Following this year’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori and the announcements made by the Government to support the language, do you feel like we are any closer to saving the language?

Absolutely. I think this year is a turning point in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history. We are seeing the involvement of schools, students, teachers, educators, parents, and the wider New Zealand community. This year businesses [like] Fonterra, Spark, other large corporations and many local councils are running training programs for their staff in te reo Māori. What we’re seeing is probably the most exciting period in our history, given how widespread the support for it is now.

 What steps do we need to take now to make sure that te reo is saved and properly integrated, and that kids are learning it?

I’ve always come to things from what research tells us, [which] is that ... the status that a language has in the eyes of both the people who own it, and the wider community, is really the initial major determiner of predicting its future. Therefore a lot of the activities that we have been involved in are aimed at raising the status of Māori for Māori students themselves and within the diverse communities in Aotearoa, so it’s in promoting those connections where I think I can still make a contribution. To achieve these goals though, we need thousands more language capable teachers and governments have been really slow to act on this rapidly blossoming demand. There's also still a lot more to do in resourcing and entrenching intergenerational transmission in Māori families every year to have their children at home and in quality Bilingual/Immersion education speaking Māori. That will determine how quickly we can reach the figure of 25 per cent of Māori families being able to use Māori extensively in their daily life that is needed as an indicator for us to say widespread rejuvenation is likely to continue to succeed. 

What roles can schools play to promote Māori within their student bodies?

It is important to see that the other work that’s being done for all New Zealanders is not just about learning a language, a narrow set  of communication goals,  it’s really about exploring a new vision for Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about what sort of country we are, and what kind of country we want to become, it’s deeper issues driving that kind of interest and success. To me the thing that really energises people are the things that Māori have offered us as gifts that are reshaping our ideas of what it means to be a New Zealander. So the programs that we get in school for Pākehā and other non-Māori students are broadly based [around] the questions with students, of what does it mean to you to be a New Zealander and how does Māori language and culture fit into that? It’s not viewed by me as teaching someone else’s language, it’s focused on helping children and their families themselves, explore what this gift can offer to you, your ability to take part in Māori events and to feel included, to be able to use that understanding of diversity to be able to work with other people in New Zealand who speak other languages. We see people buying into a vision, an offer, about being part of something new and something different. My ancestors came here speaking Irish and some came to Aotearoa through Melbourne and the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s to be part of a different kind of country, one that didn’t reproduce the old injustices of Ireland and Europe but to create something new, so that’s what drives me and I think that now we’ve seen this year that lots of people think that that’s a worthwhile objective to be involved in – they want to be involved in it, nobody’s pushing them into it.

Were you exposed to a second language when you were at school?

No, New Zealand was very reluctant and backward in the days up until the 1970s and 80s really, for non-Māori New Zealanders to learn Māori and Pacific languages. Like many other languages that were brought by migrants to New Zealand and Australia, people were discouraged from continuing to speak their family languages even with their children and families. And so, I grew up in a family that had lost its language and felt sad about it; I guess that is one of the motivations as well for the reasons why I do the things I do. But I’ve just been very lucky to be able to learn Māori so early in life and to be invited to be involved by Māori. My own view was that over the language we needed to form a tuakana teina (senior junior) partnership between Māori and non-Māori people in New Zealand, based on a sense of mutual respect. So really that explosion has only happened since the 1972 Māori Language Petition and since the 1987 act to establish Māori as a national language. Now we are seeing a massive rejuvenation of Māori in New Zealand. But it hasn’t come easy, we’re talking about 50 years to get to the point we are today. It’s been driven by determined groups of committed Māori individuals, groups, families and communities, and now also by academics, teachers, Māori and Pacific community people and organisations who shared that vision... I’m just one of many people who have been part of that attempt to bring about those changes.

So looking back over the past 40 or 50 years, has the change happened as quickly as you would like?

Definitely not. I thought in 1972 when presenting the petition to Parliament that my children would have access to it within a few years, and certainly my grandchildren would be part of a bilingual nation within 10 or 20 years. That didn’t happen. It’s been hard fought and I think New Zealand needs to take a bit of a step back and acknowledge that successive governments and the politicians as our representatives, haven’t always been supportive of it, and in fact have had to be often dragged screaming through the courts. So actually every significant legal step that’s been made to entrench Māori and or Pacific languages in the life of the country has been as a result of a court or an inquiry that has instructed that to happen. So it hasn’t come easily. It tells you that if you have a vision or a belief or a direction that you want to go, you have to come up with strategy and work with groups and enrol people in that vision and work hard together for it.

Did your children grow up in a bilingual environment?

Yes, my first marriage Pākehā children grew up for some years in the early days in the Te Reo Māori Society ki Otara setting, but they were not able to sustain it because I was not a fluent speaker and there were so few bilingual ECE or school programmes that would allow that to happen, with very few in local urban areas. My second marriage children and grandchildren have grown up in Tongan and Samoan speaking family and community environments, but again are often squashed by New Zealand’s reluctance to have these things being formally part of every school’s programme. That’s why raising the status of Māori and family languages among the peer groups and wider NZ community is so important to us.

Moving forward from here, ideally, what would you like to see implemented?

Well, we need to just put Māori and Pacific languages and ways of being ... into the school system as a normal everyday core part of the way school works. So I’m not in favour of it being called 'compulsory' - that’s a great way to get people’s backs up - nor am I in favour of it being forced on someone who doesn’t want to learn it. I’ve yet to come across any child though who didn’t enjoy doing activities that are derived from a program that encourages learning about Māori and Pacific components of New Zealand’s identity. So I think the way to go is to support really good programs already underway and then to just expand them to those schools and communities that want to have them. We need to rethink teacher education and language teaching to be offering them also as mediums of instruction rather than just as separate subjects, and we need to rebuild the whole professional development and service support for teachers in order to make those things happen. We’ve had many years of schools trying to do things by themselves and many of them have done wonderful things, but to be done really well, both schools and communities need to be supported with strong professional knowledge and expertise and not just left to it themselves.  

My tip would also be that if we continue to focus on supporting all of our children with their languages, cultures and identities ... and who they are, seeing these as resources for learning and life  ... then we will do very well. That’s an inclusive approach, accepting what  Māori have offered and acknowledging what everyone also brings from their family; ways of doing things, ways of thinking, are also really important. If we can continue to value and share those together, we can create the sort of tolerant and just society that all our Tangata Tiriti, non-Māori ancestors and parents hoped they would be part of in the new country that they came to. Mauri ora tatou.