Maori Language Week 2022: My te reo journey to learn my mother’s mother tongue is not a destination but a journey of a lifetime

My siblings and I prepare to honor our parents at a whānau tangi. Photo / Provided

Ehara taku toa i te toa Takitahi, engari kē te hē toa takitini.
My success does not belong to me alone, it is not an individual success but the success of several

A journey that will last a lifetime.

My parents could speak their mother tongue. Dad, Tongan and English (admittedly broken) and Mum, Maori, Tongan and English fluently.

However, they thought the way forward for their children was to speak English.

Te reo Māori and Tongan were spoken by my parents and aunts and uncles at home, but never to us when we were children. I picked up a few words and phrases, but was never encouraged to speak them.

At that time, te reo Maori and Tongan were considered subservient to English – so our parents decided, rightly or wrongly, that English was our language.

In 1981, like many young Kiwis, I moved to Australia and was away for 16 years.

While I was in Australia, both my parents died and I only came home for their tangi, but I thought there was nothing for me in New Zealand other than my siblings.

I had a wife and a young family in Australia. It seemed like I was destined to stay.

However, I returned to New Zealand due to the unfortunate death of a close uncle.

As I walked towards the marae, I heard people asking who were they? My six brothers in suits and my 2 sisters dressed in black to respect our uncle.

Professor James Los'e performs a haka while his uncle is carried out of the church.  Photo / Provided
Professor James Los’e performs a haka while his uncle is carried out of the church. Photo / Provided

That’s what our parents taught us. In fact, we were taught so many things but we never realized it until a moment came and you thought “so that’s what they meant”.

I found myself with my brothers sitting on the paepae not knowing what to do. Listening to the kaumatua talk like tangata quandua, I suddenly thought of my Maori teacher at Kelston Boys’ Secondary School, Mr Manihera.

A karakia, mihi, kaupapa, mihi waiata.

When the kaumatua waves to my cousin that it’s our turn to speak, my cousin looks at us, takes a deep breath, and is about to stand up when I tell him. “I have that”.

I clear my throat nervously, a whakatauki. I clear my throat again. My knees bang, my hands are shaking and I continue.

A mihi to the whare, marae, kai karanga, paepae, nga mate and I’m done.

And now? Not knowing what to say to my uncle in Maori, I break into English. Was it the right thing to do? I do not know.

So I continue with confidence in English? After several minutes or what felt like an eternity of telling my uncle and everyone else what he meant to me, my siblings, and our parents, I seamlessly step back into te reo Maori.

A kuia sitting behind my cousin gets up and sings a waiata tautoko. I finish with a mihi, karakia then I sit down.

What just happened, I wonder? Did I just do this? Tears fill my eyes and a strange feeling of jubilation and sadness. After a moment or two we stand up to hongi and are greeted.

Whispers circulate in the marae atea – these are the children of Kuini and Tavake.

A kaumatua said to me in Maori: “Your mother and father would be so proud of you. Stand up to speak.

He continues a bit more in Maori when I tell him “I’m sorry sir but I don’t speak Maori. I just remembered some things listening to you when I was at school.”

He laughs and says it’s ok, “you can speak Maori. You just spoke on the biggest stage of all. Your marae”.

He kisses me with a hongi and a hug.

“Kia kaha Tama it will come” as he lets go of my hand. What’s crazy is that I had some understanding of what I was saying and I knew it was far from perfect or eloquent.

Nobody judged me on my way of speaking. Instead, they embraced me with pure admiration that I spoke Maori.

This started my desire for home. My wife, my children and I moved because I had a feeling.

Twenty-five years later. Our three youngest children attended a full immersion early childhood center (Te Kopae Piripono in New Plymouth).

My wife started working there and had no reo. However, with the support of her colleagues and her determination, she was fully aware within a few years.

Then to Kura Kaupapa Maori Te Pi’ipi’inga Kakano Mai I Rangiatea in New Plymouth, then both boys go to Hato Paora College and our daughter goes to Turakina Māori Girls College.

My wife graduated with a Diploma in Early Childhood from Christchurch College of Education and if that wasn’t enough, she completed another Matauranga Maori Diploma at Te Wananga O Raukawa.

I completed bilingual studies at Te Wananga O Raukawa to become a teacher 20 years ago.

I am not a teacher of te reo Māori. I am a Maori teacher with strong Maori beliefs, at Waitara High.

I will continue to kiss te reo me ona tikanga for as long as it takes – not because anyone tells me I have it too, but because it is the right thing to do for me and my whānau.

When will I know if I’m there? Not sure. That’s why this is a journey that will last a lifetime.

James Los’e is a bilingual teacher and he and his wife Wahi returned to learn te reo as adults.

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