Every Monday evening, Charlotte Robinson makes the hour and a half round trip from her home at the old Tutira School, about 45 kilometers north of Napier, to a weekly Te Reo Māori class.
Read this story here in te reo Māori and English. / Pānuitia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.
Robinson (Raukawa, Ngāti Huri, Ngāti Pikiao ki Te Arawa) is fluent in French, has mastered Bahasa Indonesia and even knows a little Arabic. On her journey to speak Te Reo Māori, she considers herself “just a learner”.
We first met in July last year while sitting next to each other in the back of the class.
It quickly became apparent that Robinson – herself a teacher at Tutira School – was the best note-taker in the class, with her colourful, well-annotated comments helping to break down the sentence structures.
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Born in Te Puke, the eldest of eight children, her ancestry includes Norwegian whalers, a purported descendant of Robert the Bruce and the daughter of a highborn Māori princess.
Her mother came from a “somewhat English but mainly Māori background” and while her grandparents were fluent in Te Reo on this site, her mother belonged to the generation where speaking was discouraged. It is only more recently that she has learned more about her father’s Māori heritage.
While vacationing with her maternal grandparents in Bay of Plenty, Robinson learned to understand basics like puku (stomach) and turituri (shhh), but admits she had trouble pronouncing place names.
She felt some of her other siblings were more competent, adding that there’s a “huge difference in what we know, even in our family.”
In her final year at school, Robinson had a Māori teacher who was “very encouraging” and taught her Waiata. During her school years, Robinson also learned French, in which she often received better grades than in her English work.
After school, she spent nearly three decades in Australia, where she picked up an accent and some Indonesian. “It’s the same vowels as in the Māori language,” she says, adding that there are even a few words that mean the same thing.
She then spent 11 years in the Middle East, where she also learned a smattering of Arabic.
Spending so much time abroad has limited her opportunities to learn Te Reo Māori, but as of last year she considers herself a ‘learner’.
“If I learn a language now, I will be caught up. I know it in French, I know it in Indonesian, but what is it in Māori?”
Always interested in Māori, Robinson joined the class after being shown the ad by her sister. She said her tutor Ngaire Hunt’s landing was “fantastic” and gave her a “good foundation”.
More than a year later – with a break in between – she’s proud of the progress she’s made, but still believes it will be another 10 years before she’s fully fluent.
She sometimes felt she was already fluent because she is older and Māori – like when she was taking her granddaughter to school and was asked if she wanted to lead a greeting.
“I said, ‘I can do it in French if you want? You can teach me if you want though.’”
With all five languages – English, French, Indonesian, Māori, Arabic – it all came down to practice.
She felt that native speakers of other languages appreciated people’s efforts and that it didn’t matter if you made mistakes.
With her grandchildren already on their own Te Reo Māori journeys, she was optimistic about the future of the language.
Her message to other reo learners: “Keep an open mind, have fun and go at your own pace. Seize opportunities as they come.”