An Unlikely Conversation

Rāpare, 21 o Hōnongoi 2016

First of all I tried to find the Māori word for ‘journey’ because we were asked to reflect on our ‘journey’ of learning Te Reo so far as part of our course. My little Dictionary of Modern Māori said ‘rerenga’ or ‘haere’ or ‘haerenga’. Which one should I use? So I back referenced and found that ‘haere’ is a verb, and ‘haerenga’ and ‘rerenga’ are nouns.


Still not sure which to use I went to the online Māori dictionary and ….there were even more options! All sorts of nuances for the word journey!

I think that finding out which word to use in which context is the most challenging thing for me about learning Te Reo. I love that in the online dictionary there is so much detail, every nuance of how the word ‘journey’ can be used from personal growth, to setting out, to carrying responsibility, to sunrise and moonrise, to preparation, to actually being on a physical journey. It is fascinating reading all the whakatauki, and the kiwaha and the history around the words but sometimes I just want to know which word to use…quickly!! I think I have resigned myself to the fact that learning Te Reo is going to be a long journey, a journey of discovery. I have long believed that learning a language is far more than putting words together to communicate. It is about learning about the culture, finding out what makes a people tick, it’s about the whakapapa and the feelings and the memories.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation I had yesterday sitting in the hot stream at Spa Park as it flows into the Waikato River in Taupō. A group of Māori men ranging in age from mid teens to mid thirties, I suppose, were there. Some were heavily tattooed with what looked like gang insignia, others were not. This is an observation which has some relevance and is not intended to be a judgement. I will come to that later. They were doing what young men do – larking about, having fun, probably laughing at some of the tourists! One of the older ones was climbing up and down through the pools picking up litter and debris that had been washed down or left there.


Normally, I am not someone who strikes up conversations with strange men and I have to confess that whilst I don’t believe in making judgements about people based on their appearance, given the negative media coverage of gang members, I would generally not have engaged in conversation. However, I ended up talking to him along with a young woman who was travelling around NZ from Australia. She was asking him about where he came from, the Māori language, she wanted him to teach her a few words.  After a few moments thought he asked her who she was and why she was there.  He seemed to suggest that it is not all about words, it is about who you are. He talked about Māori language being a ‘native tongue’ specific to who you are and where you come from.  He talked happily about how his family had lived in the area for generations, he was proud of his history, that his family had been Queen Victoria’s warriors, that his grandfathers house was over 200 years old – one of the oldest in the area. I didn’t hear everything very clearly (we had a waterfall pounding in our ears!) but he also talked about the difference between gangs and iwi and bloodlines and connectedness.

When she asked him what his relationship with the other men there was he said they were all brothers. She asked how many brothers he had. He thought for a bit, as if counting them up and then said that he had 9 brothers but he had lots more sisters. I wondered then at the different understanding of what ‘brothers’ might be. He may well have had that many biological brothers and sisters, but I think from what he was saying it was more the idea of brotherhood and sisterhood. The sense of belonging that comes from shared experiences, from a belief, from a shared history, something that comes from the heart. And he talked about everyone being answerable to a higher being – ‘rangatira’ – and how we had a responsibility to look after the land – he said that his ‘mahi’ of cleaning out the pools was something he did because it was part of who he was as a custodian of the land. He called it his ‘mahi whakapapa’ – a task that was part of who he was. It was fascinating listening to him and I think he would have talked happily all evening but unfortunately I had to go.

I take a few things from this experience;
1. My belief that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover has been totally endorsed
2. Language and culture are inextricably entwined and the meaning of words is entirely dependent on personal experience, feelings, context and history.

3. My pondering is how on earth do I ever get to even scratch the surface of being able to communicate in Te Reo in any meaningful way if the language is so specific to whakapapa?

4. Learning a language is all about listening to stories, making connections, immersing yourself at every opportunity.

5. It’s weird how really interesting conversations can happen in the most unlikely of places such as sitting in a hot pool in my underwear in the middle of a river with two complete strangers!

Challenging myself

20160624_071035Last week I attended the Core Breakfast “Non Māori roles in supporting Māori success” by Alex Hotere-Barnes. It was a thought-provoking sessions and made me question a few things and re-spark thinking around language learning and culture.  I storified the tweets of the session – while there are not many (and most of them are mine!) I think they briefly capture the main ideas.  I will come back and explore them more deeply once I have had time to formulate my ideas.

