46. A Personal Note – The Māori Language Landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand, 2020

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Tania M Ka’ai
Te Ipukarea Research Institute / Auckland University of Technology (AUT)


Māori, as the Indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, constitute 16.5% of a total population of 4,699,755 or 775,836 (Statistics New Zealand, 2019). According to Statistics New Zealand (2019), 185,955 people (4.0%) of the total population identified as being able to speak te reo Māori (the Māori language) at various degrees of proficiency. This figure includes non-Māori.  There are 159,645 Māori (20.6%) who identify as being able to speak te reo Māori at various degrees of proficiency.  However, this number is problematic as it is often the case that lesser able speakers of the language can inflate their ability, while more proficient speakers of the language tend to understate their ability.  The reality is that te reo Māori struggles to survive because there is still a paucity of proficient second language speakers and even fewer native speakers of the language.

The Māori Cultural Renaissance period which has its roots in the 1970s in Aotearoa New Zealand, gave rise to several Māori language revitalisation initiatives for the next 20 – 30 years including the revival of taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments), Māori performing arts, educational initiatives such as Te Kōhanga Reo (early childhood nests using Māori as the medium of instruction) and Kura Kaupapa Māori (primary school operating under Māori custom and using Māori as the medium of instruction), tā moko (traditional art of tattoo), Māori broadcasting such as iwi (tribe) radio stations, a Māori television channel and the reclaiming of Māori tribal land.

These initiatives have emerged against a backdrop of Māori protest and lobbying of government and are best described as Māori assertions to sovereignty. The ability to speak te reo Māori became an intrinsic component of Māori cultural identity. The recognition of te reo Māori as the first language in Aotearoa New Zealand continues to be put on the government agenda by Māori. This has in the last decade, given rise to the New Zealand government introducing the Māori Language Act 2016.

This response has been realised by setting specific targets. Te Maihi Karauna – the Crowns Strategy for Māori Language Revitalisation 2018-2023 that emerged out of the Te Ture mō te Reo Māori 2016 (The Māori Language Act 2016) has created a new way of approaching language revitalisation. The Act established a partnership between the Crown, iwi (tribes) and Māori, who are represented by Te Mātāwai, an independent entity. Te Mātāwai focuses on homes, communities and the nurturing of Māori children as first language speakers of te reo Māori, hence Te Maihi Māori. The Crown, focuses on creating a New Zealand society where te reo Māori is valued, learned and used by developing policies and services that support language revitalisation, hence Te Maihi Karauna.

The Maihi Karauna proposes three very bold goals to achieve by 2040:

  • That 85% of New Zealanders (or more) will value te reo Māori as a key part of national identity;
  • That one million New Zealanders can speak at least basic te reo Māori; and
  • That 150,000 Māori aged 15 years and over will use te reo Māori as much as English.

(Te Puni Kōkiri, 2019)


This presents a huge challenge for us as a nation because it requires a change of attitude particularly by non-indigenous New Zealanders to embrace te reo Māori. A study undertaken in 2019 called, Ki te tahatū o te rangi: Normalising te reo Māori across non-traditional Māori language domains assessed the non-indigenous New Zealand landscape about attitudes within their organisations towards te reo Māori. The research explored the integration of Māori language in various organisations across Aotearoa New Zealand. According to Haar, Ka’ai, Ravenswood & Smith (2019), the research identified why organisations use, support and champion the use of te reo me ngā tikanga Māori (the Māori language and culture) in Aotearoa, New Zealand and the challenges that prevent them from doing so. Understanding the drivers and barriers of te reo Māori terminology and Māori culture workplace usage is a crucial element for achieving a greater use of Māori language across New Zealand society.

Technology is also playing a vital role in normalising the language. Increasingly technology is being used for the documentation and revitalisation of endangered languages and many endangered languages appear to be making a successful transition to new media. This includes the Māori language in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

One example of this is the Kupu app, available free on the App Store as Kupu Spark. It was a collaborative project between Spark New Zealand with Colenso BBDO (the creative designers), Google, and the Te Aka Māori Dictionary Team of the Te Murumāra Foundation, a not-for-profit Charitable Trust set up in memory of a much-loved colleague, mentor, and friend, Professor John Moorfield.

