A PhD student from Co. Louth won herself many fans in New Zealand recently for the interest she has shown in the Te Reo Maori language, despite never having been to the country.
Aoife Finn, a linguistics student from Trinity College Dublin, is currently on her first visit to New Zealand as part of Maori language week, after the education providers Te Wananga o Aotearoa decided to sponsor a trip for their language’s most-far flung advocate.
Known as the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, Maori is often called “te reo” by its speakers, meaning “the language.” While it is still an actively spoken minority language, according to 2013 census reports, only a fifth of the Maori population are currently fluent, down from a quarter in 2001, although others could still hold basic conversations. It is estimated fewer than 4% of New Zealanders in total speak Maori.
Rugby fans are familiar with the language thanks to the Haka, a Maori war cry and dance, performed by the New Zealand national team before games.
Finn’s enthusiasm for the language began in a much different setting, however, as she came across a Maori book in the library in Trinity College six years ago while studying for her Masters.
Although already a big language fan, Finn was taken by the beauty of the written Maori language and has spent the past few years studying its syntax and structure.
“When I applied to do my PhD in Trinity I didn’t even consider looking at any other language; it just seemed so natural and Maori is so interesting,” Finn told the Irish Times.
“A lot of people think they haven’t heard of te reo. I find that a useful reference point for bringing them up to speed is saying, ‘of course you know Maori – the Haka.’”
"Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam - A country without a language is a country without a soul" - Aoife Finn pic.twitter.com/aVeXVlPXAv— Te Okiwa McLean (@Te_Okiwa12) June 26, 2016
Previously unable to travel to New Zealand due to financial constraints, Finn is finally able to immerse herself in the language on a greater scale and traveled as part of Maori Language Week to encourage more people to “give it a go.”
“You could say that I’ve really done things in reverse. I’ve spent the last five years looking at the syntax of te reo but my exposure to it has been very book-based and pure syntax . . . Now I’m trying to get my conversational skills up to speed and learn about the culture,” she said.
Her efforts have been praised by other language advocates with Te Wananga o Aotearoa's Paraone Gloyne stating, "I think she sets a really good example for someone who is giving it a go."
First picked up by the education organization though her social media posts about the language, Finn was brought to Te Wananga o Aotearoa’s Whirikoka Campus in Gisborne, New Zealand in time for Matariki, the Maori New Year.
“It is just a dream come true to be here. It is absolutely fantastic that the wananga has given me the trip of a lifetime. It is just fantastic to be immersed in the language and culture, sitting chatting away in te reo. For me that is invaluable,” she told the Gisborne Herald.
“When I arrived we had a powhiri [welcoming party] and that was gorgeous. It was very moving and quite emotional for me, such a warm welcome. I have never experienced any hospitality like the kindness that has been shown to me here and I do not think I will ever forget it.”
Visiting with some of the schoolchildren who have become her biggest fans, Finn met an excited Aoife Cullen, who was amazed her namesake could speak Te Reo and came the whole way from Ireland.
Seven-year-old Aoife carries her Irish name from her grandmother but will probably never be able to visit Ireland herself because of a medical condition that causes swelling in her limbs. The young New Zealander suffers from Klippel–Trenaunay syndrome, known as KT syndrome, which sees extra blood vessels growing in and on her body and she is often forced to have surgery to have them removed.
Cullen and her class were first introduced to their Irish hero by teacher Peggy Sinclair, who said that the young girl’s face lit up when she heard Finn say "ko Aoife toku ingoa" (“my name is Aoife”) and the class were delighted to have a special visit from the Irish academic during “te wiki o te reo Maori” (“Maori language week”).