My language is my awakening

Written by Jo-Ellen Neho
NZ born of Māori/Cook Island descent

Ko taku Reo, Taku Ohooho, Ko Taku Reo, Taku Mapihi Mauria
“My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul”

I was 11 years old when I was first ever asked by a classmate if I was Māori, I said “No”.

I lied.

I remember being at a school that was predominantly Polynesian and Caucasian. At the time, their views on Māori were ignorant and relatively uninformed. I remember telling everyone at school that I was only Cook-Island, so that I would not be teased or called names like the other Māori kids and yet my mother is full Māori. Worst of all I remember making a point to pronounce words incorrectly to sound like my Pākehā classmates.

When I was 14 Years old my father insisted I join an Auckland based Kapa Haka group and that’s where I was first introduced to a true and pure form of Māori culture. Thisled me to the beauty of our Reo (language). Beautiful letters that roll off of your tongue, phrases and Whakatauki that cannot be translated exactly word for word because they would either not make sense or not sound as beautiful. We would practice going through our Kupu (words) for each item and were given the English meaning. I realised that being around like minded people, my own people, I felt comfortable with Reo. More importantly I learnt to love my language.

The hardest reminder of the importance of building our language happened just recently at work, I was told to book in for a client pick up in Oh-Ra-Key (Ōrākei). When I confirmed her address Or-Rah-Kay she sounded confused thinking I was booking her for a completely different country because I pronounced her suburb correctly. Of course I knew my pronunciation of the word was correct, but she insisted that in her 25 odd years of living there she NEVER said it that way. In turn she expected me and whoever else she encountered not to say it this way either because it can be confusing. The same has been said to me of Remuera, Pakuranga, Pukekohe, Ōtāhuhu and the like.


This has become all too typical. But I still I couldn’t understand that after 25 years of living in the area and probably many more years of living in our country, she refused to fix her mistake. You see it is obviously not by accident (by being un-informed) that she mis-pronounced Orakei. It was by choice.  When we refuse to address the issue of mis-pronunciation or even “Pākehā” the word to accommodate someone else, we are in return, only encouraging others to continue to not learn the names correctly. You wouldn’t mis-pronounce Auckland would you? We need to make more of an effort to not allow the mispronunciation of our kupu, our landmarks and place names. 

Our Reo – such a huge part of our culture and more importantly our history because it was not a possession that could physically be taken from us. Our Tīpuna, punished for speaking Māori, managed through great struggle to have passed this taonga on to us. We must hold fast and be strong in our convictions. Kura Kaupapa, Matatini, Manu Kōrero and even Māori Television have ensured that our language is shared with our children and with generations to come. They have furthered our chances of keeping our Reo alive via mainstream platforms. Māori is one of the two official languages of New Zealand, the other is Sign Language. English is a de-facto language by virtue of its widespread use. Te Reo Māori is NCEA accredited, this is only recent. As we continue to grow so too does our Reo.

Being Māori I have a culture of deep rooted values and teachings. Of triumphs and success stories that are not always printed. I come from a rich history so full of brave warriors and women that could have quite easily continued to build our people and this country up single handedly. I come from Hapū and Iwi that encourage love, honour and most importantly Whānau. These treasures help me to be strong in my language. Our Reo. Te Reo Māori.

Ko Au Te Reo, Te Reo Ko Au!

Jo-Ellen Neho

My name is Jo-Ellen Neho, born twenty five years ago and grew up in the heart of New Zealand, West Auckland. I’m of Māori and Cook Island decent and come from a huge family of five girls and one very spoilt brother. I’m the proudest mother to a 7 year old son named Carlos and engaged to his handsome dad, Ngaivi William. Currently still living in west Auckland, a part of the Newton PIPC Cook Island congregation and Sunday school (Youth) and a member of the Te Atatu Roosters Women’s rugby league team. Have just started a new lifestyle blog, working full-time, studying part-time, (trying to be) home-maker, and freelance hair and make-up stylist. I spend most of my days trying to chase happiness in whatever form and get through my share of goals.


Jo-Ellen also has her own blog, check it out HERE!