Kenny Williams began to study the Māori language during his second COVID-19 lockdown. Williams, 36, lives alone and the isolation made him yearn to feel closer to his identity as an indigenous New Zealander—an identity he had spent most of his childhood trying to hide (Source: Time.com)
After he ordered some Māori language books, he found his studies helped him build a connection to his Māori history. “I didn’t know it was a gap that was missing in my life,” he says.
It’s not just lockdown isolation—New Zealanders of all stripes are signing up to learn the language of the Māori people, New Zealand’s original inhabitants—“te reo Māori,” as it is widely called. But COVID-19 may have provided a boost: One university reported that 7,000 people accessed a free online Māori language and culture course in a 10-day period during lockdown.
The New Zealand government has pledged to ensure 1 million residents are able to speak basic Māori by 2040—an effort to revive a language that UNESCO has classified as “vulnerable”. The language has been incorporated into everyday life in ways both big and small. At sporting events, the national anthem is sung in both English and Māori language. Vodafone, the largest mobile network, changed the banner its cell phone users see on their screen from “Vodafone NZ” to “VF Aotearoa”. The meeting rooms in Microsoft’s Auckland office have Māori names, and Pic’s, a popular peanut butter brand, has translated its labels.
The renewed interest in the Māori language also comes as New Zealand continues to wrestle with its colonial history—and representation for Māori culture. In the run-up to elections in September, the Māori Party—which aims to represent the interests of Māori people—called for the country to be renamed Aotearoa—the country’s Māori name, which translates to “land of the long white cloud.” The party won two seats in the election, after being shut out of parliament in 2017. While a quarter of Ardern’s cabinet is of Māori descent, Ardern has said now is not the right time to debate changing the country’s name.
Brought back from the brink
The language of New Zealand’s original inhabitants was still the country’s predominant tongue at the beginning of the 19th century, but it was suppressed over the following decades to ensure that Māori children assimilated with the growing number of English-speaking colonial arrivals. “My grandparents weren’t allowed to speak it, so they didn’t pass it down to my parents and my parents didn’t pass it down to me,” says Williams.
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