What Is It Like To Do A Year Of Full Immersion Te Reo?

For journalist Shilo Kino (Nga-Puhi, Nga-ti Maniapoto), learning te reo has been life-changing. She speaks to fellow students and teachers involved in this growing — and transformative — movement

Shilo Kino. Photo / Babiche Martens

A year ago I embarked on the biggest challenge of my life — a full immersion te reo Māori course at Te Wānanga Takiura. At 31 years old, I had tried everything to learn my reo.

The ongoing impact of colonisation means the majority of Māori grew up without their ancestral language — and have felt the ripple effect.

Language is connected to belonging and identity. We are not just wanting our reo but we crave connection to our whakapapa, to the whenua and to ourselves.

It is at Te Wānanga Takiura that I met Astley Nathan, a radio and TV host who has whakapapa back to Ngāpuhi and Tainui.

Astley grew up in te ao Pākehā — the world of Pākehā — and spent his career working in mainstream media.

When he began to use te reo words on radio a Māori actor stopped him on the street and told him his te reo pronunciation made him “sick”. While these kinds of criticisms often deter Māori from learning, it made Astley even more determined.

“What I don’t want is for our tamariki and mokopuna to grow up like me, disconnected from their culture and language,” Astley tells me.

“In the past I’ve gone to places and felt whakamā because I didn’t understand the tikanga. It’s hard feeling out of place in a place where you should be feeling most comfortable. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Astley Nathan. Photo / Babiche Martens

Astley and I started the podcast Back to Kura, which follows our journey of going back to school to learn our language and was a natural step as we connected on our similarities around language and careers. I also started my career in mainstream media and we discovered there were many Māori millennials like us who are on a reclaiming journey.

Astley’s decision to take a year off work and do full immersion wasn’t an easy one. Stepping away from full-time work is a big sacrifice and there are costs involved. The affordability and accessibility to a full immersion te reo Māori course can prevent many Māori from learning our reo.

Astley says: “My mum (fashion designer Kiri Nathan) enrolled in Takiura and that was important because I knew it would be the only chance to study with her and reclaim te reo Māori together within our family.

“At the time I was going through an identity crisis. Am I Māori enough? All the tohu (signs) told me it was the right path so I told my work, ‘I’ve got to go learn my language and reclaim my Māoritanga’.”

Ruby Higgins describes her life as walking between two different worlds. She began her modelling career at the age of 17 and worked in the music and event industry until eventually enrolling in Takiura in 2019. She is now in her third year of full immersion te reo Māori and will graduate at the end of the year with a Bachelor of Teaching Kura Kaupapa Māori Degree.

“I always knew I wanted to reclaim my language but it felt so intimidating,” she says. “It’s the same story I’ve heard from many Māori — you feel these inadequacies and whakamā, like it’s something you should already know. It was really inspiring to see a friend of mine go through his own reo reclamation journey and it motivated me to finally jump on that waka too.”

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She says full immersion te reo is a huge year of transformation but it can also be isolating and lonely.

“It was an extremely challenging year,” she says. “And while my friends and whānau were incredibly supportive and encouraging they couldn’t comprehend what I was going through. It was like I was in two worlds, te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā, and I’m constantly walking in both and not feeling settled in either.”

Ruby, who is from Waikato and grew up in Heretaunga, says although she grew up proud of who she was, she was always conscious of the way her whānau — and especially the way her mum — was treated.

“When we would shop together, often no one would help her,” she says. “They wouldn’t even acknowledge her. I saw this sort of racism my whole life.

“Through all of this, and even though I grew up in te ao Pākehā, my mum always taught me to be proud of who I am, proud to
be Māori.”

Te reo Māori is on the rise with full immersion and part-time reo classes filled to the brim plus waiting lists. At 33 years old,  is responsible for helping thousands of Māori reclaim language in an easy, accessible
way through social media and his books A Māori Word a Day and A Māori Phrase a Day.

Ruby Higgins. Photo / Babiche Martens

Of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Tahu-Ngāti Whaoa descent, Hemi learnt te reo Māori at high school. He became a lecturer at AUT at the age of 25 and is now an author, a translator, a language consultant and runs the third biggest Facebook page in Aotearoa, ‘Everyday Māori’, which boasts over 100k followers.

“There has been growing interest for some time now in te reo,” he says. “There is a huge change in the way we learn, the way we access knowledge with technology. We are really starting to see the flower start to open but the seed was planted a long time ago and now we’re starting to see it bloom.

“Ten years ago there was a complaint that there was too much te reo with just the use of kia ora on the news. But with our generation and the generation below us, it is a non-issue.”

He credits the reo advocates, the people who have continued to push the barriers, people on the ground, in the community and in the schools for where te reo Māori is at today.

“It’s not always the big players,” he says.

“It’s the whaea in the school who insisted we do karakia in the morning and sing the national anthem in te reo. Everyone has played a part in creating
this change.”

Hana Mereraiha is Hemi’s cousin and, at 33, is one of the country’s top translators. She has a master’s degree in education and was a teacher for seven years at a bilingual school in Christchurch. Her first translation project was working with rapper Melodownz for Waiata/Anthems in 2019.

