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Can tech save te reo Māori? These entrepreneurs think so

As the proverb says, ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria (“my language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul”). And while there is plenty of attention being placed on our native tongue during Māori Language Week – and an increasing interest from Pākehā in learning the language – Census data shows the number of people who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori on the decline. Many are looking to new technologies for revitalisation – and in the hope that it could get new speakers on board, too.

By Ben Mack | September 12, 2018 | features

According to the UN, at least 43 percent of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered, while the National Science Foundation predicts that half of these could be gone by the end of the century.

Initiatives such as the Google-backed Endangered Languages Project are aggregating videos, language lessons and other forms of media to save at-risk languages such as Southern Saami (only spoken by around 600 people in central Sweden) and Ainu (only spoken by about 10 speakers in the island of Hokkaido in Japan).

Back home in New Zealand, te reo Māori is slightly less obscure. It is one of our three official languages alongside English and sign language. But recent data shows that there is cause for concern. According to the last Census, between 1996 and 2013, the proportion of the Māori population able to converse in Māori decreased from 25.0 percent to 21.3 percent. In 2013, just 3.7 percent of the total New Zealand population could hold a conversation in te reo Māori. 

And yet thanks to a combination of innovative technologies, political will and cultural renaissance that has seen big jumps in the numbers of people wanting to learn, there may be hope yet of preserving New Zealand’s native language. Or better yet, te reo might not only be able to survive, but increase in usage due to more people being able to learn and practice the language via technology.

After all, language is a unique reflection of the people using it. The Linguistic Society of America said, “much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language.”

Entrepreneurs such as ReoBot founder Jason Lovell recognise the importance of using new mediums to help keep languages alive.

“When I was learning te reo Māori, I would seek out opportunities to practice but when you have a family, a job, this becomes difficult,” he says.

The solution he came up with? Create the world’s first te reo Māori chatbot.

“ReoBot is designed to allow people to practice every day conversational te reo Māori in their own time at their own pace: on the way to work, at home, or whenever they can spare five minutes,” Lovell says.

ReoBot works by encouraging the user to interact and respond in te reo Māori through a series of short conversations. Questions such as “would you like a coffee?” and “how are you?” or “how is the weather?” help guide the user through a short conversation in both te reo Māori and English. Available through Facebook Messenger, the ReoBot can be used at any time on any device for free.

“Whether you know nothing or just a few phrases, you will find this useful to start a chat,” Lovell says. “And if you are a beginner, it will keep the reo Māori you know top of mind so you’re more likely to go into a daily situation and use it.

“ReoBot is not a teaching app, nor is it designed to replace teachers or be used as a translation service. What it can do is provide teachers with a tool to help their students with conversational Māori, especially young kids who have grown up with technology and mobile phones.”

Speaking of kids, it’s a key demographic technology is attempting to reach in order to pass on te reo. After all, rangatahi (youth) will one day be the ones responsible for keeping the language alive.

The people behind Titan Ideas are well aware of this. On Waitangi Day, they collaborated with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei (a hapū, or subtribe, of the wider Ngāti Whātua iwi) to launch the world’s first augmented reality (AR)-enabled Māori alphabet colouring ‘book’ known as Zippy's 3D Colouring App. The ‘book’ takes kids on adventures through educational cultural stories.

Abhi Kala

Titan Ideas founder and CEO Abhi Kala and lecturer in digital media at Auckland University of Technology noticed that AR and VR could have a powerful effect on the way children learn and how stories are passed on.

“Immersive technologies bring the physical and virtual worlds together,” he says. “We want to use this technology as a tool to help children develop strong self-identity, by providing them life lessons and knowledge from different cultural folktales. These stories educate children about diversity, morality and culture, both their own and internationally, through folktales in a unique and fun manner.”

Dr Jannie van Hees, from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, says AR can play an important role in helping to help pass on a language and culture – including te reo Māori.