I am trying also at the moment to learn some Te Reo. As a linguist I completely understand the benefits that learning a language can bring to the understanding of the culture. But I am also nervous of offending by getting things wrong or appropriating a culture that is not my own.  Alex talked about Pākeha Paralysis – the idea that we are so afraid of making mistakes in our interactions with Māori and offending that we don’t even start.

This week were the inaugural Matariki Awards and the words of Scotty Morrison who was awarded the Te Waitī Award for Te Reo & Tikanga gave me heart.  I can still only recognise a few words in the linked video but on National Radio this morning I heard him say this:

If you’re living in New Zealand the Māori language belongs to you. You are most welcome to take ownership of it, to learn it and make it your language because there’s heaps of benefits. Once you open that door and you start learning Te Reo you’ll start to see what the benefits are“.

He went on to say that we cannot underestimate the power of the media – TV, Radio, Social Media to raise the profile of a language. Using the language in any way starts to give it ‘mana’ and others will start to use it too.  But there is a tension sometimes and not all Māori are as welcoming as Scotty to Pākeha using Te Reo.  That can be one of the causes of Pākeha Paralysis.  Alex talks about (see video link above) how knowing who you are, what your identity is, knowing whose land you stand on and acting with humility, honesty and integrity helps us to interact in such a way that we build good relationships. That this is an ongoing evolution and that by constantly reflecting those relationships can flourish and people’s acceptance of Pākeha using Te Reo grows.

So, on with my wee ‘wero’ – this week my ‘mahi’ was to make ‘a digital resource that others can access that uses 6 different locative sentences in Te Reo Māori.’

#28daysofwriting Day 18: On language, grit and absurdity

Last night we contributed to the cause of redressing our work-life balance and went to see Eddie Izzard at Claudelands Event Centre.   There is nothing quite so good for releasing feel-good endorphins than having a really good laugh.  He really is a “Force Majeure”;  witty, intelligent, incisive humour that has a healthy splash of schoolboy, pythonesque absurdity and a strong sense of social justice. Just brilliant!

But there are two things about yesterday’s show that prompted me to write; one is his complete support and passion for learning languages.  He can present his show in French, German and Spanish and is planning on learning Arabic next.  It is not just learning the language though, it is being able to reach out and connect with the culture and the nuances of language and understand the psyche of a people and what makes them laugh.  Somehow he can do that.


The other thing is his down-to-earthness (not sure that is a word!), his sense of realism, of humanity, of social justice.  I was surprised just how much of himself he revealed in snippets during the show.  There were moments of very personal reflection amongst the silly noises and the insightful observations of life.  In his Q & A session after the show he was asked about how he trained for his challenge of completing 43 marathons in 51 days to raise money for the charity Sport Relief.  He said that he trained for only 5 weeks prior to starting and that the first 10 marathons were training for the next 33!  But his comment that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything struck me most.

We talk a lot about “grit”, about perseverance, resilience in education now.  But where does it come from, that picking yourself up after you’ve fallen down and keeping going?  Can we teach it? Can we learn it? Can we change the way that we are?  Is the ability to persevere an innate quality or can we develop it?  There are plenty of articles out there, if you google “teaching grit”.  In this Tedtalk Carol Dweck talks about how we can shift our mindsets, how our own beliefs about our abilities affect the way that we learn and approach life.

We hear the cliche about being able to do anything if you put your mind to it all the time but I believe it is true.  Anyone can put one foot in front of the other but there has to be a desire to start, and then a determination to succeed and a doggedness to keep going when the going gets tough.  But maybe you also need a sense of humour and just a little dose of absurdity?  I will put that theory to the test on 28th March! 

The wheels keep on turning…

chapel windowWell, it’s been a busy few weeks – did we have any school holidays? I seem to have a few minutes spare, but that is probably because I have forgotten what it is I am supposed to be doing.  Never mind, I thought I would sit down and gather my thoughts and reflect on what we have done in the first two weeks of term.

