Over 60,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand, but only 12 per cent speak Cook Islands Maori language, te reo.
Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand Elizabeth Wright-Koteka says this is an alarming figure.
“It is obvious that Cook Islands Maori in all its forms is threatened with extinction and it is very significant that our reo does not disappear,” she said in a statement from the New Zealand Ministry for Pacific Peoples.
Wright-Koteka believes that knowing the language of one’s own country is important for one’s identity.
“The Cook Islands has two languages – Cook Island Maori (which has dialects from Rarotonga, Mangaia, Aitutaki, Ngaputoru, Manihiki and Tongareva) and Pukapukan which is closer to Samoan and Tokelauan. I believe knowing the dialect or language you claim heritage to, is central to your identity as a Cook Islands person.”
Kotou Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth says despite the threat of losing the language elsewhere, he believes it is very much alive and revived in the outer islands.
“In my personal opinion it is stronger in the outer islands, than here in the capital. It’s decreasing [in use] in Rarotonga,” Allsworth said.
He said on the outer islands, the traditional way of life, and speaking with parents and grandparents in the Maori language continues. But not so in Rarotonga, where English is more commonly spoken.
He added that it would be the responsibility of government and the community to revive the language and it all starts from the home where parents can pass it on to their children.
Wright-Koteka says it will take a revolution to revive the language and it would be better to start this revival in a place where the majority of Cook Islanders live - in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Ministry for Pacific Peoples states that while the statistics show the number of speakers of the language has declined, Wright-Koteka is optimistic that the younger generation has a heightened sense of pride in being Cook Island Maori, as well as New Zealanders, and will want to learn the reo.
Wright-Koteka added that New Zealand-born Cook Island parents today may be regretting not knowing Maori, and some are trying to learn and would hopefully encourage their children to learn as well.
“It is important we recover the reo now while there is still some life left in it,” she said.
She said that the annual Cook Islands Language week celebrated in New Zealand from August 4-10 is a way to revive and preserve the country’s language.
The annual ‘Epetoma o te reo Maori Kuki ’Airani: Cook Islands Language Week’s theme for this year is “Taku rama, taau toi: ora te Reo” - “My Torch, Your Adze: The Language Lives”.
Wright-Koteka stated that in her new role she has so far enjoyed making a positive contribution to the development of Cook Islanders, both in the homeland and in Aotearoa.
She added that she speaks Rarotongan Maori, Pukapukan and knows some of the Mangaia, Aitutaki, Ngaputoru, Manihiki and Tongareva Maori dialects. The reo completes her as a Cook Islander and this sense of national and island pride that someone has when they can converse and write in their own language is equivalent to none, she says.
“My wish would be for Cook Islanders everywhere to be able to converse in a Cook Islands language.”