Research uncovers keys to revitalising te reo Māori

Whānau, community, culture, and child are the keys to revitalising te reo Māori suggests research from Victoria University of Wellington.

Maraea and her granddaughter Puhi
Victoria University of Wellington graduand Maraea Hunia monitored her granddaughter Puhi’s language acquisition over three years for her doctorate in Education.

Victoria University graduand Maraea Hunia monitored the language acquisition of two young children for her doctorate in Education, and discovered that a child’s chosen spoken language is decided by more than just the language their parents use when speaking to them.

“Although babies all over the world learn to communicate, the way they do so is particular to the culture around them. We are all the same, but we are also all different.

“In the two whānau in my study, the mothers always spoke Māori to their children. However, my research shows this wasn’t enough for the children to choose to speak Māori.

“The children’s language choices were influenced by which language the wider whānau used with the children, by which language the whānau used with each other, and by the predominant culture around the children.”

The first child Maraea monitored was her granddaughter, Puhi, who was raised among a large extended family in Ōtaki.

“Te reo Māori me ōna tikanga—Māori language and its associated cultural practices, values and traditions—were audible and visible around her. Her whānau, and most people Puhi met in the community, spoke Māori to her, and her first utterances were predominantly in te reo Māori.”

The second child monitored was Jessica-Lee, who grew up in suburban Wellington. Members of her whānau, other than her mother, spoke to Jessica-Lee in English. This, coupled with the predominant use of English in her community, meant that Jessica-Lee’s exposure to English was far greater than her exposure to Māori. Her first utterances were predominantly in English.

Maraea’s research has revealed new evidence on how children acquire language. Most language acquisition studies are based on major European languages, which in the past has led to conclusions that commonalities are universal across all languages. By looking closely at the acquisition of te reo Māori, Maraea has revealed this is not the case, since the two-word utterances of a child learning te reo Māori combine different types of words from those typical of a child acquiring a European language.

“My research shows that when children acquire language it is not just a matter of cognitive development, but is also influenced by the interconnection of culture and language, and by the frequency and type of structures in the languages they are learning.

Maraea observed that both children used a small amount of their other language, meaning they were capable of speaking either English or Māori, but chose the language that reflected their cultural surroundings.

Maraea also analysed some Māori cultural practices that her granddaughter experienced, such as greetings and pūkana, and tracked Puhi's development of those practices as she was socialised into a Māori way of being.

“When tikanga Māori are tangible in our whānau and the wider community and when children see, feel, hear and taste their culture it has value for them. This informs their choice to speak te reo Māori. In revitalising and normalising te reo Māori, having children making the choice to use te reo Māori as their first language is crucial. This is what we aim for.”

Maraea’s research was supervised by Professor Carmen Dalli and Dr Winifred Bauer from Victoria University’s Faculty of Education.