The best decision I’ve ever made: A year of full-immersion Te Reo Māori
Updated: Feb 14
As my classmates back home in Aotearoa graduate, and my little brother sets to embark on his own reo Māori journey – I thought I might reflect on probably the best decision I have ever made; enrolling in a full immersion Te Reo Māori course for a year.
What is it?
In 2021 my partner and I completed a year learning Te Reo Māori at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa, or Takiura as most people call it. Takiura is one of the main options in the country if you are wanting to spend a stand-alone year studying Te Reo Māori full-time. The school is based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Full-immersion programs like this one have become an implicit ‘next step’ option if you are wanting to (A) embark on your Te Reo Māori learning journey or (B) take your night class level reo to a higher level. What’s immersion? It’s the creation of an environment in which the only language spoken, heard and written is Te Reo Māori. You won’t learn the Māori language through English, you will learn it through the Māori language itself. Hence the one year course at Takiura is appropriately named Rūmaki Reo or language immersion.That’s as brief and basic of an overview of the course I can give. My main intention here is to articulate my overall experience of the year, and hopefully offer advice to those who are looking to do this in the future.
Amy and I after the Rūmaki noho marae ki Te Kotahitanga (pure heat on the feet)
My Te Reo before Takiura
I wasn’t raised speaking Te Reo. The odd word here and there was used. My Koro had been the last in my family to speak fluently, but he never spoke to us in Māori besides things like “turi turi!”. We never blamed him for not speaking Māori to us kids, especially when for him what was associated with speaking Māori was the violence of being caned by teachers. I didn’t spend much time on my marae, aside from sporadically at tangi, so my ears hadn’t been accustomed to formal Māori oratory like karanga and whaikōrero. Throughout my university degree I took Te Reo papers here and there, along with night classes. However, I hadn’t given the Māori language nearly as much attention as I had given to the study of Māori history and politics. My Te Reo teachers told me that all the main sentences had been taught to me, and I knew them in and out… on paper. My problem was a reluctance to use Te Reo outside of class. Reluctance which was really fear, something I know many other Māori in a similar position can understand.
Long story short, my reo Māori skills before enrolling at Takiura were very basic. My skills still condemned me to choking like B-Rabbit every time a karakia was needed at hui or I was hit with a young “Kei te pehea koe?”.
I realised upon entering Takiura that my experience above was shared widely. I was struck by the myriad of journeys that had converged at the doors of the school. The age range of people in the course was massive, from 17 through to over 70. There were lawyers, police, teachers, designers, musicians, anything you can think of. The course consisted mostly of Māori.
On the first day there was a pōwhiri and then you were put into classes. Classes were randomly assigned. The average day looked a bit like the following:
Kura starts at 9:30, with everyone from the course in the main room. There’d be karakia, waiata and a kōrero from someone in the course. After this you would separate into your classes and begin the day learning. Class would run then from 10am until 3pm, with tutorials available after school every second day.
The course was organised into the same terms as NZ school terms, which was good because you got two-week holidays and for parents it meant overlapping holiday time spent with tamariki.
The way the course is taught at the beginning is through ‘Te Ataarangi’ method developed by Dr Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira and Ngoingoi Pewhairangi. At its core, the method uses Cuisenaire rods (90s babies it’s those colourful rods from maths class at primary school) to engage with all senses of the body while being taught the language. This makes for more powerful associations between aspects of context and content, in turn speeding up the learning process. We used this method most intensely during the first term. The first term was about learning the basics, the foundations of the Māori language. I would say in terms of pure content, this would be the most intense part of the course especially for those coming in with no skills at all. After this first term, learning was done through the use of te reo more than anything.
Its been hard to articulate in conversation just how life-changing this course was for me. I’m hoping that this written expression does a better job.
Sir James Henare said; Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori, or, the language is the life force of Māori existence. What Sir James does here is explain perfectly where the language sits in relation to Māori existence. I say perfectly because he does it so succinctly without essentialising that the Māori existence hinges completely on Te Reo. Instead he suggests through the intermediary use of the word mauri that Te Reo is the ‘lifeforce or vitality’ of Māori existence, rather than Māori existence itself (i.e. Ko te reo te mana Māori).
