Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

You might recall that back in May, I learned the Maori (Te Reo) word for – manu – and I wrote about it here. I’ve recently learned a few new words in Te Reo that I didn’t know previously, purely by listening to the news, or to Dr Bloomfield, giving a daily COVID briefing. Regularly, he talks about needing rules in place or vaccination “across the motu” or islands. Today, he was being more specific about a particular area, and so I learned rohe, which means region. And in the last week or two, the news reported that a new appointment had significant experience working with rangatahi – the younger generation or youth aged around 15-24 – and Dr Bloomfield has since referred to reaching out to the rangatahi to ensure they are vaccinated. Since then I’ve heard it in a number of contexts, and realise it has clearly entered our lexicon.

Most of the time I can figure out the meaning of these words by context, but I usually Google just to check. This helps lock in the word too, so I can use it in the future myself. It is a subtle but effective way for the population – like myself – who don’t speak Te Reo fluently, to gradually find it a place in our spoken language. And I very much appreciate learning it this way.

There seems to have been an explosion in the use of Maori in the community and media in the last year or two. Journalists and broadcasters lead the way in this, introducing themselves in Maori, making greetings in Maori, and peppering their language with Maori words. In the last year it has become common to hear them thanking others for their mahi, which means work or effort. A year or two ago, I never heard it. The introduction of new words is happening regularly. Even the weather reports on Radio NZ or on two main media channels now refer to our major urban centres, most of which have official names of English or Scottish origin (such as Auckland, Wellington), by their Maori names, and by sheer repetition, I know that Wellington is Te Whanganui-a-Tara, along with all the other names. The Maori names are much more fun to say – compare Kirikiriroa with Hamilton, for example. Which reminds me of the old practice of New Zealanders travelling overseas claiming that they speak fluent Maori, listing off a lot of place names, yet claiming that they mean something else entirely!

A right-wing politician has complained that there is a stealthy plan to gradually replace the name of our country – New Zealand – with the Maori name, Aotearoa. And there are many who agree with her. But Aotearoa is such a beautiful word, and it is connected to this beautiful land where we all live. New Zealand was the name given by a Dutch explorer who didn’t even land on our islands, for goodness sake! So I’d be perfectly happy to change our country name (just as I was supportive of changing our flag, although the general populace was not).

I am extremely happy to continue to learn Maori by stealth in this way. I’d like to learn it more formally. I have plans. But I want to learn so many other languages to assist with travel, if I can ever travel again, so for the moment the plans are on hold. But in the meantime, I’m happy learning a few new words of Maori a week. Maori was called a “dead” language back in the 1960s and 70s. It is far from that now.

At the same time, New Zealand has a large Pacific Island population, and we are all familiar with Samoan names, the stop between vowels etc (eg in the name of the Samoan PM Mata’afa), as well as Tongan, Niuean, Cook Island Maori, etc. For a country that has been disturbingly monolingual, rarely learning second languages even at school or university, we are becoming so much better at recognising these other languages, pronouncing them, and – in the case of Maori at least – incorporating them into our everyday conversation. I will say though, that I was particularly impressed to hear a newsreader perfectly pronouncing and quickly enunciating the former Samoan Prime Minister’s name – Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi. I’m still working on this one. Try it – you’ll see why!

Aroha nui!

(with deep affection)

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Shall we go see the manu?” the young man asked the little boy as they slowly made their way down the stairs from the street to the duck-covered lawn on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound. Seagulls flew overhead, squawking for food.

“The manu?” asked the little boy.

“Yes, let’s go and see the manu,” his dad (I presume) said.

“See the manu,” said the little boy, not sounding convinced, as he toddled down the steps and could see the manu getting closer to him.

“Yes,” said Dad, “that’s right. We’re going to see the manu.”

“See the manu see the manu see the manu seethemanuseethemanuseethemanu,” the little boy repeated, learning a new word.

I was hobbling (due to a minor injury) down the stairs beside them, and by the time I got to the bottom, I too knew the Maori word for “bird.” And now you do too.


  1. If I’m completely honest, I initially thought it was the word for “duck” although I had an inkling that manu – which sounded vaguely familiar – was more generic.
  2. Te Reo = Maori for “the language

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Week Eight of Blogging with Friends

Twenty-five years ago (and a couple of months) – I can’t believe it has been that long – I started studying Mandarin Chinese. My workplace – a government agency – had advertised two positions based in China and Taiwan respectively, and I had been successful for the Taiwan position. The successful candidates would spend ten months studying Mandarin Chinese full-time, prior to taking up the positions in these countries for a three-year term. The process was rushed, with interviews and assessments occurring in just a couple of weeks, followed almost immediately with the beginning of the custom-made course at Wellington’s Victoria University. My husband and I had some misgivings, but we thought that we could make the position work. We knew we had to make arrangements for work for him overseas, or for how our relationship would cope with a separation.

I had, in fact, always wanted to study Chinese. I had applied to study it at university in my first year, after returning from Thailand. But the professor wouldn’t let me join the class, as – due to the timing of my return from my student exchange – I would be starting two weeks after everyone else, most of whom had already studied the language at high school. The following year, when I wanted to take it up again, he had left the university, and – this being the 1980s in New Zealand – Mandarin was no longer offered. I took up Japanese instead, but pursued it just for one year (despite getting an A).

