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Wake-Up Call: We Are Killing Maori Language

One of our foremost Maori language experts will warn this week that the language will die unless the nation makes a renewed commitment to save it.


Dr Timoti Karetu, who was the first Maori Language Commissioner from 1987-99, will speak out in an inaugural State of Te Reo Maori address on Thursday marking the 40th anniversary of the first Maori Language Week which coincided with Dame Whina Cooper’s historic Maori land march in 1975.

“There is an apathy and a torpor pervading the whole of the Maori world, and the language is its victim,” Dr Karetu told the Herald.

Dr Timoti Karetu: "There is an apathy and a torpor pervading the whole of the Maori world, and the language is its victim."

Dr Timoti Karetu: “There is an apathy and a torpor pervading the whole of the Maori world, and the language is its victim.”


“The Maori world has got to realise that if they want the language to survive, then it is the responsibility of every individual Maori person to do something about it. Don’t stand in the wings bleating away until the Maori world wakes up to the fact that unless it does something, the language is going to die.”

The proportion of Maori people who speak te reo has dropped in the last two censuses, from 25.2 per cent in 2001 to 21.3 per cent in 2013, resuming a long decline from British colonisation until a brief revival in the 1980s.

Partly this is because the last generation of native Maori speakers, who grew up in rural areas before most Maori migrated to the cities for work after World War II, has now largely passed away.

In the early 1980s, the native-speaking elders of that time created the kohanga reo movement, in which mostly untrained parents and grandparents volunteered to raise their children and grandchildren in Maori-speaking settings mostly on marae and in private homes. Ninety per cent were unpaid.

The movement grew “explosively” from the first kohanga in Wainuiomata in April 1982 to 512 kohanga with more than 8000 children by December 1987. By 1993, when the rolls peaked at 14,500, half of all Maori children in preschool education were in Maori-speaking kohanga.

But since then the rolls have fallen, dropping below 9000 last year for the first time since 1989. Only 18.5 per cent of Maori children in preschool education nationally, and just 11.3 per cent in Auckland, are now in kohanga.

With fewer children coming out of kohanga able to understand Maori, there has been a flow-on decline in school “immersion” classes, defined as teaching any subject in te reo for at least three hours a week. Immersion students peaked at 18.6 per cent of Maori schoolchildren in 1999 and fell slowly to 14.3 per cent last year.

Whina Cooper and her granddaughter Irenee Cooper set off on a dusty Far North road for Parliament.

Whina Cooper and her granddaughter Irenee Cooper set off on a dusty Far North road for Parliament.

In a 2012 report, the Waitangi Tribunal blamed early childhood education policies which have tightened up both on building standards, forcing many kohanga out of marae, and on staffing, paying more to centres with paid and trained teachers.

More recently, ministers have lost confidence in Te Kohanga Reo National Trust because of alleged misuse of credit cards, although an Internal Affairs Department inquiry found no wrongdoing. This year the trust was criticised again for a $110,000 koha to its patron, the Maori king.

Education Minister Hekia Parata, who sent her own children to kohanga, refuses to give the trust more until it creates a “democratic” governance structure.

“It is not acceptable to have self-appointing, life-long representatives of an organisation that receives $90 million of taxpayer funding,” she said.

The trust board, which Dr Karetu co-chairs, has recently changed its rules to appoint trustees for five-year terms. Dr Karetu said the trustees had promised to appoint “a completely new board” within three years, but first the movement wanted current trustees to agree with the Government on new policies that would encourage Maori parents to send their children to kohanga again.

How to learn the language


Te Wananga o Aotearoa


Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi


Te Wananga o Raukawa


Te Wananga Takiura


Te Ataarangi





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On TV today

Maori TV

7am-8am and 4pm-5pm: Children’s shows such as Dora the Explorer and Penguins of Madagascar dubbed into te reo.

8pm: Waka Warriors. Three young Maori disconnect from technology to reconnect with their culture as they learn to sail using traditional Pacific voyaging methods on the Haunui Waka.

Te Reo Channel

7pm: Pukuhohe. Five-part half-hour game show made for Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori that puts two teams of three against each other in a war of wits and cunning.

Number of Maori who can converse in te reo

• 1996 – 24%

• 2001 – 25.2%

• 2006 – 23.7%

• 2013 – 21.3%

Source: Census.

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Article taken from the following publication:
The New Zealand Herald
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