Te Reo brings communities together


In commemoration of New Zealand’s 35th anniversary of establishing Te Reo Mori as an official language, Indian Newslink pays tribute to the language with interviews with two proficient Te Reo speakers, outside the Māori community: Mariam Arif and Peniel Prabhakaran-Elliot.

Miriam Arif with her Te Reo workbook. (Photo: Supplied)

Mariam Arif

Mariam Arif, an Ethnic Liaison Officer of the New Zealand Police, is of Middle Eastern descent and relocated to New Zealand as a child in 1996. Her parents are from Iraq and Syria. She studied Te Reo as an adult and has spent over four years studying the language. “Unfortunately, when I first moved to Auckland, studying Te Reo was not something that was easily accessible or even encouraged.  And it wasn’t until I moved to Hamilton as an adult that I discovered how different it was in other regions of the nation. It was not so Euro-centric. And that, kind of opened our eyes to Māori and the Māori world,” said Ms Arif. She said that when she moved to Hamilton with her husband and two children, her school-going children came home with words that she was not familiar with. “Despite being in New Zealand for over 20 years, I had been kept in the dark and had actually been quite ignorant. So, I started to go and seek, and it was all there, all the free classes, all of the options to upskill and understand the Māori world,” she said. And her journey with Te Reo started when she enrolled on classes with her mother and sisters. “We wanted to show our respect to Tangata, Whenua, the people of the land, by doing that basic course. But the language and culture were so intriguing that I kept on going and now, I can converse in Te Reo” she said. She enrolled in a once-a-week three-hour, level 1 class to learn basic words and phrases. Then, at level two, deeper learning required interaction outside of the classroom, such as listening to podcasts and watching television. “To be conversant you need to do a full immersion course which can be done as a part-time course as well, but not all immigrant adults need to get to that point, but learning the basics is highly encouraged” she explained.

Peniel Prabhakaran-Elliot with a Māori face mask during the pandemic (Photo: Supplied)

Peniel Prabhakaran-Elliot

Peniel Prabhakaran-Elliot is from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She has been in New Zealand for over 7 years and works as a director of communications in the international non-profit sector. She is also the author of Kelir books. Ms Prabhakaran, who is married to a New Zealander, said that when she first moved to Aotearoa, she did not know much about the country, particularly its indigenous people’s history and culture. “I was given some extremely wrong stereotypes and resources to understand Māori culture,” Ms Prabhakaran said.  She felt that language would be the gateway to understanding Māori and their cultures. Ms Prabhakaran and her husband began taking free Te Reo sessions at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. They went on to invest 4 years studying the language. “My biggest year of learning was actually in Te Ataarangi, in Rotorua, which was kind of a full immersion course, which was an all-day, all-week course,” said Ms Prabhakaran. To prioritise learning Te Reo, Ms Prabhakaran quit her job and took on only part-time work.

Ranking the language

When asked to rank their language proficiency between 1-10, with one being the lowest and 10 being the highest, Ms Prabhakaran ranked her mother tongue, Tamil and English competencies on par, as an 8-9 and Te Reo as a 6. She said that “I can hold up a casual conversation very well, and when it comes to formal speeches, I can do it fairly well with a little bit of preparation, but when it comes to the poetic nature of the language, that is where you need to be advanced.”

Miriam ranked her proficiency in her mother tongue Arabic an 8, English a 9 and Te Reo a 6 as well. “English is my dominant language. People who hear me speak Te Reo think I am a 9 or a 10 but language is more than having a dialogue as there is so much to know and learn,” said Ms Arif. She also said that those who know multiple languages will be able to learn Te Reo more easily.

Cultural similarities

Ms Prabhakaran said that there were a lot of cultural similarities between Māori Culture and her culture. “Families and communities are important, and there is really high respect for the language. There is such patriotism for the language itself in Māori culture, it is not just a communication tool, but it is really an integrated part of who they are, and so I really connected well with that” she said.

She claims that speaking the language is simpler for her since she can identify with the rolling of the ‘r’ and the macrons that signify a long vowel. She stated that it is comparable to Tamil and that a short pronunciation might give the phrase a whole new meaning.

“In terms of similarities, I do not think there is any immigrant who does not relate to colonisation and the harm it has caused. So, the way people try to survive and hold on to their culture and language is a big similarity, Linguistically, Arabic and Te Reo are similar in sentence structure. “In English, we say, ‘A Red Car’, in Te Reo it is ‘He waka Whero’ where ‘waka’ is ‘car’ and ‘whero’ is red. It switches the noun and the adjective. In Arabic, it would be the same. Pronunciation is also quite similar which gave me an advantage, making me a topper in my class,” said Ms Arif candidly.

Ms Prabhakaran said that there is a warm welcome for non-Māori to learn the language. However, she said that one should not learn the language as a capitalistic tool. “This language has fought its way back from being wiped out, and it requires us to respect it. It is also very important that we create more and more spaces to speak and converse in Te Reo. You must practice it,” she said.

Ms Arif and Ms Prabhakaran both recommended persons interested in learning the language adopt the correct approach to avoid reproducing the same colonial attitudes and behaviours that destroyed the language. They declared that superiority, competition, or domination should not be permitted.

“This journey of learning Te Reo Māori has been such a turning point in my life because as a migrant living in Rotorua, it has created a sense of belonging as nothing else has and I have made lifelong friends. It has helped me in my well-being especially during the pandemic when we were hearing of deaths every day from back home in India.  I used to go to Kura (school) every day, and we always started the day with karakia. And it was such a great period of healing. And many gathered to comfort and strengthen me,” said Ms Prabhakaran.

“Learning Te Reo has given such beauty to our lives, that is well aligned with our own identities, as ethnic people and people of faith and it also enhances our New Zealand identities. We should be bilingual and have the influence of the indigenous on the modern identity, we should be embracing all that into one big collective identity. Te Reo has opened doors for me, and my outlook and attitude have changed, and we have strengthened the relationship between my community and the Māori. But more importantly, you should do this because you respect the indigenous people,” said Ms Arif.

Resources

Those keen in learning Te Reo may contact; Te Wānanga o Aotearoa (locations nationwide), Te Ataarangi (locations nationwide, call 0800 282 272 to find a class near you), AUT (Auckland CBD & South Auckland), Unitec (Auckland), Te Whare Waatea (South Auckland), Mangere East Community Centre (South Auckland), Northtec (Kaitaia, Whangārei, Helensville), Te Herenga Waka O Orewa (Silverdale), Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiārangi (Whakatāne, Auckland, Northland), Whitireia (Porirua, Kāpiti, Auckland), Toi-Ohomai (Rotorua, Tokoroa), E.I.T (Hawkes Bay, Wairoa, Ruatoria), REAP House (Wairarapa), UCOL (Palmerston North, Whanganui, Wairarapa), Community Education Centre (Wellington) (fees apply), Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology NMIT (Marlborough, Nelson), Ara Institute of Canterbury (Christchurch, Timaru, Ashburton, Oamaru), University of Canterbury (Christchurch), Southern Institute of Technology (Gore, Invercargill, Queenstown), Otago University (Dunedin) (fees apply), Risingholme Community Centre (Christchurch) (fees apply), Hagley College (Christchurch) (fees apply)

Online resources & correspondence: Te Kura – The Correspondence School, , Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Victoria University, Te Whanake, Tōku Reo, Whitireia Otago University, Memrise, Kupu O Te Rā

Apps: Kupu iOS Android., Te Pumanawa iOS Android, Tipu Te Reo Māori iOS Android, Kura iOS Android, He aha tēnei? iOS Android, Memrise iOS Android

Malini Yugendran is an Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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