Several years later, in my first workplace, Chinese and Japanese language courses were offered as part of our career progression. Like my subsequent workplace, we had to apply for the positions and meet language assessments. I sat the Modern Language Aptitude Test (used for the US State Dept), found it surprisingly easy, and scored very highly. But precisely at the time they were to make the appointments, the Trade Department and Foreign Ministry merged, and all appointments went on hold.

So, about seven years later when the opportunity to study Chinese came up for the third time, I applied again. I’d spent six weeks in Taipei the previous year relieving in the position that was available, and found it fascinating. Taipei reminded me a lot of Bangkok, and I liked it and knew I could cope with it. So when I was offered the position, I took it up.

There were four students undertaking this special course, two from our organisation, and two from another (ironically, one I had left just a year or so earlier). We started studying about a month before the university academic year began, and concluded about a month after the year had closed for other students. For five hours a day, five days a week, we studied Mandarin. I’d then go home every afternoon, and study some more. We couldn’t afford to slip behind even for a day, given the pace of the course. We spent our time in a little bubble, four students squashed into a tiny room in a little old house that had been converted to part of the Asian languages department. For five hours a day, we watched the teacher and the whiteboard, both only a metre or two away from our desks. This is the year my eyesight deteriorated, the year I needed to wear glasses full-time.

We had two native Chinese speakers teaching us, with oversight from the Kiwi Head of the Chinese Language Department at the university. His input for an hour once a week was useful, as he was able to explain particular issues from the perspective of an English language speaker. After struggling all week with certain concepts, suddenly he would show us the light.

Our Chinese speakers came from Beijing and Shanghai respectively. We struggled with their accents. One in particular was very pedantic about how we should pronounce words and tones, but was completely oblivious of the fact that she pronounced words differently than she thought she did. So mimicking her was at times fruitless! We learned Chinese with a Beijing accent, which was appropriate I guess because three of the four of us would end up living and working in Beijing. Consequently, I speak Mandarin with a completely different accent to my Malaysian sister-in-law, who speaks with a southern Chinese/southeast Asian accent. I guess it’s the difference between British or Kiwi or American English.

We also learned the simplified Chinese characters – used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia (promoted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and 60s to improve literacy) – rather than the traditional (and much more complex) characters that were still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Once we became more proficient in reading and writing, I had to start learning not just the simplified characters so I could be involved in the course work, but the traditional characters as well. This required a lot of extra work. You can see the difference here. I also tried to bear in mind the different pronunciations, but I figured they would come once I was immersed in it.

Traditional and corresponding simplified characters

Traditional character on left, and its simplified version on the right. From http://www.hackingchinese.com/media/pictures/simptrad.png

As I mentioned above, I had studied Japanese in my first year at university many years earlier. Although I couldn’t remember any of it, I could remember the feel of writing the characters, making the shapes. This helped. Maybe too the fact that I could speak, read and write Thai meant that I was used to seeing odd symbols and interpreting those as language, or to go back even further, reading symbols as music. They do say that language, music, and maths abilities all go together. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I was diligent, finding the idea of studying as my job to be motivating, and it was easy to be disciplined. It was a very different experience from studying at university the first time! I realised why adult students often get so much more out of their studies than young, fresh-out-of-high-school students.

By the end of the year, we had completed close (but not close enough) to a full undergraduate Bachelor’s degree course in Mandarin Chinese. I was able to read simple articles in Chinese language newspapers, and we could hold conversations in Mandarin, but was still far from fluent. (Two of my colleagues went on for another full year of study in Beijing, before beginning work there.) I found that Mandarin had chased out any other languages I had locked away in the language-centre of my brain. Going to a Thai restaurant was very confusing, as I would start to speak in Thai, but the Mandarin words kept getting in the way.

Unfortunately, at the end of the year, and as a result of a key personnel change in HR, my agency reneged on agreements – sadly unwritten – made earlier in the year, and on which basis I had agreed to spend the year studying. This change in terms of my appointment meant that it was no longer viable – financially or in relationship or career terms – for me to go to Taiwan. It’s a long story! Anyway, they were not prepared to negotiate. I could probably have taken an employment case against them, but I didn’t want to go on that basis. Foolishly, my employers threw away the commitment of a dedicated staff member who had spent a year working very hard to come top of the class. They wasted the salary they had paid me for that year, the salary they paid for the person who replaced me at work, and the fee they’d paid for the course to be delivered. All to allow one arrogant and unprofessional HR manager to save face. So I never went to Taiwan.

I’ve not been to China yet either. Though I did share a brief conversation with a woman in the transit lounge of Shanghai airport on our way to London. She was hawking a Chinese language course. I told her, in Mandarin, that I had already studied it and forgotten it all. She replied that I clearly needed to buy the course. She was right.

I remembered the head of the Chinese department telling us that the first time you learn a language you forget it. But the second time, it sticks. Here’s hoping I get the chance to test that theory.

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