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One million Kiwis fluent in te reo possible by 2040, linguistics expert suggests

15 September, 2023

Interview by Rosetta Stone, adapted by Athena Li-Watts

New research has shown most New Zealanders can recognise over 1000 kupu Māori (te reo Māori words), but only know the meaning of roughly 70. 

Co-author of the study, Assessing the Size of non-Māori-speakers’ Active Māori Lexicon, and Professor at the University of Canterbury’s New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain, and Behaviour, Jeanette King, told 95bFM’s The Wire that their research shows the government’s aim for one million New Zealanders to be fluent in te reo by 2040 is “not so audacious after all”.

King said their research came about when a couple of linguistics lecturers noticed their preschoolers imitating Waiata Māori (Māori songs), using correct sound patterns but making up words. 

“While the words they were saying were not real Māori words, they sounded like Māori words. And they were putting them together in ways that showed they picked up some knowledge about the structure of Māori words and which sounds go where."

The lecturers thought that if children exposed to te reo in their environments are picking up knowledge about the te reo sound system, what about adults?

Researchers tested three different groups of adults: Māori speakers, Americans with no exposure to Māori, and non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders, on their knowledge of the Māori lexicon.

They anticipated that Māori speakers would have a sophisticated understanding of te reo, Americans absolutely no knowledge, and non-speaking New Zealanders would fall somewhere in between.

However, researchers were surprised that most non-Māori speaking New Zealanders had the same implicit knowledge of te reo as fluent speakers. 

Implicit knowledge is the knowledge one has without realising. In linguistics, King explained this is called a ‘proto-lexicon’, meaning “the beginning of knowledge of words”.

Non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders explicit knowledge, i.e. actually understanding the meaning of words, was less strong, with this group only recognising roughly 70 kupu on average. 

But King said research has shown the learning te reo depends significantly on the size of someone's proto-lexicon; the bigger the proto-lexicon, the quicker the learning process. This means that non-Māori speakers surrounded by te reo have a head start if they want to learn the language. 

“Exposing yourself to the language is going to help you when you start learning te reo.”

King believes Aotearoa has an advantage when it comes to revitalising our indigenous  language.

“Here we have the one indigenous language, and it has quite a high profile in the country compared to other parts of the world.”

“We only have to look at Australia, where there are over 250 indigenous languages, and many of them have unfortunately been lost.”

King believes the increased use of te reo in schools, the media, and on signage, and events like Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, Māori Language Week, have helped New Zealanders become more accustomed to te reo. 

“This is all part of normalising the language, so that people who can speak feel that they can speak Māori wherever they are and it will be accepted.”

King hopes their research will spark motivation for more people to learn the language. 

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air