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Āhuru mōwai: Ko te pānga o ngā kāre ā-roto ki te huarahi ako i te reo Māori.

Safe place: The role of the emotions in learning te reo Māori.



My graduation from Te Huarahi Māori at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau: one of the happiest days of my life


“He kokonga whare e kitea, he kokonga ngākau e kore e kitea.” “A corner of a house may be seen and examined; not so the corners of the heart.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about this with friends, whānau, clients, classmates and students. Everyone who is contemplating learning, or has started learning te reo Māori will come up against their own strong emotions at times, and sometimes really struggle with them. Emotional safety, it seems, is a crucial foundation as one embarks on this life changing journey.


I'm writing this post not to put anyone off starting their reo Māori huarahi- journey, but rather to offer a bit of support and solidarity along the way. Learning te reo Māori was the hardest thing I ever did, but also the MOST rewarding.


Full disclosure: I’m a bit of an anomaly, in that without much thought at all, I literally jumped right in the deep end of learning te reo through my full immersion course of Te Ataarangi. From zero to one hundred in the space of days. Did it help that I didn’t know a single soul who had embarked on this journey before me? Probably. Had I watched friends and whānau go through the course, I probably would have been more apprehensive, and possibly have had a whole lot more reasons why NOT to do it. Ignorance, as they say, is most definitely bliss.


It’s no wonder then, that many people contemplate starting their journey for years. Fear, language trauma, and shame hold a lot of people back from even starting. Maybe you have a fluent whānau member who you compare yourself to, and the idea of stuttering through your rerenga kōrero with them is just too daunting. I mean, can they even remember starting from scratch and making heaps of mistakes?


Or maybe you struggle with perfectionism, and the fear of getting it wrong or offending anyone with less than great pronunciation is just too much to handle right now. I am one of those really weird people who love languages, and thrive in immersion settings where I have no other option than to risk making mistakes. I understand this is not normal. And that for many people, perfectionism keeps them silent for years.


Language trauma is another very real issue when embarking on this journey and it’s one that I have a lot of aroha, compassion for. Maybe you or your living relatives grew up not being allowed to speak their own native tongue, and that pain is still so present. It’s not quite as simple as clicking ‘enrol’ on Te Wānanga o Aotearoa’s website eh. I studied with kuia who were beaten for speaking their own reo at school, and despite attending class after class in their later years, still had trouble producing simple sentences.


And like other forms of trauma, we now know that the abuse didn’t need to be personally experienced by you in order for you to experience the same language trauma that your whanaunga, relatives might have. People pass stories down, and also change their behaviour and that of their families so that this trauma is not experienced again. Speaking te reo represented a very real danger back in the day.


Or maybe, you sit on the other side of the fence, and the flip side of this situation is what you struggle with. Maybe you are Pākehā like me and feel the shame of while privilege. I mean, we are the beneficiaries of this unfair system that was set up by our ancestors to privilege their descendants while oppressing tangata whenua, Māori. Our people have taken everything else, now we want their language too? What right do we have to learn to speak te reo Māori?


I struggled with this question for years, and it’s now been replaced with ‘what right do I have to teach te reo Māori?’ White guilt is a thing, and if this is you, it’s worth investigating for yourself as it can be a really disempowering place that benefits no one. I’ve now accepted the fact that I am a Pākehā who teaches te reo Māori. Sounds simple, but it did take years of drama and self-doubting before I got to this point.


As I already mentioned, none of these thoughts or emotions crossed my mind or heart before enrolling in my course, which is probably why I didn’t hesitate to enrol! However, from the very first day of embarking on my journey, I encountered all of these emotions to varying degrees, some of which were to become bigger roadblocks than others.


And everytime I ran into one of these issues, I seemed to take a backstep, or at least a significant pause to either freak out, or reflect and process (more of the former, less of the latter). I now realise that when I would be ‘freaking out’, my nervous system was actually in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and therefore my mind didn’t perceive the situation to be safe, or conducive to taking on new learning. No wonder for so many people, learning te reo Māori can take so long.


I remember one time in my second year of studying, a restorative hui was called because of gossip that I had started. I can feel the shame rising as I recall the incident. The rākau (stick) went around and everyone got a chance to express how they were affected by my actions. I will never forget the utter shame and regret I felt for several days afterwards, I was really impacted by it, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I took the rest of the week off in shock as I questioned my right to be there, and almost pulled out so someone else could take my place. I was completely stopped in my learning journey, and I wasn’t able to return to kura until I was at peace within myself and felt safe again at school.


Looking back now, that hui was the best and worst experience of my whole Te Ataarangi journey. As hard as it was, I got to see first hand my white privilege and entitlement at play, through the questions and gossip I had raised. I also got to see what an absolute privilege it was to learn te reo Māori, and to be part of the Te Ataarangi whānau, something I never took for granted after that.


And finally, I learned a really valuable lesson about tikanga Māori. That hui was a way to restore the emotional imbalance that I had created. When everyone got their chance to speak their truth, within the wharenui and within the realm of Rongo, deity of peace, the safety of our āhuru mowai, our sheltered haven, was restored and we could resume our studies in harmony.


From that moment on, I’ve understood how important emotional (and cultural) safety is for those of up learning te reo Māori. Since then, I’ve been in wānanga, kura reo and kura pō where I’ve just wanted to leave. Something has felt off. It might have been something that was said, a harsh word or correction that I wasn’t expecting.


Or it might have been a lack of whakawhanaungatanga, or relationship building, so we were more scared to take risks with our speaking around strangers. This is a really big issue that underpins a whole lot of fear of speaking.



Te Puna Wānanga: One of my āhuru mōwai, safe spaces.


The main advice I’d give for those of you who are learning (or yet to start), is to create your own safe group of people you can kōrero with. They might be classmates from your course that you get on with and trust. They might be your cuzzy who is more fluent than you but you are so close to them you feel safe practising with them. Seek out and create these groups, as they will be your allies and champions in your journey, as you will be theirs.


And to check in with yourself from time to time through your studies to notice your emotional state, because this can have a huge impact on your learning. And as much as learning our treasured reo can have a revitalizing and restorative effect on our internal state and identity, we also need to nurture ourselves and show ourselves compassion through the journey so that we can continue to flourish and grow in a safe, supported way.


"Tōku reo, tōku ohooho, tōku reo, tōku māpihi maurea." My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.
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