Reports, reports, reports. But of course, you need to mark work before you can write the reports because there has to be an assessment grade for each subject on the report. That was my holiday. (Oh, woe is me! No, really I had plenty of time to relax and spend time with family too.) Then once the reports are written, for form teachers comes the mixed blessing of proof reading reports. I say mixed bag because I really enjoy reading how the students in my form class are getting on in their different subjects. I teach my form class for English but I also teach some of them for Spanish. It is always fascinating to see how they respond to other subjects and other teachers. I start to see a whole person and not just the part that learns in my lessons. On the other hand, there is the tedium of checking for spelling errors, missed or extra commas, spaces, capital letters….. adherence to the Report Style Manual is absolute! However, that is a job that I can now put behind me until late November when the second round of reports is due!

Just a thought, a seedling sown by this article in The Guardian, what if we were limited to a twitter style report – 140 characters to succinctly get our messages about student learning to parents?  This could be via social media on a more regular basis than the once a year workload nightmare of industrial age reports.  This ongoing conversation could be supported by face to face meetings by request rather than at a “one date fits all, five minute speed dating” Parents’ Evening?

I love starting a new term, my students refreshed and curious to learn, new topics, new language, fresh ideas and raring to go.  This term we are studying “Hugo” in English and, despite never having taught a film study before, I am really enjoying it.  The wealth of materials on the internet provided me with a treasure trove of ideas during the holidays.  My family did get a little bored with watching Hugo over and over again, and me pausing the film for key scenes and to analyse the lighting, camera shots, music – is it dietic or non-dietic sound?  What are the connotations of the costumes, the soundtrack, the scene? My students are loving it so it was time well-spent and I feel like I have an inkling of what I am talking about!

Spanish classes are ramping up too – the seniors are focused on NCEA portfolio building, realising finally that some sense of urgency is required, and starting to connect the language they have learned over the last two years and joining the dots.  They know more than they think they know but how do I encourage them to realise that and have more confidence to speak?  The fear of not gaining Excellence is a huge inhibitor in language learning, and definitely a problem in a high stakes assessment system. Any suggestions as to how to overcome that barrier would be heartily welcome?


Pulling things together post edcmooc

Young man looking at panoramic table showing the distance in kilometres to Vancouver, Canada

Well, it is now a couple of weeks since edcmooc finished and I feel sort of empty – there is a hole in my life!  Even though I have had plenty to fill the space it has left; during edcmooc we were also building up to saying farewell to our eldest as he starts on a new chapter of his life in Canada. We saw him off at the airport last weekend and he has now been away for a whole week.  Good old social media means that we know he arrived safely – he checked into the Spaghetti Factory in Vancouver on Foursquare, posted on Facebook about taking a tour in a pink double decker bus and we saw his tweets too. Oh, and he did manage to text me as well.  Hoping that this weekend he will skype us so I am sitting with Skype open just waiting for him to come online!

Life at work has also been frantic; I wear several hats one of which is Outdoor Education Coordinator and with two camps coming up in the next four weeks I have a huge mound of paperwork; RAMS and medical forms are coming out of my ears as well as trying to sort out staffing.

Alongside that paperwork I am also part of a team reviewing the EOTC documentation and practice in school.  We had four hours of meetings this week to try to break the back of that and put in place a plan of action for next term.

I also teach Spanish so I need to leave work for my classes when I am away so I have to make sure that we have covered enough in the lessons so that they can complete online activities whilst I am away.

Finally, I am part of a team leading the Professional Development in school this year.  Our focus is Blended Learning and so we  are each leading a 5 week module on a different aspect of Blended Learning which obviously requires a fair degree of preparation.

Oh, and on top of all that, I am preparing for a two week trip to Spain during the April holidays; I was awarded a scholarship for a fully funded Spanish language course at Salamanca University which is fantastic.  However, because it is fully funded by the Ministry of Ed and the Spanish Embassy, there are plenty of hoops to jump through!

So, about that hole that edcmooc left?! Well, actually, even though it has been filled with all these other things it is only partially filled.  Something has been sparked in me and I need more. I miss the interaction, the opportunity to read the articles, watch the videos and exercise my brain with something academic. I have signed up to Goodreads and joined the edcmooc groups and hope to find time to read the suggested book “News from Nowhere”  that I have downloaded and join in the twitter chat planned for 6th April.  I am also hoping to join in the twitter chat tomorrow morning. I missed last weeks chat and although I read through the tweets afterwards, it just wasn’t quite the same!