Figure 1
Kupu App

Note:   Kupu, which means ‘word’ in the Māori language, was launched during Māori Language Week in September 2018. The app enables users to take a photo of something in their surroundings, identifies it, and offers the Māori translation in real-time (it also does this for photos already stored on the device). The Te Aka Māori – English, English – Māori Dictionary (Te Aka) is the engine behind the Kupu app, providing quality assured translations.


The Kupu app was nominated as a finalist in the annual Māori Language Commission Awards in the Te Wiki o te Reo Māori / Māori Language Week category, which it won. It also received the overall award, Te Tohu Huia te Reo / Supreme Award. So, it is against this background that the Kupu app has gained extraordinary success. The following statistics are evidence of this:

  • Kupu was the #1 trending app on the App Store and Google Play stores during Māori language week 2018.
  • Since the launch of the app on September 8 2018 there have been 7,014,124 API calls by the app in total.  This means each time a person uses the app it makes a call to our API.
  • Total calls provided September 4 2019 was 5,043,765.
  • API calls since then is 1,970,359 to date (June 4, 2020 )
  • 294,597 people are now using the app (June 4, 2020)
  • 3,365,179 photos have been taken within the app, by 242,764 people (June 4, 2020)
  • 26,321 people have uploaded images (June 4, 2020)
  • 4,687,500 audio-clips have been played (June 4, 2020)
  • 62,106 people have visited the website, 72,762 times (June 4, 2020).
  • The feedback loop improves language; lets users input corrections or suggest other translations, moderated by a te reo Māori language expert


Another example is Te Tomokanga Rauemi Reo (TRRM) which is an online te reo Māori digital portal. The portal comprises a vast corpus of te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) created through documentary research, wānanga (intense discussions on specific topics) and interviews. The construction of TRRM is informed by research already undertaken, user requirements and best practice to provide a user-friendly and effective environment of accessible Māori language and Māori knowledge.

Figure 2
Tomokanga Rauemai Reo Māori

Note: The Tomokanga Rauemi Reo Māori project has delivered a searchable directory with content and material resulting from search, review and research in the form of relevant Māori language material, references, collections and links.


The portal is future proofed by ensuring that other digital projects can be added to the site over the coming years. Other researchers will also be able to utilise the portal as an appropriate mechanism to share their digital Māori language resources with a wider audience.

Metadata and archiving standards have been employed for the portal and require archival research, implementation of national and international archiving standards as well as innovative information technology (IT) application and development.

The types of users envisaged include anyone searching for support in their Māori language and mātauranga Māori journey. The portal provides access to Māori language resources, including publications, iwi,radio, television programmes, community initiatives, websites and social media. With a focus only on resources for the Māori language, it is envisaged that over time, it will become the preferred and single portal used by those requiring and interested in Māori language resources.

As the first language of Aotearoa New Zealand, te reo Māori has an important role to play in the identity and wellbeing of Māori (Houkamau & Sibley, 2010). So akin to the research by Fishman, Hinton, McCarty and so many others, it is no surprise that there is an upsurge in Māori parents choosing to raise their children in te reo Māori; most of these are second language learners who have achieved a high level of proficiency in the language.

A study undertaken over a three year period was Te Reo o te Pā Harakeke.    This study sought to understand the factors that contribute to the successful intergenerational transmission of te reo Māori within the whānau (family) presents some interesting findings. The focus of the research was on the,

…challenges that families face, the strategies they employ, and the resources they rely on in raising Māori speaking children and ensuring that te reo Māori is the primary and dominant language of the home and related environments that families function in, such as the supermarket, the beach, the playground, the marae, the swimming pool, and the library (Ka‘ai, 2020, p.3).


The findings from the study fosters a stronger sense of awareness of the circumstances that constitute language endangerment in Aotearoa New Zealand and provides an impetus to efforts to promote the use of the Māori language as an everyday language used in a wide range of contexts. Throughout the report, the importance of promoting the use of Māori in the home could not be overstressed. Hence, educational initiatives, such as Kura Kaupapa Māori and Te Kōhanga Reo, can only be truly successful if the language is reinforced in the home. While schools have an important part to play in the maintenance and survival of Indigenous languages, Fishman (1991) has pointed out that successful revival of threatened languages requires reinstating the language firmly in the home through transmission from parent/s to the child. This view is supported by Hinton (2008) who states, “…if the parent is fluent, then that must be the language of communication between the parent and child, either at all times or during a significant amount of time” (p.13).

