Reversing the decline in speakers of te reo Maori

Thursday 26 July 2012, 4:31PM
By Victoria University

Understanding what helps people become active users of the Maori language could hold the key to reversing the decline in speaker numbers, says a Victoria University researcher.

Associate Professor Rawinia Higgins from Victoria's Te Kawa a Maui (School of Maori Studies) is co-leading a three-year research project to investigate how Maori language contributes to economic development, cultural identity and social cohesion.

Her focus is on community responsiveness to Maori language, while co-leader Associate Professor Poia Rewi from the School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago is examining state responsiveness.

Dr Higgins and her team are concentrating on people who have taken steps to include Maori language in their everyday life—those who are not necessarily proficient, but motivated.

"We want to know what motivates them, where they find support and if they use the resources that are available—such as Maori radio and television, Maori language interfaces on websites, and Maori materials provided in areas like doctors' waiting rooms.

"As a speaker of te reo Maori, I generally don't read Maori language versions of material. It's frustrating, because they’re often quite dense, and to work them out you need a rich vocabulary or plenty of time," says Dr Higgins.

The researchers also want to know where people are most likely to use Maori language. "Marae, for example, have been seen as a priority area but our preliminary findings show Maori is not an active form of communication on the marae. A lot of people attend functions and ceremonies there but it’s not a place where they go regularly to talk the language."

Dr Higgins is working closely with the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and Te Ataarangi, an initiative to encourage people to speak Maori in homes and communities, to carry out her research. Information is being gathered through questionnaires in both Maori and English, face-to-face interviews and online surveys.

What's clear, says Dr Higgins, is that most of the initiatives underway to encourage uptake of Maori language are operating in silos.

"There are points of crossover but they tend to be informal—there is no single, coordinated strategy to move forward. For example, although immersion schools were established to provide schooling for those who had started in a kohanga reo, there doesn't seem to be an overall strategy to support students to move from one to the other."

A government review of the Maori language sector carried out last year found that more than $500 million is being spent on the language, but Dr Higgins says it is still struggling.

"What our research will be able to do is guide how we invest the money being spent. It makes sense for the dollars to be going into providing things people who are driven to learn the language are actually using."

A further strand of the project involves Dr Higgins gathering contributions from experts in a number of fields for a new book on what has happened to the Maori language over the last 25 years.

"A literature review at the start of our research showed there is a huge amount of information up until 1987 when Maori became an official language, but very little, if any, qualitative analysis of where things are at since then.

"We want to excite the language sector by getting highly respected people who have been part of the struggle to put a fresh perspective on where we are headed."

Called Te Kura Roa, the Pae Tawhiti (The Distant Horizon) research initiative has $1.5 million of funding from Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, New Zealand's Indigenous Centre of Research Excellence hosted at The University of Auckland.

Overall, says Dr Higgins, the research project, now in its second year, aims to demonstrate the value of the Maori language to New Zealand.

"The language is an identity marker for New Zealand as a whole, not just Maori. Raising awareness of and interest in the language helps build a strong national identity, because it is part of what makes us distinctive."