How pēpi learns language, and the gift of speaking more than one language.

Tōku reo, tōku ohooho

My language, my awakening

This whakataukī on page 14 of Te Pihinga 1 can be interpreted in a number of ways. It can refer to the revitalisation of te reo Māori which has been happening in recent decades and its accompanying strengthening of and pride in culture. For an individual pēpi it may refer to the way they learn about their world through their senses – including hearing language. As their senses develop, so their world’s horizons expand.

Whānau who speak two or more languages are giving their pēpi a special gift. At birth, a new born can pick out the differences between sounds for every language in the world. It’s so much easier to learn a second language in the early years especially when the language is heard from birth, (or before!). Connections in the brain for the sounds heard over and over again are being strengthened while the connections for sounds they don’t hear become more fragile and may be ‘pruned’.

Pēpi learns from ‘live’ language, not from listening to a CD or a video. Through their daily interactions with close whānau members they learn the natural rhythms, sounds and speech patterns for te reo.

Even if parents are not speakers of te reo Māori themselves, having children is often a motivator for them to start to learn and make it part of their family’s world. A starting place may be learning simple phrases to use during everyday interactions with their pēpi. There are a lot of free on-line resources too that will support them. Te Taura whiri o te reo Māori(external link) have a selection for varying levels of learner.

Other parents may need extra support and encouragement to see the value for their pēpi in being bilingual. The amount of language a child hears at home affects their language development. Children who hear more language, and a greater variety, have better early literacy skills. It may be easier for a child who learns a second language in their early years to learn another language later on.

Although babies all learn at their own pace, they do go through the same stages for each language. When they start talking, they might use words from each language in one sentence. This is very normal. As they talk more, they’ll sort this out. Although they may have fewer words in each language than a mono-lingual child, they are likely to have a similar number of words overall.

Page 19 looks at te reo Māori with a wider lens than just the spoken word.

It is said taonga pūoro or Māori musical instruments come from the children of the Atua Māori. Their tunes are called rangi after Ranginui and rhythms come from the heartbeats of Papatūānuku.

From Tawhirimatea, god of the winds, we get the family of wind instruments. From Tangaroa, god of the seas, we get the instruments made from shells. Tanemāhuta, god of the forest, and also his daughters, Hine Pū te Hue and Hine Raukatauri, are the ancestors who give us a wide range of Māori musical instruments.

Taonga pūoro were used for expressing emotions, communicating with and soothing young tamariki. Te reo Māori is important for our tamariki. Pēpi as young as four months who live in bilingual homes can distinguish between two languages by watching lip and facial movements. Pēpi will also be familiar with the language that their māmā spoke during her hapūtanga.

Kia kaha te kōrero Māori – ahakoa he iti, he pounamu.

Other resources 

This web page on Te Ara(external link) provides further and fuller information about the whakapapa of taonga püoro, their descent from ngā atua, the many forms of traditional music and instruments, the loss and near demise of those traditions, and the revival in recent times.

Ahuru Mōwai [PDF, 460 KB] page 23 – Mana Reo signifies the power of language and communication. Language is the vehicle by which thoughts, customs, desires, hopes, frustrations, history, mythology, prayers, dreams, knowledge and understandings are communicated from one person to another (Barlow, p114)

Waiata mai – sing to me (written by Brainwave Trust), confirms the value of waiata for stimulating learning and development.