Kōrero with Stacey: Is learning te reo Māori through full-immersion worth it?

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1 January 1970

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Full-immersion learning can be overwhelming, but Stacey says it’s well worth the effort. She describes her own fulfilling experiences at kura reo.

Can you imagine being completely immersed in an environment where everyone was speaking te reo Māori, no English, from the time you wake up, until you go to sleep at night? That’s the setting I’m in as I write this, at the kura reo in Tuahiwi, just north of Christchurch.

Kura reo are held all over the country, at different times of the year, as a five-day total-immersion learning wānanga (educational seminar) for everyone from advanced beginners to fluent speakers. When I say advanced beginners, I really mean people who haven’t been learning for very long, but are able to “survive” in total immersion, and not have to rely on speaking English – even if that means stringing broken sentences together to make themselves understood.

My husband Scotty and I both went to kura reo early in our learning journeys, and remember well that first experience of feeling overwhelmed as we struggled to understand the conversations and lessons, as well as try to express ourselves. I felt like I’d become a baby again, trying to read people’s faces and body language as they spoke, to figure out exactly what they were saying. I couldn’t help judging myself about how hard I was finding it, and there were times when my pride took a hit as I couldn’t understand questions that I could tell required an answer from me.

“Homai te pata?” I was asked, and I knew “homai” meant to give the speaker something, so I’d look around the table for something it could be. “Te pata,” a more fluent person would helpfully say, and I’d look around again, thinking wildly, ‘What could it be? Oh, pata – butter?” Then I’d pick up the butter and try to casually pass it to them, while hoping that I had translated that sentence properly and that it was the pata/butter they actually wanted!

That was outside all of the classes, which are totally in Māori, and often on deep and complicated topics, so after long days starting with early morning karakia and finishing with games, kauhau (speeches) and nightly karakia, it was very tiring. By the time we went to sleep in the wharenui (meeting house) I was exhausted, but on a high from all the exponential learning I was experiencing.

Total-immersion learning is accelerated learning, but it’s very tiring. I was lucky I’d already had the experience of living in Japan as an exchange student for a year – that total immersion Japanese language environment was completely inescapable – so I’d got used to feeling growing pains in the brain! Many hapū (subtribe) and iwi run total-immersion wānanga, as do whare wānanga (universities, places of higher learning), and the kura reo is an option that’s open to people all over the country. Apart from all the learning, it’s helpful for building friendships with other Māori speakers, which can be hard if you don’t have many around you most of the time.

Our kids have come to their first kura reo as students this year, at 14 and 12 years old, so they’re very fortunate their hākui and hākoro (aunties and uncles, particularly in our Ngāi Tahu dialect) were open to them being kura reo students early in their lives, and they get to learn from renowned teachers.

If this all sounds like another world to what you experience in New Zealand on an everyday basis, it does feel like that when you’re in the kura reo too, and it’s like breaking a spell when you leave! It’s a special opportunity to build fluency, mātauranga (knowledge) whanaungatanga (kinship) and friendships that endure.

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