Auē! My Child Won't Speak Māori...

At some stage in raising a Māori speaking child it is not unusual for parents ask “Why has my child stopped speaking Māori?”.  Here we look at some of the reasons why this happens, and more importantly what you can do about it. Often kids stop speaking Māori with little warning, and parents are left to wonder what they did wrong. Your Māori-speaking child who seems very happy to talk  in Māori one day, apparently decides, without any consultation, that they no longer want to speak Māori. There are several reasons why this happens. Let's look at some:


Child goes to an English-medium school or early childhood centre


If your child attends a mainstream school, kindergarten or other early childhood centre, they will be learning, playing, having fun and making friends in English. Things that are important in their life and associated with fun and learning are in English. Their friends speak English. Their teacher speaks English. They will associate English language with play and learning  and may not have the Māori language needed to carry out those activities.

The dominance of English language in this situation will make it difficult for a child speak Māori at home and you will need to strengthen your language bonds by making Māori language fun. Try playing lots of games in Māori and having good times when you are both speaking Māori.

Bedtime reading in English


Try not to overlook the importance of a bedtime reading in Māori. We all know that a bedtime reading regime is really helpful to your child's development. If you read together in Māori at bedtime you will also be taking the opportunity to bond in Māori in a special way with your child. If you read in English at bedtime, you will be missing an opportunity to make Māori language part of your daily routine and will only confirm for your child that English language is used for enjoyment and to be close with you.

English was introduced early


If Māori was your child's first language, but they became exposed to and used English from an early age, it doesn't take long  to develop a preference for English. Having English speaking friends can speed that process up, too. Some parents having brought their child up to be Māori speaking, worry that their child won't have enough competence in English to manage well at school. If the child is nearing school age, that can mean a crash course in English with parents mistakenly thinking that, as the child's first language, their Māori will still be strong. Unfortunately this isn't true, as Māori is not a dominant language.There are a couple of options. Enrolling your child in a kura, bilingual or Māori immersion class  is an obvious option.  If this is not realistic option, try think of ways to keep strengthening your Māori language bond with your child. This is the pou (the centrepost) for keeping your child's Māori as strong as possible. Leave it to others (friend, tv, radio) to introduce English language to your child  As a Māori-speaking parent your child needs you to be the consistent stronghold  of Māori language.

It's difficult to speak Māori all the time


When you want to relax and enjoy time with English-speaking friends and family, it can be difficult to remain vigilant about speaking only in Māori with your child.  What's more, you may find the strategies agreed to in your family language plan go out the window!

Try discussing what you are doing with your friends and family. You will only have to explain it once.  Most families/friends will not have a problem with it, particularly if it doesn’t require anything of them.  You might find that your relatives/friends will try to use whatever Māori they know with your child or encourage your child to speak Māori to them. If that happens, you won't always be "the heavy" in the family who spoils the fun by keeping the language plan going.

Māori in the home, English elsewhere


Māori speaking families sometimes suddenly start speaking in English when they are out or visiting others. There are two main reasons people do this:

i.    They don't want to appear to be rude by excluding someone from the conversation

ii.    They become self consciousness about speaking Māori when out in public.

If your child is not speaking Māori for these reasons, try encouraging them to be proud of speaking Māori - it is a special skill to be proud of and most people in the world speak languages other than English.

English for manuhiri


Speaking English with manuhiri may seem innocent enough, but don't be surprised if your child tries to speak English after the visitors have left. If this happens, try:

  • Explaining that you will both continue to speak Māori to each other even when you have manuhiri

  • Letting your visitors know that this is what you will do and why

  • Speaking only Māori again as soon as the visitors leave.

Who's the boss?


From time to time, all children try to “test” their parents, particularly about things the māma and pāpā really care about. Māori language is not exempt from this and a child will use Māori language to test out who's the boss. Sometimes the keener you are for them to speak Māori the stronger their refusal.

As with most behaviour issues which are based on challenging parents, there is not always a lot that you can do, other than be firm and consistent, and ignore the apparent "disobedience"! But stay firm so that your child understands you will continue to be consistent in your use of Māori and expect that they will too, once they realise their refusal to speak Māori isn't going to change anything. 

Keep telling your child how proud you are that they can speak Māori and that you're pleased they can speak English too - just as you can.

You could also try ignoring them completely until they speak to you in Māori. This will work well and quite quickly for some children, but will take longer for others, particularly if the other parent speaks English to the child already. In that case, the child may start directing all their communication to the English speaking parent. But you will need to be staunch in your refusal to respond to their English - even if it takes a few days. But generally children can’t cope with being ignored for too long! And remember to give heaps of praise and encouragement once the child starts speaking Māori again.

Undermining Māori


There are several ways that we undermine Māori language without realising it, and children pick up on the hidden messages. When we use English as the main language for joking, having fun, playing games or sports,discussing our feelings, or talking with other adults, this tells our kids that Māori isn't useful for all the things that are really important.

As a parent, it's important that we are "language aware”.  This means thinking carefully about how and when we use Māori language and when we speak English. Be proactive about speaking Māori and be conscious about when you are speaking English.


Switching between English and Māori


Picture this: you and your child are having a conversation in Māori.  Quite naturally, your child answers in English. You notice, but don't think anything more of it. You might even drop in an English word here and there or a short answer in English. Before long the words become phrases and the short answers become whole sentences. Next thing you know you and your child are speaking English just as much as you are Māori. This can be common with 3-4 yr olds, who just want to chatter.

As soon as you are aware of what's happening return to speaking only in Māori again. Try playing a game, having fun or talking about a favourite topic in Māori. Use lots of praise to encourage your child to speak in Māori only and then only answer when this is happening.

English becomes easier


It doesn’t take long for a child to acquire English. You will notice that your Māori speaking child has times when they “play” with English and want to practise their English on you.  What is important is that their Maori language ability keeps pace with their cognitive development.  Children need to be able to express themselves verbally and they will do it in whatever language they find easiest. If they can convey their thoughts more readily in English, that will be the language they choose to speak. A child who cannot express their ideas and feelings, quickly becomes frustrated and will start misbehaving.

The solution to this is to ensure that, from a very young age, the child has plenty of high quality language exposure and is provided with the language needed to express their most complex thoughts.