“Zippy’s Tales is a hugely exciting lever and initiative which opens up many lenses on culturally inclusive pedagogies in the schooling space. It also opens up a window for families, communities, individuals to ‘tell their stories’ and gift these precious ‘truths of being and seeing’ to their own young ones, and us as a society and country.”

Toys that teach tereo

Zippy’s Tales is also far from alone in using tech to pass te reo onto children. In 2016, Hōhepa Tuahine and Kristin Ross – who learned te reo at university, but wanted to teach the language to their children – launched Pipi Mā, the world’s first te reo Māori-speaking dolls.

Pipi Mā founders Kristin Ross and Hōhepa Tuahine.

As Ross told The Register: “We saw how our eldest daughter reacted to an Elsa (from Disney’s Frozen) speaking doll and thought, ‘Ha! We need a Māori-speaking doll that does the same thing.’”

Winners of the People’s Choice at last year’s New Zealand Innovation Awards, each of the dolls has a traditional Māori name (Pipi, Hura, Tītoki and Pītau Pōtiki) and a unique characteristic, such as Hura’s feathers in his hair and pounamu around his neck, or Pipi’s pois and the moko on her chin.

According to Tuahine: “Pipi Mā takes the best of pop culture and Māori culture to create a product that embeds the idea and behaviour into our children that the Māori language is cool.”

Māori language advocate and researcher Kahurangi Maxwell says the toys are important because they help encourage the normalisation of te reo Māori from an early age – and kids could more likely to continue using the words they learn throughout their lives.

“Parents raising children in te reo Māori are crying out for such toys and resources to support their efforts in the home and kura (school) but in a way that is fun and much like many of the other toys out in the market. Pipi Mā will change the way kids learn, speak and understand Te Reo and will help families to feel more confident in their everyday use of the language.”

Young people, our mokos, rangatahi, are on Snapchat and Instagram, and they’ve got mobile devices, but these devices don’t speak te reo Māori. If we want our indigenous languages to have a place in the future, they are going to need to be on these devices and on the platforms

Screening process

Toys may be one way to help kids learn a language, but there’s another area that every kid can get behind: cartoons.

Season two of Tākaro Tribe, created by Cinco Cine Film Productions, began screening on TVNZ 2 this past May. Showing weekdays at 6.40am and ondemand, each episode covers the adventures of five woodland sprites named after Māori vowels who live in the enchanted Wao Arapū (“Alphabet Forest”), along with Pāpā Rakāu (“Tree Father”) and Kōkā (“Pond Mother”). The characters are voiced by Māori actors and performers, including some of the cast of the te reo version of the Disney film Moana.

The show is primarily aimed at children from two to five years old, but anyone can follow along. To help viewers learn te reo, Tākaro Tribe uses repetition, comedy and music, with characters working out what objects they encounter are used for, and how the objects’ names are spelled in both English and te reo.

The show has also been well received. As Amie Mills, children’s and digital commissioner at TVNZ, told Idealog: “The Māori population is young, and growing in Aotearoa and we believe in the importance of fostering biculturalism and bilingualism in the content we make available to our tamariki.”

But as innovative as Tākaro Tribe is, it still can’t escape one fact: fewer people are watching TV and are moving towards on demand. Yet although overall traditional TV viewership is stagnating, one area that is on the rise – especially among kids – is video games.

With the most popular games now often making more money than Hollywood blockbusters, and Aotearoa’s games industry continuing to set records for revenue year-after-year, it would seem an ideal medium to help bring te reo to new audiences. Award-winning local game designers Steve Salmond and Moritz Schlitter are helping to do just that with their multiplayer brawler game Grabity. To do so, they teamed up with Jack Potaka and Te Whainoa Te Wiata from the University of Auckland to make the te reo Māori version of the game available at the same time as the English version, which launched in late May.

Potaka says working on the project was a treat. “I am a bit of gamer too,” he says. “Te Whainoa and I have been working hard to make sure we capture the essence of the game, while also maintaining the integrity of te reo Māori in the process.”

