Mā te rongo, ka mōhio. From listening, comes knowledge. - Part one

By Simon Green on August 24, 2023 in Cultural capability

Young Māori ākonga tell principals how they need to be supported. This is the first of several blogs focuses on the importance of correct pronunciation.

blog pic - Simon Green

At a recent hui for secondary beginning principals from across Te Waipounamu, the principal advisory team invited a group of ākonga to give their insight on how school leaders can support Māori achievement in their kura. The seven ākonga proudly identified as Māori and were in Year 12 or 13 from a range of schools. We had rich and powerful conversations that gave leaders an honest perspective on what it is like to be Māori in a school setting right now. We were also given practical suggestions on what kaiako and tumuaki can do to have an immediate and positive impact.

This is the first of several blogs that will emerge from this hui and will focus on the importance of correct pronunciation.

One Year 12 student began by telling the group of principals that she shortened her name to make it easier for Pākehā teachers to pronounce. She traces this back to her first few days at primary school, when her teacher told her it would be quicker and easier to write the short version. Years later, at secondary school, she dreads the roll call at the beginning of each class.

“I always know when they stuff up trying to pronounce the first two letters. I know ‘that’s me.’” She added: “To avoid embarrassment, a lot of Māori students just shorten their names.”

Failure to correctly pronounce the name of a student during the roll is not an insignificant detail. Consider a secondary school where students attend up to five different classes a day with  five different teachers. Add a reliever into the mix, and there is potentially regular embarrassment day after day. This is at an age where peer acceptance is critical and to feel whakamā (shame) in front of others can negatively affect a student well beyond the classroom setting. It goes without saying that mispronunciation of names across all cultures has a similar negative effect.

Correct pronunciation is an opportunity for us to show students we care about them, their whakapapa and is also a way for them to feel connected to other ākonga.

“When you say someone’s name, when it’s their whole name, it is affirming to other Māori students. They may relate to the name, or even whakapapa back to you. It is also affirming for a Māori student to hear the name of another Māori student.”

We had an example shared of a Māori student who, unlike the other students in her class, never had her name spoken on the roll. She was:

“...never asked for support on how to say her name. The teacher just looked up from her laptop when they got to the student’s name, saw they were present, then marked them off. There was no effort. She felt like she didn’t belong in the class. She also felt she could not go to that teacher for help and support.”

This was heartbreaking to hear. I, like many others, believed that cultural competence and confidence in te reo across our kura had improved considerably in recent years. Yet this is happening right now! So what can educators do to address this? Before we get to that, our visiting ākonga were keen to elaborate that the negative effect of mispronunciation has implications beyond just the names of people. Place names were equally important. Why?

“It’s very important because it’s where someone is from. When someone doesn’t make an effort to pronounce the place you connect to, it makes you feel a bit crap to be honest.”

Another student added: “When we introduce ourselves, and we share our maunga and awa, they are not just where our whānau is from. They are like our ancestors and tipuna. Mispronouncing these ingoa is just as bad as mispronouncing our ingoa because they are part of who we are.”

Sadly, there are many examples across Aotearoa where mispronounced place names are the ‘norm’. One further observation from a Year 12 ākonga: “When we have to change the pronunciation of a (Māori) place name, and deliberately mispronounce it so that the listener knows where we are talking about? That feels pretty awful.”

Okay so what can we do and how can tumuaki and kaiako effect this change?

One of the Year 13 students explained: “It’s the effort we appreciate. We have Pākehā friends and relatives and we don’t expect them to pronounce everything correctly. But making an effort is important.”

So I asked, “Is it the attempt that you appreciate? Is it better if they give it a go rather than avoid trying completely?” A Year 13 girl responded:

“I feel it’s not necessarily the attempt, it's more the effort. You can always attempt it, but you could be getting it wrong every time.”

To put this into context, another student then gave the example of an international exchange student who struggled with Māori pronunciation when she first arrived at their kura. She constantly sought feedback and coaching on her attempts from Māori classmates. She saw each mistake as a learning opportunity and did not feel embarrassed because she knew each failure was one step closer to getting it correct. Before long, she had beautiful pronunciation. This is the ‘effort’ that our ākonga spoke of.

In summary, advice from ākonga Māori to teachers and principals:

  • It’s okay as a teacher/leader to show you are vulnerable. You are a learner too.

  •  If you are not sure how to pronounce a name, ask for support. It’s okay to say, “Can you teach me how to say your name correctly?”

  •  A two-minute conversation can prevent long term embarrassment for both of you.

  •  And finally, from a Year 12 boy: “Kapa Haka is a good way to improve your pronunciation. It’s a group environment, so it’s not as scary if you get it wrong.”



  1. The Te Ahu o Te Reo strategy is an excellent way for teachers and principals to build their confidence and capability in te reo. https://www.education.govt.nz/our-work/overall-strategies-and-policies/te-ahu-o-te-reo-maori-fostering-education-in-te-reo-maori/

  2. The author would like to acknowledge the support of Te Kura Tuarua o Rangiora (Rangiora High), Te Kura Kohine o Ōtākaro (Avonside Girls) and Te Puna Wai o Waipapa (Hagley Community College)

  3. Image source https://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2021/hei-taringa-harakeke-earring-workshop-with-kahu-collective/christchurch

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