Obstacles Fail to Deter Late Life Goal

An image of an elderly student

Friday, 12 Jun 2020

Shirley Knudsen is back in class, more determined than ever to become fluent in te reo Māori.

The 77-year-old not only had to contend with being classed as a vulnerable person while New Zealand dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, she also had to switch to online learning when the Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology campus she was attending went into lockdown.

This week, during her second face-to-face class since lockdown ended, Shirley presented a two-minute speech in te reo about her whakapapa, ticking off one more assessment in her New Zealand Certificate in Te Reo (Reo Rua) (Level 2) course. 

The free course is part of Shirley’s multi-year plan to finally learn the language that is part of her heritage and which she’s been exposed to all her life. 

Shirley’s maternal grandparents were part-Māori and her middle name, Tararaumoa, was passed down from her grandmother. Shirley was raised alongside her siblings in Rahotu, Taranaki, by her aunt and uncle after her mother passed away when Shirley was just a toddler.

“They used to say ‘one minute we had no children, and the next minute we had seven!’,” she says.

Shirley’s aunt and uncle spoke fluent te reo between themselves, but made a conscious effort to only speak English with Shirley and her siblings, primarily to avoid a cultural backlash while the youngsters were still at school.
“It was uncommon to speak Māori in public because everyone spoke English. The Māori language wasn’t taught like it is today,” Shirley says.

Shirley was inspired to learn te reo while attending a weaving class with friends from the Ta Taipakeke charitable trust. She enrolled in the one-year te reo course but then fell a week before the first class, suffering a deep gash to her leg that required 14 stitches. 

Shirley persevered and thoroughly enjoyed the weekly classes, but the injury meant she was already at home more than usual when, a month into the course, the Government announced all over 70-year-olds should stay home to avoid the risk of catching COVID-19. Days later, the whole country went into lockdown.

Meanwhile, Shirley’s Toi Ohomai tutor, Tangiwai Doctor, was figuring out how to teach online for the first time in her 20-year career.

Tangiwai kept in daily contact via email, with tasks including pre-recorded pronunciation lessons, but the online resources that proved vital for many of the Institute’s students during lockdown were problematic for others.

“It’s quite a challenge to teach a language to so many people online and it was really hard for our older people to access. It’s best to learn te reo face-to-face. It’s that wairua that you can’t ever get on a machine,” Tangiwai says.

Shirley struggled with technical issues and the solitary experience of learning a language online, and Tangiwai was impressed with Shirley’s commitment when the class finally returned to campus last week.

“I want to learn to speak Māori and it isn’t going to happen overnight,” says Shirley.

“I believe that I’m progressing and this is not the time to stop, it’s time to go further. I think it will take three or four years of learning, speaking and understanding to become fluent.”

As for the COVID-19 lockdown, Shirley says it wasn’t too bad. Her gym was closed and her son did her supermarket shopping as she cleaned her walls and ceilings, did gardening and sorted out some cupboards. She’s now enjoying the benefits of having more space and less clutter in her kitchen. 

“I think lockdown was a very good thing. Not only because it dealt with the virus, but because it made more time to do the things that we don’t usually do.” 

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