I knew I was Māori before being able to hold my own in the language. Although it took time, I understood that I was not the ultimate locus of responsibility when it came to not knowing the language. This spot was reserved for the colonial actors who had inflicted violence upon those who came before me. But despite having already reconciled somewhat securely with my identity as tāne Māori, by the end of the course I still felt something core to my being was gained or at least strengthened. And as per the assertion of Sir James, I think this was the mauri of my being.
What did this look like? Well for one thing I fell in love with Te Reo itself. Unlike my prior studies, I felt compelled to study because of enjoyment. I wanted to learn about the treasures and wisdom that only Te Reo could articulate. I wanted to improve not for the outwards projection of appearing ‘matatau’, but because I loved being able to see the world in a Māori way. The Māori values imparted to me by whānau were at last verbalised explicitly in a way that English never could.
Beyond the reo itself, I fell in love with being in a Māori space basically 24/7. An immersive Māori experience existed for my partner and I, between going to kura and speaking strictly Māori at home. Breaks into the non-Māori speaking world became fewer and fewer. I was pushed to connect more with my whānau, my whakapapa, and my place within them. I was brought closer to my partner, who also uncovered previously elusive understandings of her Pākehā identity. Alongside all of this was the acquisition of a new whānau; my class mates. Our journeys albeit varied in their own ways, were intertwined and therefore made even more profound.
Ultimately the year came together to form a time of healing for me. A massive reclaiming of mauri that I was not previously aware was missing from my life. I hope that Sir James would be okay with how I am interpreting his words here, but setting aside a whole year to study the lifeforce (te reo that is) of a Māori existence, really was the best decision I have made until now.
some of the Rūmaki students at the Raukawa kura reo 2021
Tips for the course
I can’t lie and say that enrolling in Takiura was sufficient in forming all of the experience I have described above. Takiura was the foundation upon which the experience was built, but there were supplemental things I did to get as much as I could out of this course and the year in general. Here I have outlined some of the main choices my partner and I made in this way. I understand not all of these tips are applicable to everyone, and I will address this at the end. Also, the tips or recommendations I give below are aside from probably the biggest tip of all for getting the most out of the course; KŌRERO. Yes, the biggest determinant of your success will be how much you use the reo you are being taught. My partner and I even created a faux legal contract that dictated we were only allowed to speak te reo to each other at home, even if in the first week this meant being in silence. Aside from kōrero, this is what I found furthered my journey;
#1 Make it Everything
If it’s possible, plan on making Takiura your life. This is I mean in a realistic sense, other things will always come first like your health and family (mind you, being the Māori space it is – there is a lot more leeway with whānau involvement – we had tamariki and kaumatua attending alongside students all the time).
To me, getting the most out of these full immersion courses is giving it the time and respect it deserves as your ‘life’ for the year. I stepped away from many of the commitments I had prior to the course and am so glad that I did. I spent lots of time with my class in and out of kura, went to extra kura reo across Te Ika a Maui and reserved lots of time to make trips to my various marae and/or other wānanga.
In short, if you are thinking about doing this, and like me you want to get the most out of it – be prepared to spend much of your year focussed around this thing. When else will you spend a whole entire year just focussing on you and your reo journey? So make it your life. And no I don’t necessarily mean just the course, but the overall mission of reclaiming and embracing te reo Māori and te ao maori (which yes at times might even look like classic shed piss-ups with your ever so studious cohort).
#2 Focus on YOUR reo and its growth
When I would hear about Takiura from people, a common trope was; “oh yeah, so and so, they did Takiura – zero reo to begin with – now theyre fluent!”. I know right, that’s some out of this world word of mouth advertising. What I quickly realised in the course is that this aforementioned ‘fluency’ is not only subjective, its also… well misleading to say the least.
Yes, if you go hard with this course and you have next to no te reo experience, you will have exponential growth in your te reo skills by the end of the course. But I would like to clear up a few things with relation to these expectations and what this course can do for you (strictly language skills wise).
Attaining fluency is dependent on how you define what that is. Is it holding a conversation? Is it knowing all the kupu out there? Is it being able to do a 20 minute pre-memorized mihimihi in te reo while commanding a room full of 100 people? All of these measures are subjective and specific to an individual’s expectations. Especially when the skill level of people going into the course is hugely varied. For instance, one of my best mates in the course who I met on the first day – came to the kura with what I would have called being fluent in te reo. I think this not only came as a shock to me but also many others on the course. Wasn’t this a course something where you come with zero and reach hero? Over the course of the year, this myth was debunked. Some people in the course had years of experience in te reo and te ao maori, and some had not been to a marae.
