Meng Foon is a race relations commissioner. He is fluent in English, Te Reo Maori, Cantonese and Seyip (from southern China).

OPINION: As the nation celebrates another Waitangi Day, it is time once and for all to put our collective weight behind raising and sustaining a beautiful taonga that sits right under our noses, or perhaps on the tip of our languages.

Te reo Māori, alongside New Zealand Sign Language, is an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand, which is fitting, but there is a sad element to this.

English is a de facto official language due to the number of people who speak it. It is not endangered and does not need the protection granted to te reo Māori, a protection which is finally described in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and more recently in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Race relations commissioner Meng Foon said it was time for the government to invest in ensuring the spread of te reo.

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Race relations commissioner Meng Foon said it was time for the government to invest in ensuring the spread of te reo.

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One way to protect and even strengthen the position of te reo Māori in Aotearoa is to add it to our core subjects in schools. I have shared my thoughts with Members of Parliament because there is momentum that we cannot afford to lose.

Much of this wave of support was created by kōhanga reo generations who helped spread the language into homes, whānau, and circles of influence. Te reo is popping up in all sectors of society – in our news shows, popular music and social media trends – but more needs to be done to ensure it’s not a fleeting fad. It’s time to make te reo a core subject in schools, and for the government to invest in making sure that happens.

Early missionaries such as Henry Williams learned to speak te reo, but this changed as new settlers arrived.

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Early missionaries such as Henry Williams learned to speak te reo, but this changed as new settlers arrived.

It must be remembered that the only reason te reo Māori revitalization is a topic is because of the negative impacts of colonization. In the early years after the signing of Te Tiriti, Te reo was still the most widely used language across the country, and many prominent Pākehā and missionaries learned to speak it.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the pendulum swung with the influx of new settlers, and talk of te reo was actively discouraged, despite its value to Māori. Te reo was removed, with a new emphasis on assimilation, and generations of tangata whenua were punished for speaking their language.

However, mending is not the main reason why reo should become a core subject in schools. The government has already seen the need to teach local history. Learning about our history is an absolute must, with discussions around events such as the New Zealand wars a must. Te reo can also play a role in providing context, understanding and empathy between Maori and non-Maori.

Awapuni School in Palmerston North uses te reo in all facets of its learning (file photo).

DAVID UNWIN/Stuff

Awapuni School in Palmerston North uses te reo in all facets of its learning (file photo).

Ideally, normalizing te reo would help address issues based on colonization and structural racism. As a lifelong student of te reo Māori, it has helped me connect with the communities I serve and bridge the gap between many diverse cultures and tangata whenua. Imagine the potential for generational change if everyone spoke English and Maori at least at a basic level.

When people face such changes, there are often challenges and fear, but we have to overcome that. Tuwhitia te hopo. Banish fear! Overcome it and move forward, and embrace the wonder of a new Aotearoa.

The appetite for the language is there, with Wānanga and adult classes oversubscribed as people, including non-Maori, begin to realize the benefits of being bilingual and coherent in a way unique to New Zealand . Some migrants I spoke to were shocked that the indigenous language was not already taught to everyone in schools.

Te reo supporters, led by kaumātua Te Ouenuku Rene, presented the Maori-language petition to Parliament in September 1972.

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Te reo supporters, led by kaumātua Te Ouenuku Rene, presented the Maori-language petition to Parliament in September 1972.

I understand that the government is working to strengthen Maori education, and its intentions are to be applauded, but the strategy seems to lack teeth in terms of concrete and urgent action. For years we have heard that there are not enough Maori language teachers, and it is true that many popular courses are restricted because of this problem. But instead of raising this excuse again and again, surely it’s time to act.

I would like to see investments in the budget for incentives to increase the number of Maori teachers, to fund our future as a bicultural nation that sees both tangata whenua and tangata tiriti flourishing. Let’s make teaching, both te reo and in general, an attractive profession. Let us support those who wish to serve our future generations.

Fifty years ago, the Maori-language petition was tabled in Parliament, seeking active recognition of te reo Maori. It is time to advance this recognition and safeguard the language for the next 50 years and beyond.

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