During a two-year church mission to the Philippines, Isaac Smiler learned to speak Filipino and when he returned to New Zealand, that success prompted him to look to his own culture.
“The thought hit me that I know the languge of the Philippines and I don’t know my own, so I have no excuses, I’ve already leant one language, I can do it for my own,” he says.
So Isaac - Ngāti Kahungunu, Waikato, Kai Tahu - charted his own path to learn te reo Māori.
“I began learning the reo by watching baby shows. I watched all the episodes of Takaro Tribe and I bought a grammer book. After that I started watching all the episodes of Waka Huia just so I could listen to people who are matatau in te reo and I began to immitate what they were saying and how they sounded.”
Last year the Otago University medical student enrolled in the Level 6 Te Aupikitanga ki te reo Kairangi total immersion programme at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Ōtepoti and is the recipient of the 2020 Tāne Taylor Memorial Scholarship, awarded by the AST Scholarship Trust.
He says the $3000 scholarship would “alleviate some stress and allow me to more fully focus on my reo and medical school goals”.
“The awesome thing about Te Aupikitanga is that I would come to my teachers with all of these questions, like ‘this is what I’ve been saying, is this right? That was really, really helpful.”
As if studying medicine as well as te reo Māori wasn’t enough, Isaac is also president of the Māori Medical Students’ Association in Dunedin (Te Oranga Ki Otakou) and created the kaupapa, 'Begginers Med Te Reo Maori'.
“I have organised the funding required to have a reo Māori teacher teach begginers te reo for free for all medical students in Dunedin who desire to learn,” he says.
“We weren’t too sure what the reaction would be but we showed up to the clubs day, set up our table and we had our sign up paper there and there was a real desire for the reo within the medical school, which was awesome.”
When it launched early in 2020, interest was high, with around 70 people attending classes, and while COVID-19 had an impact, many students continued with their learning.
He also organised a hui for all the Māori medical students at Ōtākou Marae to welcome new intakes of Māori medical students.
“It was a space to encourage and invite those who haven’t already began, to begin their reo Māori journeys,” Isaac says.
While he’s always busy with studies and working part-time, Isaac says he will continue to push te reo Māori to his fellow students.
He says his biggest challenge in learning te reo Māori has been overcoming the fear of making mistakes.
“It’s just being brave enough to kōrero Māori, and then if it goes down the toilet than so be it, but learn from the experience, pick yourself up, move on and keep going. From your mistakes you learn.”