Story: Te reo Māori – the Māori language

Page 4. Language decline, 1900 to 1970s

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Monolingualism to bilingualism

At the beginning of the 20th century, most Māori still spoke just Māori. However, there was an increasing shift to bilingualism. A relatively stable type of bilingualism existed among Māori until the 1930s, with te reo spoken at home and on the marae, and English at school and in interactions with the government and employers.

In the 1930s some Europeans advocated a move towards monolingualism. T. B. Strong, director of education, commented in 1930 that ‘the natural abandonment of the native tongue inflicts no loss on the Maori’1. However, Māori were reluctant to stop speaking te reo in the home. Education became an area of cultural conflict, with some Māori seeing the education system as suppressing Māori culture, language and identity. Children were sometimes punished for speaking te reo Māori at school.

Decline in speaker numbers

Between 1920 and 1960 there was a significant decline in the number of speakers of Māori. Several factors contributed to this decline. The Māori male population was hit hard by participation in two world wars. Māori families moving to the cities were encouraged to integrate into mainstream society. In a policy known as ‘pepper potting’, individual Māori families were housed among non-Māori families to encourage them to adopt Pākehā ideals, culture and language.

English as dominant language

Negative societal values and attitudes towards the Māori language continued to penetrate the education system and spilled over into the home environment. English eventually became the dominant language in Māori homes because many Māori came to see English as the language of success, achievement and advancement.

Māori studies in universities

During this period the genesis of Māori studies at universities occurred. An increasing number of Māori had become isolated from their language and culture and were looking for ways to remedy this. Although the first Māori-studies subject was not introduced at Auckland University College until 1952, the University of New Zealand Senate had agreed to permit the Māori language to be examined for the Bachelor of Arts in 1929. From 1967 Māori studies was taught as a BA subject at Victoria University of Wellington.

In 1978 the first MA programmes in Māori studies were introduced at Waikato and Victoria universities.  The study of the Māori language was introduced at the University of Otago in 1981, but not offered as a major until 1990. These programmes were one way of promoting the language.

English-speaking Māori students

As Māori studies departments developed, more monolingual English-speaking Māori students began enrolling at universities. For many of these students, universities became places to learn their language and culture and become connected to their identity. Māori studies needed to accommodate increasing numbers of Māori with no prior access to this knowledge, and university courses were developed to address this issue.

Political awareness

Universities also became the platform from which Māori political awareness grew. Ngā Tamatoa (at the University of Auckland) and the Te Reo Māori Society (Victoria University of Wellington) embodied this growing politicisation. The often-heralded Māori renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s saw these university graduates fighting to reverse language loss, change attitudes towards te reo and support political issues including land and Treaty of Waitangi rights. The impact of not knowing the Māori language became the catalyst for many graduates to fight for its recognition in New Zealand society.

Te reo Māori petition

In 1972 Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society collected over 30,000 signatures on a petition to Parliament calling for the government to offer Māori language in schools. That year the Te Reo Māori Society was also instrumental in establishing Māori Language Day – extended to Māori Language Week in 1975. Māori Language Week continues to be a feature of the New Zealand calendar and in the 21st century follows a theme set by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission.

  1. T. B. Strong, ‘The education of South Sea Island natives.’ In Maori and education, or, The education of natives in New Zealand and its dependencies, edited by Patrick M. Jackson. Wellington: Ferguson & Osborn, 1931, p. 193. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language - Language decline, 1900 to 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2015