There are real fears that Cook Islands Maori will be lost if Cook Islands children are not encouraged and enthused by learning the language of their ancestors.
But at the University of the South Pacific campus in Rarotonga, the wheels are in motion to see this change.
Lecturers Dr Ake Nicholas a professor of linguistics at Massey University, former school teacher Teau Seabourne and fluent te reo Maori speaker James Puati agree that the blame doesn’t lie with any generation of Cook Islanders, but rather the system that has dictated that English be the preferred everyday language used.
Any language is best learnt by being spoken at home, but they also say parents are busy running the household and working full time and can’t always act as teachers.
In 2017, the USP Diploma in Pacific Vernacular Languages: Cook Islands Maori, started and requires adult students most of whom are school teachers and who are already strong and proficient Cook Islands Maori speakers, complete a total of eight papers.
The focus is on teaching Cook Islands Maori and giving the teachers skills and resources to engage young people.
That’s where the future of the revitalisation of Cook Islands Maori lies, Dr Nicholas says.
“We need to make our kids excited about learning Cook Islands Maori, instead of being scared of getting things wrong and making them stressed,” she said.
In a modern world where interaction with technology is a given, it’s about getting the language to the children on their devices and laptops.
She has developed computer animation programs to get children engaged.
“The kids love these things, if they aren’t interested or have been scared away from learning te reo, we can take it to them.”
Teau Seabourne moved to New Zealand when she was six and was encouraged to pursue tertiary education by her parents. She completed a Bachelor of Education at Auckland University and extensions of that degree at Massey University and the University of Victoria in Wellington.
She became a school teacher and worked in tertiary education for many years in New Zealand, eventually starting community learning programs where she taught Cook Islands Maori.
But her heart told her there was something missing.
“I learnt New Zealand Maori because it was the only option. While our reo is relatively similar, there are some words that have two completely different meanings,” she said.
Seabourne returned to Rarotonga to retire but cherishes the opportunity to speak Cook Islands Maori every day.
Her hope is that by imparting her knowledge, that the language of her ancestors will thrive among the young people of tomorrow.
“I’ve come back home to share my knowledge and to improve the capacity and skills of our teachers to teach our children their language.”