If the home is a stronghold of the Māori language, then children will not have to go to school to learn te reo Māori, rather, the school will reinforce and extend what the child receives at home. As Hinton (2008) further suggests, ”true ’reversal of language shift‘ cannot be successful in the long run unless families make it their own process”.

As a parent activist, I have had to learn my language as a second language. I sent my child to Te Kōhanga Reo and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori to be exposed to the language everyday. I then followed this up in the home with her which was often very difficult as I was the only parent who could speak te reo Māori with her in the home. The intention was to bring the language back into the home environment and stop any further decline of the language or language loss in my own family thus bringing about long-term transformational change. This process has worked for me as I have seen first-hand that the best time to learn a language is when one is a child. I am fortunate that the importance of te reo Māori was indelibly printed in the mind and heart of my child who, alongside her husband, also a speaker of the language, are raising their child (my grandchild) in te reo Māori as a first language and she is the first native speaker in my family since 1881. Joshua Fishman said that the vitality of a language is in its transmission between generations. ‘Those of us who were involved in the early days of the Kōhanga Reo movement, to give our children access to te reo Māori, could only dream of the day when our children would themselves become parents and would raise our grandchildren in the language, fulfilling the dictum that language learning begins at the breast.
For some of us, myself included, that dream has become a reality.’ (Ka’ai, 2020)

The many Māori language initiatives over the last 50 years in Aotearoa New Zealand to develop a landscape where te reo Māori can flourish are part of the Māori language revitalisation revival continuum. But it is hoped that with recent initiatives to normalise the language among non-traditional Māori domains within the dominant non-Māori society, offset by increasing numbers of Māori families raising their children in te reo Māori in the home, that te reo Māori will indeed flourish and we will see a return of intergenerational language transmission of te reo Māori across generations of Māori families and the emergence of native speakers of te reo Māori within Māori society once again.



Fishman, J. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Haar, J., Ka‘ai, T., Ravenswood, K., & Smith, T. (2019). Ki te tahatū o te rangi: Normalising te reo Māori across non-traditional Māori language domains.

Hinton, L. (2008). Learning and teaching endangered indigenous languages. In N. Van Deusen-Scholl & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.). Encyclopaedia of language and education (2nd edition). Volume 4: Second and foreign language education (pp. 157-167). New York, NY: Springer.

Houkamau, C.A., & Sibley, C.G. (2010). The multi-dimensional model of Māori identity and cultural engagement. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 39(1), 8-28.

Ka‘ai, T. (2020). Te Reo o Te Pā Harakeke – Final Report. Unpublished report.

Ka‘ai, T. (2020). Te Whare Matihiko o te Reo – Final Report. Unpublished report.

Ka’ai, T., Mahuta, D. & Smith, T. (2019). Te Aka Māori – English, English – Māori Dictionary: the engine behind the Kupu app, a high impact collaborative Māori language revitalisation project. [Paper presentation]. Australex Conference, Canberra, Australia

Ka’ai, T., Mahuta, D. & Smith, T. (2019). The Kupu App: A high impact collaborative language revitalisation project. [Paper presentation]. Pullima Conference, Darwin, Australia.

Moorfield, J. C. (n.d.). Māori Dictionary, Te Aka Māori-English, English-Māori Dictionary. https://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?idiom=&phrase=&proverb=&loan=&keywords=Te+Aka

Spark New Zealand (2018) KupuTake a photo, learn a language: About. https://kupu.co.nz/about/

Statistics New Zealand (2018, 02 October). Expected updates to Māori population statistics. https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/expected-updates-to-maori-population-statistics

Te Puni Kōkiri, (2019, February) Maihi Karauna: The Crown’s Strategy for Māori Language        Revitalisation 2019-2023. https://www.tpk.govt.nz/docs/tpk-maihi-karauna-en-2018-v2.pdf

Te Puni Kōkiri (2018, August) Maihi Karauna: The Crown’s Strategy for Māori Language        Revitalisation 2018–2023 Consultation, August–September 2018,        https://www.tpk.govt.nz/docs/tpk-maihi-karauna-en-2018.pdf