Reo Tū, Reo Ora: 35 years of Māori Language Revival

It’s been 35 years since the first kōhanga reo opened in 1982 and now our second and third generations of children are growing up amid a myriad of changing revitalisation initiatives. University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha Associate Professor Jeanette King of Aotahi: School of Māori and Indigenous Studies looks at what’s happening, what’s working and where are we headed?


A lot is happening with regard to te reo Māori, the indigenous language of our country. Revitalisation may have started 35 years ago with kōhanga reo and hundreds of children and their parents taking a few shaky footsteps on a path to learn te reo, but, as a result, today we have many language initiatives playing a role in encouraging and supporting language use.

Māori immersion education options – from pre-school through to tertiary level – are available throughout the country. For adults who don’t know any reo there are many options, many of them free. (Check out the websites for Te Ataarangi and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa if you want to get started.) For those who want to advance their intermediate and higher level language skills, many tribes supply language resources and host activities to help tribal members increase their knowledge and use of Māori. We also have iwi radio stations and Māori Television which have a great range of programming focusing on Māori language and culture.

Since the mid-90s, however, it was realised that the emphasis on education and broadcasting initiatives wasn’t enough: we needed to encourage the use of Māori in the home. Since then both government agencies and increasing numbers of tribal authorities have formed language plans and initiatives to support parents in the home.

A good example comes from Ngāi Tahu – they aim to have 1000 Ngāi Tahu homes speaking Māori by 2025 (Kotahi Mano Kāika, Kotahi Mano Wawata). They provide resources and information to their tribal members as well as running regular language camps for parents and children. Ka mau te wehi! That’s outstanding!

What have we learned?

There isn’t one solution that will guarantee the revitalisation of the Māori language. Instead, we need a wide range of different sectors engaged, as well as a regular input of fresh ideas. For example, Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) recently began running 2-3 day hui to help people plan language strategies for whatever community group they are working with. Te Taura Whiri also allocates Mā Te Reo funding to support communities to produce language resources or run language workshops. And you may have noticed that Māori Language Week doesn’t just focus on seven days a year; there are new words each week throughout the year. What a great way to build up your vocabulary. (Check out the Taura Whiri website for digital copies of these resources.)

We have also learned that we need to encourage everyone to use what language they have and perhaps make a few steps to learn a little more. This has been termed the ZePA model (Zero > Passive > Active). No matter where you are on this continuum, the idea is to keep right shifting. This week our Prime Minister John Key noted that the exposure he gets to te reo in his job means he’s able to understand more and more of what is being said. He also claims he knows all the Māori words to the national anthem. Ka wani kē! Fabulous!

Uniquely New Zealand

There are a number of aspects that help with the revitalisation of te reo. Unlike other countries which have many indigenous languages, we have just one, which has made it easier to fight and lobby for government acknowledgement and support.

Aspects of Māori culture are also supportive to wider acceptance and use of the Māori language. It is well known that the epitome of Māori cultural expression are the rituals enacted on marae. For well over a century, welcome ceremonies (pōwhiri) have been used to welcome dignitaries and celebrities to Aotearoa. The public and inclusive nature of these ceremonies may be why most of us believe that Māori culture is an important part of what makes New Zealanders unique.

The Māori language has also influenced the variety of English we speak here, New Zealand English. In fact, one of our variety’s most distinctive aspects is its use of Māori words. Besides words for flora and fauna (kauri, pipi, tūī, kiwi) our knowledge of words for social and material culture (hui, kaumātua, whānau, haka, poi, puku) is increasing each year. It’s estimated that the average New Zealander can recognise 70-80 Māori words. Tau kē Aotearoa! Awesome New Zealand!

Where are we headed?

With various tribal organisations now putting energy into language revitalisation the greatest opportunity and challenge in the coming years will be how the focus on dialects contributes to the wider revitalisation efforts.

Positive attitudes towards te reo Māori among our population continue to improve. There is an increasing sense that Māori language is part of our social fabric and identity.

Ākina te reo! Give te reo Māori a go!