For Neria Mataira, teacher of Te Reo, Māori is also a second language.

“I am a second language learner, just like my students,” says Neria, who is offering night and day lessons at Poihakena Marae from February 15.

“My eldest was 4 years old when I learnt, she is 30 now.”

Neria, 56, who has been teaching Te Reo for 20 years, says   “attitudes to te reo were very negative” when she was young.

“Our parents were caned if they spoke it,” she says.

But “in the ’70s there were a lot of reports that Te Reo Māori would die out by the year 2000, so a lot of academics got serious about looking for ways to rejuvenate, regenerate, our Te Reo.”

Neria’s mother, Dame Katerina Mataira, was one of them.

“She did her master’s thesis and researched a lot of methodology, and one that she thought could help Te Reo by Caleb Gattegno, that makes use of silence as a teaching technique. The method emphasises learner autonomy and active student participation.

Katerina, who died four years ago, developed Te Ataarangi, a programme for adults, and was responsible for the growth of Kura Kaupapa Māori (Māori immersion schools) in New Zealand.

Katerina was appointed as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2011 for service to the Māori language.

There is a certain irony in that honour. “Her parents sent her away to school to learn English because that was how she was she was going to do well for herself.”

Neria says it is important to keep Māori culture and language alive.

She has a moko kauae, a woman’s chin tattoo, which she got five years ago, at the same time as her two sisters and following in their mother’s footsteps.

“It’s something that I think is very beautiful: traditional Māori moko,” she says.

She says she discussed it with her partner, Winiata Whare, who also has a facial moko, about getting it done.

“Winiata said ‘why do we teach Te Reo? So that it’s not lost to our grandchildren, and the same must apply to these traditional markings’.”

All of Neria’s children attended Māori immersion schools, and Te Reo is spoken in the home where she lives with her extended family.

“One of our youngest said ‘right, I don’t want to go to that school any more, I want to go to a Pakeha school’, and he went and hasn’t spoken Māori since.

“That’s really sad for his mum but he should be able to make his own decisions.”

Again there lies an irony in Neria’s anguish: “He can understand Māori, and it’s still there, it’s just sleeping.”

As with learning any new language, there has to be a desire or willingness to learn, and then an opportunity to continue conversing in order to retain what’s been learnt and to excel.

Neria says her night courses (Monday nights, two hours) offer the fundamental basics of learning Te Reo, while students who take her day courses (twice a week, from 9.30am to 2.30pm, Mondays and Tuesdays) should be able to converse fluently in Maori by the end of the year.

“In two hours I can have a student who came in with nothing running a sentence together.”

But you have to spend more than one night school lesson a week to become fluent, she says.

“You have to spend time totally immersed.

“Come back and the fluency will be able to flourish.”

“There is a power in language and you have to get over your own ego (in order to learn). It can be very challenging for a lot of people and a lot of the time it doesn’t work, people are uncomfortable with it. A lot of adults are scared to make mistakes.”

Neria says sadly more non-Māori than Māori take her courses. “Some Māori have had bad experiences with school, so they are scared to put themselves in that position again.”

She would like to see more Māori involved, but understands there can be barriers.

Leading up to the start of her classes there’s been a lot of interest, says Neria. “That’s exciting, but we will see how many will turn up on the day, and how many are still on board at the end of the year.”

So far, she has 20 beginners keen for the night school this year. She had eight starting last year but ended with six.

Inger Vos

* If anyone would like more information on Neria’s Te Reo lessons please phone or text her on 021 208 3196 or email