Learning how to pronounce Māori words properly immediately shows respect for the language and the people, says Keri Opai of Te Pou.

Opai is Te Pou’s strategic lead to help the mental health workforce agency’s engagement with Māori and an award-winning glossary Te Reo Hāpai that includes new words in te reo for the mental health, addictions and disability sectors.

He said as part of Te Reo Hāpai he encourages health professionals to embrace the language and for all clinicians to take the first step of at least learning how to pronounce Māori.

“I always say if you can pronounce Māori words properly then that immediately shows respect for the language. And if you show respect for the language, you respect the culture and if you respect the language and the culture, you respect the people. So a good start is just learning how to pronounce it [te reo Māori].

“And be open to making mistakes and learning from them. Like anything that is new, or different, there is a little risk factor there and there is going to be a little bit of embarrassment when you are not sure,” said Opai.

“But the reality is that if there is one thing that everybody should do in this country – which shows respect for Māori things and Māori people – it is to learn to pronounce Māori words properly. You are surrounded by them every day and all the time. You can’t avoid it.”

For health professionals who do build their te reo skills and vocabulary they should be patient-led for when they use it. Opai says part of learning te reo is also learning about colonisation and what effect it had on the tangata whenua, the Māori people.

“You have Māori people who are knowledgeable about who they are, where they come from and their language and culture. And then you have people who feel very badly about not being raised with their culture and language intact.” So it can be potentially detrimental to have a health professional using Māori terms they are not used to or don’t know how to respond to.

So he suggests starting a conversation with a patient or client with ‘kia ora’ and being guided by how they respond before using more te reo terms. “There are those who are very strong in our culture and those who aren’t,” says Opai. “So it is probably not appropriate to use language and culture when people aren’t so au fait with it.

“Blown away” by glossary’s success

Creating new words in te reo for mental health and disability terms has also shown the power words have to destigmatise  and change the way people think, said Opai.

He said people in particular were embracing the word he created for autism, takiwātanga, which means ‘his or her own time and space’ – a translation that was inspired by a lifelong friend with autism.

“I’ve literally seen people getting tattoos of takiwātanga on their forearms, seen it on Facebook and it is going around the world,” said Opai.

“It is making people reimagine, rethink how they perceive autism. It is not a negative thing – it is their ‘own time and space’.

“I’m happy to say that a lot of the words in the glossary have had that effect. Like whaikaha, which actually means be ‘otherly abled’, to be able, to be strong. So it changes the way we think about disability.”

“It all goes towards strengthening the Māori language and – looking into the future – how these words are starting to replace some of the English words.”

Opai said a big reason he took on the glossary project for Te Pou was to have words that provided not only a Māori world view but a positive Māori world view.

“Words can lift you or crush you,” he said.  “And I want words to uplift people.”

Opai said the success of Te Reo Hāpai had ‘blown him away’ with not only 7000 copies of the glossary been given out around the country, but there had also been 3000 downloads from around the world.

“So you’ve got other indigenous people saying ‘if they can do it, we can do it’,” said Opai of the glossary that won him an Australasian mental health award last month.

He said a next step including creating an online platform for the glossary so it could bring it to more people and they could hear how to pronounce the words.

Te reo pronunciation resources:

The Māori Language Commission has recordings of the sounds for the five Māori vowels: a, e, i, o, u and their long versions ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. http://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/Māori-language/whakahuatanga-pronunciation/

Health professional te reo resources:

Te Reo Hāpai – The Language of Enrichment: a glossary of existing and new te reo Māori terms for use in the mental health, addiction and disability sectors. A pdf of the booklet developed by Keri Opai for Te Pou can be downloaded here.

Aki Hauora app – University of Otago developed this game app as a fun way to help health professional students and health professionals learn or become more familiar with Māori language used in health care. Available to download from app stores for both Apple and Android devices.


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