Ka hao te Rakatahi
My never-ending journey of learning te reo

Nā Briana Te Haara-Barr

When I was a pēpi, I went to kōhanga reo. This was in the early 2000s and, honestly, I don’t remember much about it other than playing in a sandpit and having kids pull my hair. Then I transitioned into a bilingual school where I was in a te reo immersion class for my first year. I remember singing A Ha Ka Ma Na, the lyrics ‘mā is white, whero is red’, doing ‘Whakapainga ēnei kai’ before lunch and listing my numbers like a proud kōtiro Māori.

I remember my māmā speaking te reo in our whare. I don’t remember what she said, only that she was telling me off. But I also remember times when tamariki at our school spoke more reo than we learnt in class and feeling left behind; feeling like I could never learn this and as a five-year-old told my parents I wanted to move into an English-speaking class.

Looking back at my five-year-old self, I wish I had told her that it was her birthright to freely speak her mother tongue and that a few mistakes is part of learning, a part of life.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve left high school with a bit of French, a bit of Japanese, but no more te reo than when I was five. Leaving high school was a transition, a period of questioning your next move, ‘Should I go to Uni?’, ‘Should I just keep working?’, ‘Should I take a gap year?’

Being a selfish teenager who just wanted to make money to spend it, I worked full time. But I always felt a sense of emptiness around my identity, and thought te reo would fill that gap.

With a renewed energy to discover my Māoritanga, I spent all night looking for te reo classes that I could attend while working full time. I found a weekly one-hour class and was so excited. As a student who craved excellence, I was super keen to learn – and as fast as possible.

I went to my first class and felt like I could almost feel the presence of my tīpuna walking alongside me. I only lasted two classes though; my kaiako kept pronouncing mihi as “mee-hee” and we spent 30 minutes of every session pronouncing A-E-I-O-U, which seemed ironic to me.

Since I started working at a Māori organisation, that energy I felt the first time has returned. The difference – it’s a few years later with a lot more resources and in the environments I find myself in, I hear te reo and I speak it every day, even if it is only a morning greeting. In the last six months I have bought ‘Māori Made Easy’, started the Toro Mai course and I am taking every opportunity to learn new kupu or have a kōrero.

I’m currently doing a te reo class with my māmā. The class is intended for parents who want to engage with their tamariki who are in kura kaupapa and for te reo to be normalised in their whare. This opportunity is amazing, and I imagine if that had been my māmā and pāpā in that room 20 years ago, would I have stayed in my reo immersion class? Would te reo be the language of my whare? Would it be my first language?

Te reo has come a long way and I am so proud there are generations of reo speakers who continue to fight for the language to remain a taonga to our people.

While te reo may be endangered, it doesn’t seem that way to me. In fact I believe we are in a growth phase, with mainstream media normalising greetings via radio and TV and te reo leaders leading large events like Mahuru Māori and Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori.

I know there are many key players who continue to work tirelessly to keep our language alive and thriving for our next generations. It is these people and the tools of today that give me hope for te reo.

As a second language learner, my need to learn te reo is not just to understand the language of my ancestors. For me, it means embracing our traditional reo, our ability to share and provide oral traditions. It means being able to speak in poetry and wisdom, and it means having a connection to my ancestors.

Te reo was not meant to be structured by verbs, tenses and action words. It was meant to flow from our lips, to be shared. But it wasn’t always meant to be understood. Looking at our greatest whakataukī, they are to be interpreted, they are not absolute, and every person’s perception is relative to their own oral traditions. It is this that makes me in awe of our language.

As a second language speaker I am thankful that I get to learn te reo, that I will understand conversations and hopefully be able to maintain a conversation one day.

My hope is that our next generation of te reo learners are not restricted by structured learning, that their knowledge of the language isn’t determined by whether they framed the sentence correctly. That they have the ability to grow the language beyond encouraging the growth of reo speakers; they have the space to be limitless; we can have karakia and whakataukī that are both traditional and modern, that speak to our spirituality and the depth of our language.

With the turning tide our people are ready to be the frontiers of that change. I will continue to learn te reo, for the next generation – for my future kids and their whānau. I will continue to strive to be that first generation of three that begins that change and upholds the mana of our language.

Ko Briana Te Haara-Barr tōku ingoa.
He uri tēnei nō Poutini Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau a Apanui, Ngāpuhi, nō Ngāti Porou anō hoki. Ko au tētahi o ngā̄ rangatahi e mahi ana ki Tokona te Raki.