In recent years, as you’ve gone about your life—watching TV, at work or school, listening to the radio, even on your daily commute—your brain has increasingly been exposed to te reo Māori. Which means it’s quietly been building a highly accurate picture of what te reo looks and sounds like—whether or not you speak the language. A new study from the University of Canterbury shows that non-Māori speakers can reliably distinguish Māori words from almost-words—which gives anyone wanting to learn the language a head start.
Recognising words as Māori is one thing. The study also asked: how many words can non-speakers understand? Studies in the 1980s and 1990s estimated non-speakers had a typical vocabulary of 40-50 Māori words. By the 2000s the estimate was 70-80 words, though those experiments used multi-choice questions and included flora and fauna terms. The new study required participants to produce their own definitions and skipped the birds and plants. The result? Around 70 words. Most of us know our kai from our koha, our hīkoi from hoki. Though mauī tripped most people up: the Polynesian demigod and explorer is Māui, with a macron on the ā; spelt this way it means “left”.
All of this suggests some small progress in core vocab—and that we’ve got a way to go. The good news is that more people engage with the language each year. More than 200,000 kids now learn te reo in English medium schools. Three in five Kiwis want te reo to be a core subject at primary school. And as a nation, we’re working towards the goal of one million speakers by 2040.