Kōrero with Stacey: The power of learning reo through song

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28 March 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Stacey Morrison has found a creative way to teach vocabulary to her tamariki.

As the sounds of the Encanto movie soundtrack blast from my car and around our whare yet again thanks to my pōtiki (youngest child), I find myself singing along to the lyrics that have found their way into my head.

There are some kupu (words) that I’ve worked hard to engrave in my brain as an adult learner of te reo Māori, yet the lyrics of those movie songs simply popped in there through osmosis. The genius of the songwriting is behind that memorability, but waiata in general are a language-learning resource that is sometimes overlooked.

If you went to primary school in Aotearoa, you’re probably going to sing the next part of this waiata in your head, when I write “Tūtira mai ngā iwi…” (I’m hoping that you had an involuntary response of “auē!”).

Such is the power of waiata to lodge lyrics in your mind, often when you’re not trying so hard to remember them. Some people are particularly talented at retaining the kupu in waiata – I don’t put myself in that category. But even if you’re not, learning through song can at least provide a gear-change when you’re working on vocabulary.

I vividly remember learning the word horokukū (reluctant, unwilling) through a waiata called Nanea ana a Tia by Pania Papa, which gives thanks to the ringawera (kitchen workers) for making food so delicious that we are reluctant to leave. When I learned this waiata I started to think of it, and sing it in my head when I wanted to remember horokukū and use it in a spoken sentence that I wasn’t singing!

Knowing that waiata can help us retain words was a reason I made up little jingles to sing to my babies. Like a homemade Wiggles episode, I made up ditties about everything from the kids’ names to changing their nappies and putting on their bibs, that I sang every time we did those things during the day. Pare hūhare (bib) replaced the lyrics of Boney M’s Daddy Cool in my reo remix that I sang as I put a bib on my kids: Pare hūhare, e mau tō Pare hūhare (bib, put on your bib). I promise it sounds slightly catchier that it looks on paper!

This was a tactic I used not only to remember words myself but also give my tamariki some more vocabulary. One of my greatest hits was Tīemiemi (seesaw) which has a tune I made up and would sing every time the kids were on a seesaw. As they grew they started to sing that song to themselves when they were on the tīemiemi and made my day every time because it meant the jingles were working!

Apart from my random tunes, actual waiata tawhito (ancient songs) and mōteatea (traditional chants) hold tribal stories and knowledge that have been passed down for generations. There’s such joy in learning them, knowing you’re echoing the words of generations past and continuing traditions. Learning and retaining waiata gets easier the more you do it, so don’t worry if it doesn’t come easily at first, or even for quite a while.

Even if you can listen to waiata in your car, not trying to learn the lyrics but just letting them sink in, that can help tune your ear. That’s if, unlike me, you can wrestle the playlist off Encanto-obsessed tamariki!

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