The problem is, when there isn’t the structure of the weekly course plan, the momentum of

the discussion forum, the traffic on Twitter, FB and Google +, and when there are lots of external pressures,  it is easy to drop off the chat.  I have looked to see what other Moocs are coming up and definitely plan to do another but I know that right now is not a good time.  I want to be able to give it my full attention.  I am also a little worried that edcmooc was such a good experience for me that other moocs won’t match it!

Last week I went to lecture at the University of Waikato by Mark Pagel called “The Evolution of Human Language”.  It was fascinating.  He is an entertaining speaker and as a good speaker should,  he raised more questions than he answered.

“Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It’s a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people’s minds. I’m talking about your language.”

In this Tedtalk from 2011 he suggests that “social learning is visual theft” but that it is social learning, that has helped us develop as a species.  At some point in the past we realised that we had a choice – we could either protect our ideas and not let other people steal them by copying what we had discovered or we could share. We decided to share and language is what resulted.  

Language evolved to solve the crisis of visual theft. Language is a piece of social technologyfor enhancing the benefits of cooperation — for reaching agreements, for striking deals and for coordinating our activities

I am hungry for more – maybe there will be a mooc out there somewhere on the development of language?  As a lingust I have always been fascinated with how languages develop, where they came from, how words transfer from one language to another, how they metamorphose, and how language tells us so much about the culture of a people.

Metaphorically #edcmooc

I have been reading “Metaphors of the Internet; salvation or destruction” and several thoughts came to mind. I am a linguist and I am constantly amazed at the evolution of language. Even in the few decades that I have been consciously aware of language development, vocabulary has changed. Words that my contemporaries and I used as schoolkids are no longer common parlance. As a teacher I have heard “wicked” “cool” “boom” “brill” used to express pleasure at something.

New words and phrases enter the language with each generation, with each technological change, with each new decade. The way we communicate reflects the world we live in and so, of course the metaphors we use will incorporate the vocabulary of the internet and computers.

Jessica Courtney Courtney explores some of the vocabulary that entered our lexicon during the Industrial Revolution. The word Mackintosh ( not the computer) came into being in the 1820s when Charles Macintosh developed a waterproof cloth and the first “Macs” as they are now known were made. Neither the process nor the word “pasteurisation” was known or used until Louis Louis PasteurPasteur discovered a way of treating milk and wine to prevent it from causing sickness.

Latin and Greek had an influence when it came to inventing words during the Industrial Revolution; thus streptococcus, stethoscope, ambulance, diptheria all entered the English language. But European languages and culture also had an effect on English especially when it came to food and fashion; salami, toffee, pasta, peignoir and lingerie to name but a few.

A whole range of new words came with the goldrushgoldrush in Australia, California and NZ; the phrases “to pan out”, “to stake a claim”, a “long tom”, even “denim”, “jeans” and “Levis” are purported to have come into the language around this time.

The French have been characteristically protective of their language and the Academie Francaise has staunchly resisted the natural, popular urge to assimilate English/American vocabulary into French. They still persist in pushing the long winded “courrier electronique” despite most of the poplulation using “le email”. The lingua franca no longer resides in Middle Europe and whereas, in the past European words found their way into English, now it is English which is bulldozing its way through languages of all nations.

Metaphors are coined according to experiences and the cultural context is significant. Other linguistic features also develop in the same way. Why is it, for example, that in English to express the unlikelihood of something happening we say “and pigs might fly”, yet the French say “quand les poules auront des dents” (when hens get teeth”)?

How we describe things depends on our experiences. How we interpret events is contingent on where we have lived, who we have come in contact with, the jobs we do, the tools we use. Our experiences influence the way we evaluate situations, they influence our thoughts, our beliefs and our philosphies and the way we act. An individual’s attraction or aversion to new technologies may well be a result of prior experience, although I suspect that personality also has a part to play.

The language that is used to sell new technologies is crucial. In the Corning ad and the Microsoft ad we can see that the language which is suggested by the images is just as important as the images themselves. Utopia, dreams coming true, perfect world, clean and green, healthy, successful, family; these are words evoked by the images and they aim to seduce.

