Te tuhituhi i te reo ki te whare wānanga – writing in Māori at university

This post by Associate Professor Georgina Stewart first appeared on Ipu Kererū, the blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. It has been reposted with permission. You can find the original post here. Thank you Georgina for sharing your thoughts with us on writing a thesis in te reo Māori!


What does it mean to write a doctoral thesis or research article in te reo Māori? Does it mean the same to write in Māori for a doctoral research project in Education as it does in Māori Studies? To date, these have been the two primary disciplinary fields producing Māori-medium postgraduate research and scholarship.

Use of te reo Māori as a language medium for academic writing in university education raises a series of complex theoretical questions. Writing in te reo is a novel academic practice that presents significant practical and logistical challenges, with which all universities in Aotearoa New Zealand are currently grappling. In my Marsden research I am investigating these questions by interviewing graduates, supervisors and university administrators, and undertaking readings of reo Māori academic texts.

Background of the project

Te reo Māori, an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand since 1987, remains one of the few indigenous languages accorded such status. As such, it represents an attempt to at least recognise linguistic diversity in our society. Standard university policy in Aotearoa New Zealand (e.g. here) allows for any essay, dissertation or thesis to be submitted in te reo Māori, given suitable assessment arrangements are made. Alongside other equity developments in tertiary education for Māori, such as university marae, Wānanga, and immersion-Māori teaching degree programmes, this university language policy appears to support Māori aspirations and foster inclusiveness. However, it has not been supported by development of theoretical and practical knowledge about undertaking academic teaching, learning and research in te reo Māori. There is a lack of existing examples, and little support available for research students who wish to collect and report research data in te reo Māori, nor for staff who are asked to supervise or assess their work. suggests Māori students and academic staff are sometimes jeopardised by this lack of support.

Image: Creative Commons

Differing worldviews

Given the fundamentally different worldviews that frame Western scholarship and underpin Māori and other indigenous languages, why should we assume that scholarship can be unproblematically translated into these other languages? Does using te reo Māori and other indigenous languages for scholarship entail changing academic criteria and outcomes? What is gained and risked by using te reo Māori in the academy? These questions indicate the inherent tensions in using te reo Māori as a language medium for teaching, scholarship and research for Māori staff and students.

The roles and meaning of language

The standard university policy for te reo Māori implies an instrumentalist view of language as a code, the meanings of which are translatable across cultures. I see two major issues with this assumption. First, such a view is oblivious to how the meanings contained within indigenous languages such as Māori are fundamentally in tension with, if not oppositional to, the Western meaning systems that underpin the academy. This is because each natural language embodies and gives expression to the cultural worldview from which that language arose. Academic English has developed alongside science in the last few centuries since the Enlightenment, but te reo Māori is based in the cultural narratives of Aotearoa (for more on this, see here).

Second, assuming that language is simply a culturally-neutral tool fails to recognise, in any substantive way, the fundamental relationship between language and identity . For many Māori people, te reo, as the key to traditional thought and knowledge, is absolutely central to their identity as Māori. To be able to carry and convey the Western-style logic of scholarship, traditional forms of te reo must change, since existing reo Maori differs linguistically, philosophically and socioculturally, from academic English.

Te tuhituhi i te reo as a driver for equity

The concept of equity for Māori people, language, and knowledge is important because equity is a key policy driver in the logic of national tertiary funding regimes. Allowing and promoting the use of te reo Māori in tertiary settings is one way of contributing to this equity. The concept of equity policy, however, is ultimately based on assimilative thinking, which assumes the aims and outcomes for education and scholarship should be universally shared by all. Therefore, in considering the role of te reo in tertiary settings, concepts of equity for Māori need to be integrated with Kaupapa Māori principles, which include: being Māori; privileging Māori language, knowledge and viewpoints; and a concern with the struggle for Māori autonomy over Māori well-being. In this way, equity can be viewed critically as part of an overarching Kaupapa Māori approach to considering the theoretical debates in knowledge, language and identity involved in the use of te reo in the academy. I hope, through my research, to bring discourses from divergent traditions into conversation with each other, in order to provide more detailed, explanatory accounts of the complex educational phenomena involved in Māori-medium educational research and academic writing. Ultimately, research in Aotearoa New Zealand can be enriched and strengthened through developing our understandings and practice of the use of te reo Māori in tertiary settings.

About Georgina Stewart

Georgina Stewart (ko Whakarārā te maunga, ko Matauri te moana, ko Te Tāpui te marae, ko Ngāti Kura te hapū, ko Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu te iwi) is a former teacher of science, mathematics and te reo Māori in Māori-medium and English-medium schools, and a national leader in Pūtaiao (Māori-medium science) education. Georgina’s research focuses on the nexus between language, knowledge and culture in education. She holds editorial roles on several national and international journals, and co-leads the indigenous philosophy group of PESA, the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (www.pesa.org.au).

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