The translation process is much more than just translating words, Hana says.

“With literal translation you lose the beauty of the reo. There’s a creative input that goes into it and in a way you are diving into the psychology of the person, you have to understand the world of the person who puts those words to the paper.”

Both Hana and Hemi worked with Lorde, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Dame Hinewehi Mohi in translating Lorde’s Solar Power album to a five-track EP in te reo Māori called Te Ao Mārama.

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“It was such an intimate process translating her thoughts,” says Hana.

“I tend to look at our own concepts and see how the lyrics can be encompassed into the Māori way of thinking.”

Hana’s first language was te reo Māori. From Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Hana is a baby of the Kohanga reo and Kaupapa Māori movement. Her parents are both second language learners — her mother starting her own kohanga reo in Frankton, Hamilton.

“I come from a long line of staunch reo advocates,” she says.

“My mum is a student of Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and I went along with Mum to classes that elevated your reo to the next level because we had access to the best reo teachers in the country. As a little girl I was learning how to do creative writing translation in te reo which set me up for the mahi I’m doing now.”

Hana says there was also a political element in what she was learning.

“I was going to the protests with Mum because it wasn’t just about the reo, it was about being aware of all the issues of language loss and the journey our reo has been on from loss to reclaiming and the continual fight.”

Hemi Kelly. Photo / Babiche Martens

As a second language learner, Hemi acknowledges the mamae (pain) some Māori had with the translation of Lorde’s Solar Power. Lorde is a Pākehā woman who gained access to te reo Māori when many Māori will never get the opportunity.

“I understand how it feels knowing there is something inherently that belongs to you but yet you don’t have it in your grasp and then seeing other people have access to it,” he says.

“Having been in that place, I use those emotions to drive my pursuit of te reo. For those who are keen and want to learn, I’m here to help you. I’m here creating resources and teaching so haere mai ki te ako, come and learn.”

“Our reo doesn’t discriminate,” Hana adds.

“In order for our reo to be a living, thriving language we have to have all people on board. I would be more pissed off if you lived out your whole career and didn’t pay tribute to the indigenous language.”

For myself, a year of full immersion in te reo Māori has been life-changing. There were many milestones including being able to stand up and speak te reo for a whole hour at the end of the year. For Astley, it was being able to go back to his marae and being able to stand up and mihi.

Principal Papa Tawhiri told us at the beginning of the year we were at kura to get a Māori heart. Everything in my life is changing because of te reo, how I think, how I feel, how I write and tell stories. For me it is the equivalent of once seeing the world in black and white and now I’m starting to see it in colour.

“It is pivotal, amazing and transformative for myself and for future generations,” Astley says.

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“Before, I was driven by personal ambition and personal goals and wanting to succeed but, from doing full immersion reo, I understand there’s more to life. It allowed me to think about what I can give back to my people as a collective. It has allowed me to become a lot more confident as a whole human being.”

“I’m learning who I truly am,” Ruby says.

“It takes a long time of unlearning what we have been conditioned to believe about ourselves. This is only the beginning, I know that I have so much more to learn. This journey is forever and it doesn’t stop when I graduate, I’ve got to keep going.

“I know I’m lucky to be able to learn my reo. People forget that it’s a privilege and that for some of our whanaunga they don’t and may not ever have the ability to take a year out to be immersed in te reo. In the past, I had put a lot of pressure on having te reo as defining me as Māori and what reclaiming my reo actually reinforced for me, is that being Māori is so multi-faceted, there isn’t and will never be just one way of being Māori.”

A common theme among te reo Māori speakers is wanting to give back. Astley recalls a pivotal time on his journey when he went back to his marae.

“I was sitting with my aunty at our marae and I said to her, ‘I want one of the rangatira to teach me all of the karakia. I want to learn as much as possible. I want to be the one who is standing up there and saying the karakia for our people’, and she said something I won’t ever forget. She said, ‘A lot of people want to learn and grasp the knowledge but what are you giving back?’ It put me in my place. A lot of people want to take but what are we giving back to te reo Māori?”

Hana Mereraiha. Photo / Jake Mein

Ruby hopes to see and hear te reo Māori everywhere — “kōrero Māori i ngā wā kātoa — speak Māori all the time. I want people to fall in love with te reo, and not have such knee-jerk racist reactions when it’s in mainstream media or outside the timeframe of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori.”

Hemi says the future of te reo Māori is bigger than what we can comprehend.

“If we were to go back 30 years and ask the people what they hoped for today, they could never have imagined where we are now.”

For Hana, she never dreamed she would work in a space that combines her love of te reo Māori and waiata. Growing up in the world of Māori was significant to shaping who she is today and it allows her to give back in more ways than one.

Her advice for all those on the journey of learning te reo Māori is that “language reclamation is a lifelong commitment”.

“It’s about a lifestyle change,” she says.

“I make my language my everything, my lifestyle, my job, what I do in the holidays, when I’m hanging with my mates. It’s my everything, it’s a huge commitment and it’s never-ending.

“You have to think about your children, you have to have your eye on the wider picture. Set realistic goals to help you achieve them. Commitment and passion are absolutely everything. We do what we do because we love it.”

This article was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.

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