Te Reo a taonga for us all

It was 1975 when the first Maori Language Week was celebrated in New Zealand.

Robert Muldoon was elected prime minister the same year, Bryan Williams was an established All Black and TVNZ launched its second channel, TVNZ 2.

Culturally, a lot has changed in New Zealand over the ensuing 43 years, including increasing efforts to strengthen te reo Maori.

Te reo was the predominant language spoken by Maori a century ago. That began to change as calls were made, from both Maori and Pakeha, for English to be the sole language spoken in schools.

The great Maori urban migration began in the 1940s and the language declined further. By the 1970s there were fears it was dying quickly.

Maori Language Week was, and continues to be, a response to that fear.

For some, the state-funded support of te reo has become a polarising issue. And some believe learning te reo should be compulsory for all New Zealanders. Others believe te reo has little relevance in 2018 and should be not be pushed.

Most New Zealanders probably fall somewhere in the middle. For them, te reo is likely respected and feared at the same time - respected because it is the language of our tangata whenua and feared for the anxiety of not knowing correct pronunciations and translations.

But beyond that anxiety, beyond the politics and opinions, lies a grand story. A story of a language leaving Southeast Asia thousands of years ago and travelling ever-eastward on the tongues of the world's greatest maritime explorers.

A language staying put on one island before the more restless again ventured eastward, to the next island, the next archipelago, the language evolving as it went.

Then the people carrying that language struck south, reaching New Zealand. All the while the language, moulded and adapted as time and experience demanded, stayed on their tongues. It was on their tongues as they saw the long white clouds of Aotearoa for the first time, the vast islands of enormous eagles, giant moa, cold winters and emerald pounamu.

If for no other reason than historical preservation, investing in the retention of te reo as a living treasure, a taonga of that remarkable journey, should seem reasonable to New Zealanders.

But te reo is far more than its history. It is also a totem of the present, proof that somehow this country has managed to preserve Maori culture into our everyday lives rather than lose it or leave it as nothing but ceremonial tokenism.

There is no dispute the history of European settlement in New Zealand includes gross injustices inflicted on Maori - something true of all cultures which met the invading wave of European expansion during the last millennium. Yet as a nation there have been regular attempts to improve our bicultural affairs. While that is not cause for satisfaction, it is reasonable to suggest that, where New Zealand's relationship with its indigenous people has been positive, it has been of benefit to this country.

Whether te reo should be a compulsory subject in our schools is an issue for another day. Whether te reo is truly a living taonga - an essential part of our nation's DNA and something to be invested in, treasured, respected and spoken - is an issue for right now.

Some argue te reo is irrelevant in an age where our export markets speak Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese or French.

But te reo doesn't need to be of benefit to our pockets to be important. It is important because we are important. We are New Zealanders and te reo is a part of who we are.

It is the language that has reverberated across this land for at least 700 years. Long may that continue.


te reo is not part of who most people are. It is a part of the small percentage of people who are Maori or of Maori descent. It is fine if people want to dilute their education learning a language which will be of no tangible benefit. But don't expect the majority of New Zealanders to runs panting with joy because learning Maori is a trendy fad this year - or this decade.

when was decolonisation ever a trendy fad? please explain...