Schlitter and Salmond formed independent game studio Team Ninja Thumbs in 2016, and have been working
on Grabity for the past two years. With basic words and phrases in the game in te reo, the repetition can become ingrained in players’ minds, and the visual medium means players can connect a te reo word to something they see happening on the screen.

Games for survival

Given their popularity, games – and gamification – would seem to be a good way to reach new audiences. It’s certainly something Adele Hauwai and SeeCom, a social enterprise developing the world’s first digital interactive Māori sign language game, are well aware of.

Adele Hauwai

As Hauwai explains: “There are so many benefits to learning sign language. It’s not just for deaf people. We educate parents how to communicate with all children using te reo Rotarota (sign language), even parents of children with autism or with slow speech development or learning challenges.”

Initially set up in November 2016 to teach basic sign language to parents and caregivers of babies, SeeCom has become much more than that. For instance, in the past year, SeeCom has been recognised with multiple awards for its products and services, which also includes sign language posters and flash cards in te reo.

“We’ve had strong interest from parents of children with disabilities, health workers, social workers, kaiako teaching te reo Māori and school teachers,” says Hauwai. “It’s a win-win for all communities – even opening up employment and education opportunities for people with health limitations but have the competency and passion to teach te reo rotarota (sign language).”

But back to that game. The sign language game traces the gamer’s body movements and signs to make the character do something in the game.

“If you sign ‘jump’ the character jumps, or sign ‘swim’, the character swims,” Hauwai says.

The game has progressed beyond the prototype stage, and now SeeCom are researching producing a full version. “We are testing it in different markets to see how different users interact with the game, and we are looking for investors and funding to get it to market,” says Hauwai.

This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky plan, either. SeeCom has won several awards in the past couple of years. These include Launching Leaders (LDS-BPA) 2016, the Dig My Idea Māori Innovation Awards (Open Category) and the Kōkiri Awards 2018. Hauwai also received a Māori entrepreneur bursary to attend the Social World Enterprise Forum this past September in Ōtautahi (Christchurch).

Accolades aside, Hauwai says there’s a greater mission. “What we are doing is trying to develop hands-on learning that is fun, educational and will help people to communicate.”

SeeCom has been supported by the Waikato Innovation Park business growth team, which has helped with advice and funding to grow. The group is funded by the Regional Business Partner Network (RBPN), which is supported by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) and Callaghan Innovation.

Kahurangi Taylor, a Waikato Innovation Park business growth advisor, says SeeCom’s game has a lot of potential for teaching a new language to people of all ages.

“It’s a really cool game and something that everyone will enjoy.”

Apps and the future

Another app designed with young people in mind – in this case, children five years old and younger – that attempts to gamify learning te reo is Pāpapa. In short, Pāpapa teaches 20 different, everyday te reo words through drag-and-drop activity games. According to developer James Porter, the idea is that the app can help encourage families in Aotearoa and in the wider ao (world) to use te reo.

On the topic of the wider world, up in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), Te Hiku Media are working on a te reo Māori version of Apple’s uber-popular Siri. As technology assistant Keoni Mahelona told RNZ: “Young people, our mokos, rangatahi, are on Snapchat and Instagram, and they’ve got mobile devices, but these devices don’t speak te reo Māori. If we want our indigenous languages to have a place in the future, they are going to need to be on these devices and on the platforms.”

To help develop a te reo-speaking Siri, Te Hiku  launched the Kōrero Māori project. For the project, members of the public can record themselves reading sentences in Te Reo on Te Hiku’s website. Then, the information will be used to create a digital te reo model. It’s been pretty successful so far, too, with more than 400 people providing 33 hours of recordings.

According to Te Hiku manager Peter Lucas Jones, the idea of the project is digital language preservation – and also normalisation of Te Reo for future generations.

So with chatbots, cartoons, high-tech toys, video games, AR colouring books, apps and other innovations, it would seem there are quite a few possible high-tech solutions to help te reo continue. into the future. Time will tell if technology does indeed succeed in boosting the 3.7 percent of people in Aotearoa that are able to hold a conversation in te reo, but, at the very least, these new mediums can help preserve and tell our unique cultural stories.

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