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He Taonga te Reo: Non-Māori Engagement with the Māori Language in Aotearoa New Zealand

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posted on 2022-08-08, 05:32 authored by Michelle O'Toole

A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Department of Social Inquiry, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia.


Changes occurring in cross-cultural relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand are reflected in the high demand by non-Māori to learn te reo Māori in Māori cultural settings. In He Taonga te Reo, I explore the reasons behind the emergent appreciation by non-Māori New Zealanders of this taonga, the treasured ancestral language of Māori people. Inspired by principles of Kaupapa Māori Research methodology and drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at the Whakatāne branch of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori tertiary education provider, I look at cross-cultural engagements through second language acquisition from the perspective of non-Indigenous adult students. The aims are to understand the interest in learning te reo by non-Māori adults and identify what this demand for developing te reo competence conveys about the non-Māori aspect of cross-cultural relations in Aotearoa New Zealand today. 

I argue that many non-Māori find deep engagement with te reo and tikanga Māori (Māori cultural protocol) difficult for many reasons, including especially the internalisation of negative colonial discourses, issues around cultural appropriation, and the sometimes unfamiliar experiences of disenfranchisement. However, new ways of belonging are learned, and some linguistic and cultural activities associated with te reo acquisition are forces for impelling social change, including decolonisation. Also fostered is cross-cultural awareness, which may contribute to intercultural understanding and opportunities for non-Māori to transform cross- cultural relationships. 

I advance this argument first through a detailed examination of non-Māori daily engagements with te reo words and phrases, using ‘Kia ora,’ ‘Kia kaha,’ and ‘rāhui’ as examples. I further develop the argument through analysis of two in-class language learning activities, the pepeha (formal personal introduction) and the tangata rongonui (person of significance) presentation. While some non-Māori students’ interactions with te reo gesture towards continuing colonisation, many of these engagements seek—consciously or not—to build connections across cultures.


Center or Department

Department of Social Inquiry

Thesis type

  • Ph. D.

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


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