’ve abandoned me altogether.

Even now, the reo still comes back when I reach for it. But I can’t help worrying. How long will that last before it starts coming back in pieces and shadows?

For now, all I can do is reach for it more often to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I can’t commit to regular classes, wānanga and assignments, but I can commit to reading a couple of pages of Hare Pōta each week. I can accept that my friends and I probably aren’t going to only speak in te reo Māori all the time, but I can still make an effort not to switch back to English quite as quickly. I’m also fortunate that in this mahi, I’m often able to kōrero and exchange emails in te reo Māori, which I can aim to do more of, too.

Last year, I made the mistake of believing that the right way to carry on my reo journey was through those wānanga classes. I thought I had to succeed academically and move up through the levels — as if this journey was a video game. I’d talked myself into believing that not doing so meant completely failing at te reo.

I’d set myself up for failure.

Since then, I’ve come to accept that the most important part of the journey is figuring out how to make the reo a part of your life without the regular classes and wānanga.

I think the right way is any way at all, as long as there’s some degree of consistency. You don’t have to keep levelling up. You just have to keep on playing.

Siena Yates is an E-Tangata writer. This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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