A lot of the language around technology and the internet revolves around communication, sharing, collaboration,, networking, building communities. “Kent determines that current metaphors shaping the internet keeps us from using it in educational and political venues”. Why? I wonder…. Education was (and possibly still is in many places) the bastion of the rich and powerful, from the church, to the landowners, to the politicians. Not to be shared with the masses lest they get ideas above their station. Information was kept with those in power to keep them in power. The idea of sharing knowledge was an anathema, divide and rule, information on a need to know basis.

Then the press came along and changed everything. It has been said that the Internet is the next biggest thing to effect change after the printing press. Now anyone can read, learn, write, publish, share their ideas, disseminate information. In schools “copying” is frowned upon. It is still difficult to get teachers to accept that collaboration is not cheating, that it offers learners of all levels the opportunity to develop their skills and work within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Most countries still have an examination system that advantages the “haves” and disadvantages the “have-nots”.

Somebody asked me the other day how I envisaged MOOCS affecting universities and schools in the future. How do we authenticate the work that a student produces in an online collaborative environment? As an educator, and it has taken me almost 28 years of teaching for me to have the confidence to express this view, I believe in lifelong learning, in learning just to learn and not to pass exams. I believe that my role is to enthuse a love of learning in my students, not just my own subject but all areas. Don’t get me wrong, lots if teachers also believe in lifelong learning. But learning has been hijacked by qualifications, by the need to standardise, quantify, assess, prove competency. I see MOOCS as being able to redress the balance a little especially now that employers cannot distinguish between Student X with grade As or Excellence in every subject and Student Y with the same grades. There has to be some way of finding the best candidate. Anybody can sign up to a Mooc, engage in it at whatever level is appropriate for them, explore ideas, expand their knowledge, learn, for the simple pleasure of learning. Too many students nowadays are “credit hunters” ; their primary motive for learning is to gain credits towards their exams; their parents too, push their children to work for their exams but don’t necessarily instil a desire to learn.

So.. Learn because you want to.

Learn because you can.

Learn because you are curious.

Learn for fun.


“Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks in the air. “A thing Rabbit knows. Ha!”
A A Milne

Photo Fun…

….or should that be “foto fun” or even “photo phun”? As a linguist I hate it when I see the “ph” in words changed to “f” out of laziness or ignorance. However, the creative part of me quite likes it. I also know through studying languages that the English language is the way it is today because of the influence of a whole heap of invaders, settlers, movement, experiences and evolution. It is inevitable that many of our spelling conventions will change as they already have done over the years. The French have the “Academie Francaise” to police their language, and debates over such things as the use of the accent and the invasion of English words to express modern inventions are common wherever you go in France. But are they fighting a losing battle? Maybe the fluidity, the flexibility, the freedom of English has helped it become the lingua franca it is today?

Anyway, as usual I digress; the reason for this post was simply to comment on the photos I just posted to the edcmooc Flickr group. One of the course participants suggested that people might like to submit a photo that epitomised our ideas of a mooc. Mine is really just an image that reflects my feelings at the moment and I expect them to change – maybe we should also get people to submit a photo at the end of the course to see how our ideas have developed?

The first image, “A confusion of networks” reflects  the confusion I sort of feel at the moment – so many connections, so many threads …. I edited my own photo using ipiccy which is a free application that is really easy to use. I tried to find logos that were free to use but have a record of the websites I got them from. Always find that a tricky thing to manage! Photo originally taken in Pnomh Penh in 2011.

photo of telegraph pole with a confusion of wires and cables in a street in Cambodia. Overlaid with logos from well-known online network sites
“A confusion of networks”

The second image “Finding the Balance” is how I hope to feel when I have managed to get some balance with all the different connections that edcmooc seems to be! I used ipiccy again. This photo was originally taken in Dalat, Vietnam.

salesman on a bicycle in Dalat, Vietnam laden with dusters on sticks. Overlaid with logos of well-known online networking sites

Language Acquisition in babies

This is a fascinating Tedtalk from Patricia Kuhl about how babies acquire language.  It confirms the long held belief/research that the younger we are exposed to language the more readily we can learn, and that they can open up different pathways in the brain to absorb different sounds which we close off as we get older. She also suggests that the research reveals how important it is that we have real human interaction in order to learn language and not just video and audio input. Great news for language teachers, but something we have all believed for a long time.