Siena Yates. (Photo supplied)

Back in March, Siena Yates embarked on the full-time immersion reo course at Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme in Tauranga. Here she is, reporting on her progress so far.


The funny thing about learning te reo Māori is the weird new ways you start to track progress. 

Forget assignments and grades. My biggest achievement so far has been when I was home alone with my dog, Doza.

I was having a cup of tea and a biscuit and, all of a sudden, I said to him: “He pihikete māu?” (Would you like a biscuit?)

After I was done laughing at myself, I realised that, actually, that was really bloody cool. 

The whole point of learning the reo this year was to get comfortable speaking it in everyday life. And there I was, not only speaking it casually — even though no one else was around to hear it — but doing so without even thinking about it. 

I don’t know about my classmates, but that’s exactly what I’m seeking from this course. I want Māori to become my automatic, default language, rather than the reo I agonise and stumble over. 

That’s why, when the reo comes out without any effort, it’s one of the most exciting things ever. 

Like when a few of us went to lunch in a Korean restaurant and kept having to stop ourselves from speaking to the server in te reo Māori. Or when I introduced my mum to a classmate in the mall in te reo Māori without having to think about it first.

Sometimes it’s the growing habit of using small words like “āe”, “kāo”, “tika”, “pai” and “rawe”, and forgetting that the person you’re talking to doesn’t quite know what’s going on. For example, the other day I had to go back and forth with a very confused friend because I kept saying “kāo” without realising I wasn’t actually saying “no”. 

There was even one incident recently when I was talking to my mum and had to throw in a kupu Māori because I genuinely couldn’t think of the Pākehā word I wanted. Later, I realised that the Pākehā equivalent wouldn’t have sufficed anyway. 

The kupu was “whakamana”. But Te Aka translations (“to give authority to, give prestige to, legitimise, empower, validate”) only explain what I was trying to say — they don’t capture the essence of the sentiment.

There was another incident, too, when, in the middle of an interview for a story, the only way I could think of to articulate what I wanted to say was through this whakataukī: “Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe, me he maunga teitei.” (Seek the treasure that you value most dearly. If you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.) 

These two moments were particularly special because they showed me that not only is the reo sitting more comfortably on my tongue, it’s also settling into my heart. 

People talk a lot about “he ngākau Māori”, a Māori heart. It’s thinking and acting in a Māori way, by Māori principles, tikanga, and values.

A friend of mine who went through a Takiura course last year said something once about how she could feel she was developing a ngākau Māori, and I wondered how that was possible just through the reo. But now I think I get it. 

We’re learning a new way of thinking and new ways of voicing those thoughts that go beyond how we structure a sentence. 

Even on social media recently, I wanted to say how proud I was of someone but the word “proud” just didn’t seem to capture the depth of that pride. I went with “poho kererū” instead because the imagery of the puffed-up chest of the kererū matched so well with the feeling of pride swelling in my own chest.

There’s nothing quite so cool as finally being able to start embracing the poetic nature of our reo. 

I used to get annoyed that one word could mean a thousand things depending on context and intonation. But now I see the beauty in being able to encapsulate all your big feelings and whakaaro in just one or two kupu that are vast enough to convey it all at once.

As I write this, we’re in the middle of a three-week break after finishing our two introductory papers. We’re now on the verge of starting our intermediate papers and working our way into full immersion. (Up till now, we’ve stayed bilingual.) 

We’ve spent the break making voice notes, video-chatting, and meeting up to kōrero and waiata Māori. But this time, it feels different. In the last break, I practised mostly so I could avoid regressing and feeling like I was falling behind when we returned. 

This time, it’s because the thought of losing the language now is actually scary. I don’t want to go back to how I was just a few months ago. 

I really like who I am and what my life has become when I’m operating within te ao Māori. 

I don’t know enough yet — and having any level of conversation is still very difficult and slow-going. But those moments when the reo slips from my tongue with ease and familiarity are the coolest metrics of progress I’ve ever experienced. 

Besides, I feel like once you’ve started to kōrero Māori with your kurī, there’s no going back.


Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Ngāti Kuri) 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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