What this made for was a context in which it was really easy to compare your reo skills to that of others, as well as the progress you were making to that of others. I was often trying to gauge whether I would reach the same level as my fluent mate, and if we would emerge from the course having a similar skill level. But I learned quickly that this kind of comparison was not useful. And in fact a major lesson that was pushed collectively by the kaiako was not to compare your journey to that of others. Of course this lesson’s utility extends well beyond the walls of takiura.
Ultimately I advise this. Don’t worry so much about establishing metrics of fluency and whether you’ll reach them or not. You’ll come to learn that something like an immersion course is just a dip of the toes into the deep and eternal river that is learning Te reo. Also, Don’t worry about how good others are, nor about how fast they are learning. Instead think about whether each week you feel closer to the language than you did the week before. And this does not mean just in skill. Do you feel more connected to the language and all of its facets? So long as you feel this is happening, you will no doubt improve in other more explicit markers of fluency. But by shifting the focus from ‘attaining fluency’ to your increasing connection to Te Reo itself, concerns of how others are doing will slip into the background. And so they should!
#3 It will be hard
It will be hard. It will be intense. There will be times where you do not feel like you are getting anywhere. There will be times you are confronted with traumatic aspects of whakapapa – your own and that of te iwi Māori whānui. Many people in the course will be carrying the weight of language revitalisation on behalf of their entire whānau. Others will be grasping for the first time what it might mean to be Māori.
What makes this hard journey so special though is doing it alongside others all going through similar emotions. So my final tip is this, and it’s something most will do anyway, but connect with everyone. Be prepared to become vulnerable, and don’t shy away from it. Make the most of having people around you who not only understand what is going on, but also can help in so many ways. I have made relationships that I know will endure for the rest of my life.
It’s the aroha and whanaungatanga that will offset the difficulty of the course, so make sure to prioritise it among your peers the best you can.
I understand that this post will come across to some as a bit tone deaf. Not everyone is as easily able to take a year out of their lives to study Te Reo. Not to mention taking out a hefty government loan to cover the costs also. So I want to make my position in this regard clear. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do something like this. However, I believe it is beyond absurdity that the system we as Māori are born into means possibly having to pay to learn the language. Until Te Reo is compulsory in all schools in Aotearoa, the idea that you must pay for a course like Takiura is ridiculous. The mauri I felt during the course is my birth right, as it is for all the other Māori seeking reclamation of our beautiful language. And no this isn’t a dig aimed at the organisers of the course nor the teachers within. Far from it. It’s a dig aimed at a western education system which has not fully reconciled with its colonial past and the tragedy of stolen language.
Tangential rant done. What’s this got to do with people thinking about Takiura? The point I want to make is that if you can’t do something like full-immersion for the year – that’s okay, given the state of affairs I have just outlined; its not your fault. However, even if you cant do it, there are so many ways we can as a collective demand more from our society so that these things become more accessible especially to Māori.
Support any and every initiative aimed at increasing the use and importance of Te Reo Māori. Speak what you know or can learn from the internet. Like, follow, and subscribe to all the social media outlets who’s main kaupapa is Te Reo Māori. Enrol your tamariki into kohanga reo and kura kaupapa or support others who are choosing to do so. Locally support the changing of place names to their Māori original names. Give your political support to investment and policy initiatives that move in the direction of a Te Reo speaking nation. Ultimately these things, albeit sometimes small, come together to form potential futures where immersion courses are all but obsolete.
The final verdict
A commitment like this is often elusive in the wake of life’s busyness, and one’s own warranted fear of taking the leap to do it. But I hope in even the smallest way what I am saying here can urge you closer to taking that leap. I know many people who treat this as something they need to ‘get round to someday’. But please hear me when I say if you are able to right now; do it. You will not regret it. Please know that by taking that leap you further the possibilities of a nation that looks so much different to the current one. A fully Te Reo speaking nation. A nation of which our tīpuna dreamed of.
loves up to my class - missing you fullas heaps