Last year, after Shelley Burne-Field wrote about her struggle to learn te reo, an anonymous donor offered to pay for her to take an eight-week online course. Here’s how it went.
Tēnā koutou katoa. Kei te pēhea koutou?
I used to be so whakamā about not knowing how to speak te reo Māori. Just embarrassed, you know? But guess what. I’ve been learning and listening and speaking te reo — and it feels wonderful.
When I wrote an article about never being taught te reo Māori, there were so many supportive messages and so much aroha from wāhine and tāne and everyone in between. You told me your own stories of never learning te reo Māori, of your shame and your grief. And you gave me the strength to do something about my own journey.
Kia ora e hoa mā, ngā mihi.
I was extremely blessed to have been gifted a place on an eight-week beginners’ course with the lovely Amelia Butler. I’ll forever be grateful to her and to the person who literally paid for it. It was life-changing to have a generous and anonymous financial donor help me out. There is aroha in this world.
Starting at level zero, I gave myself as much time as I could in the evening to learn. There were a group of about 16 of us online. People from Aotearoa, Germany, Australia, USA, and England. Different ethnicities too: Māori, Pākehā, South African, US First Nation, African American, Australian.
We started at level zero, right from the beginning.
I’m 50 years old, and I’ve been through primary, secondary, and tertiary school systems in Aotearoa — and yet I didn’t know that Te Pū Taka Māori (the Māori alphabet) has 15 letters. Five vowels and 10 consonants. With two digraphs: wh and ng.
To start with, our pronunciation was shocking. “Far-now” instead of whānau. “Ray-oh” instead of reo. “Tay” instead of te. Me included. We were nervous and sweating about saying karakia, yet we tried. Aroha mai to Tīmoti Kāretu’s ears, but it was bad.
I learned that there are tense markers in te reo Māori. Words to denote present, past, and future. To some people, this is so obvious and easy, but I’ve never known it. Never thought about it. Never been taught it. Never explored it. Until now.
Learning these tiny bits of information took te reo out of the realms of the mysterious and eye-wateringly scary, and into the tantalising tingles of being understandable and learnable.
After just those eight weeks, my perception of te reo Māori changed. In the recent past, it had become terrifying, something by which I judged my lack of Māoriness. Something I viewed through a white, western lens.
Yet, with the help of caring people, through a lens now tinted with aroha, I could embrace the experience of speaking re reo Māori and let it melt my heart.
It’s like watching a wondrous putiputi blooming right in front of my eyes. Like listening to the most beautiful sounds in the universe or tasting twinkling stardust on my tongue. Ka rawe!
I’ll try to explain something else that happened. My tongue seems to have freed up. The sound flows more. The inside of my cheeks seems to cushion my pronunciation. Listening to a friend doggedly try, try, and try again left me humbled and inspired.
Watching another student’s mouth try to form the vowel sounds has imprinted the action into the shape of my mouth, too. I felt like a pēpi watching their māmā teaching them to chew slower and savour the flavour.
And my eardrums have opened. I’m listening more. Waiata which I learned by rote as a tamariki now make sense. For instance, “Tūtira mai ngā iwi” and “Me he manu rere”. They aren’t just beautiful and familiar ditties. They’re a rallying cry and a love song. I never knew.
The same goes for karakia. Once, prayer was to be feared, an embarrassing challenge where I’d shrink down to become unnoticed whenever I was asked to read a karakia — or worse, to recite one from memory.
Now, the melody and meaning of karakia ātaahua has lifted my wairua and allowed the back of my neck and throat to relax. My spine is more flexible, my knees steady. I welcome another’s breath to mingle with mine.
My tīpuna surround me with the soft, silken, wings of whakapapa and I hear their encouragement in whispers. Ko te reo o ngā manu tērā. There is the voice of birds.
This beginner’s journey has never been just about the kupu, the words. It has been about so much more. Learning the tiniest bit about te ao Māori has brought new meaning to my daily life. It has taught me that I am already practising values such as manaakitanga. That I am already being pono and authentic.
That knowledge comes as a wave of warmth across my chest — a welcome sweep of aroha — and helps me believe that I may just possess a speck of te reo potential.
With your help, your truth, I’ve begun to throw off the shame that was never mine to begin with. I’ve begun to process the grief that stole my vocal chords for a few decades.
Learning tikanga and reading pūrākau (legends and stories) seems to have made my skin and heart sponge-like, absorbing the mauri of our language and people.
And it’s healing me. It’s healing deep cracks in my wairua. It’s healing the hurt.
The shame is gone. I feel it oozing out. The freedom from shame’s numbing quality reframes te reo Māori as something positive and exciting and a true taonga. It helps me feel part of a bigger kaupapa. Part of a magical reimagining that crackles in the air and is on everyone’s lips. And I’m prouder than proud.
Kia ora tātou katoa.
Shelley Burne-Field is a writer who lives in Hawke’s Bay. She has always worked in “helping jobs” like social services, local government, prisons, healthcare, community and youth development. Her stories find a home at events like union rallies, addiction centres, schools — anywhere that hard but hopeful tales may touch someone’s life for good.
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