If proof were ever needed that anyone can learn te reo Māori, Rebecca Tamati is it.
When she first enrolled in Te Ara Reo Māori Level 2 with Te Wānanga O Aotearoa in Ōtautahi, her understanding of the language was pretty basic.
“I had no knowledge whatsoever, possibly a couple of words, that was it. I couldn’t even properly pronounce words like tahi, rua, toru, whā, tēna koe, tēna koutou,” she says.
That was in 2003, when Te Wānanga o Aotearoa first ventured into Te Waipounamu.
Fast forward 14 years and Rebecca – known to everyone as Bex - is now the kaiako for Te Ara Reo Māori Level 2 in Ōtautahi, the same programme that got her started all those years ago.
“It’s awesome. Last year, I was employed as a kaiawhina on Level 2 and Level 4 and this year I’m a kaiako for Level 2.”
Rebecca – who has Pākeha whakapapa – has continued her language journey with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and completed the Level 6 Aupikitanga programme in 2013. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Māori Language and Indigenous Studies at ARA in Ōtautahi.
And she’s the first to admit it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
“It’s been a long journey through all those stages. The first couple of years I had to really zero in on my pronunciation and tune my ear to te reo. I was one of those tauira who got Yet to Achieve a few times. I really, really struggled in the first couple of years just retaining information, kupu hou and all of that.”
What prompted her to begin studying te reo Māori was working in her community of Aranui.
“I saw the kids that had the reo and they carried their mana, they had pride. I thought with some of the others there was something missing and I identified it as the language. When I heard the wānanga was coming down, something inside me sprang to life and I thought ‘I’ve got to learn te reo’.”
A key breakthrough, she says, was connecting with a study group in the community, which enabled her to use the language outside the classroom.
“I could integrate it into my life, it was a different avenue,” she says.
A big boost also came from her kaiako and other supporters.
“I’ve had a few inspirational kaiako,” she says.
“Kaharoa Manihera really encouraged me and motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and Leah Fitzpatrick was very much an inspiration. She has Pākeha whakapapa and her reo is so beautiful.”
Despite that support, Rebecca says she still struggled with Aupikitanga.
“I was overwhelmed and thought about giving up. I felt like I was drowning but some amazing kuia were very supportive and reminded me how far I’d come. Once I had broken through that barrier I thought I’d just put all my effort into it and see how it goes and step out of the box I put myself in. I learned and grew so much through that year.”
And while she’s now teaching others to speak te reo Māori – a role she never dreamed she would have - her own language journey isn’t done yet.
“I’ll carry on with my reo. I’ve always kept Pinakitanga up my sleeve for when I have time.”