Four Māori language students will be immersed for three months in a groundbreaking full-time live-in programme in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. The initiative includes not only formal teaching and learning, but, significantly, the involvement of the local community.

A residential immersion pilot programme is being launched next week in Whakatāne. Students will study in formal classes at indigenous tertiary institution Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi during the day and live, supported by tutors in the total-immersion whare, in the evening. At other times, they will shop, socialise and interact with the community using Te Reo Māori only.

The three-month pilot is part of the five-year strategy Ngā Parirau o te Reo Māori developed by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi to strengthen the use of the Māori language in everyday life. Focusing on fresh approaches over the next five years, the strategy was developed with input from strategic partners, Te Reo Māori experts, and iwi.

Professor Te Kani Kingi, Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Awanuiārangi, said the strategy identifies four high-level goals: use of Te Reo Māori within the institution; enhanced learning opportunities; increased research; and encouraging Te Reo Māori use in the wider community.

Awanuiārangi is also leading the largest study ever of the Māori language – an analysis of data extracted from the internationally recognised longitudinal study Growing Up In New Zealand.

Professor Kingi said the initiative is unlike anything else currently on offer. It would support accelerated learning by creating an environment where Te Reo Māori is used naturally in everyday life, such as at the supermarket or local sports clubs.

“We’re taking language learning beyond the walls of the institution and into our communities where we will support real language-use opportunities.

“We expect that this comprehensive approach will take learners with little or no skill in everyday use of Te Reo Māori and transform them into confident speakers.”

Professor Kingi said the programme draws upon community as a reo resource unique to the region.

“There are a significant number of native speakers of Te Reo in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, and in areas such as Ruatoki, Waimana, Taneatua and Poroporo, it is the primary language of social engagement.”

The wider community was signing up to the innovative approach in a variety of ways, including identifying Māori language speakers who work in shops, businesses and supermarkets.

“Our initiative will engage our community in the creation of an immersion environment like no other,” said Professor Kingi.

“Our learners will be able to buy their groceries or order a coffee in Te Reo Māori without having to think twice. Learners will have clothing that identifies them so that speakers of Te Reo Māori in our community will recognise them and take the opportunity to interact using only Te Reo. This may be at a local store, in the street, in a café or at the rugby club.”

Regional and district councils and industry were also showing interest, and use of the residential facility has been donated by Te Tohu o Te Ora o Ngāti Awa.

“It is wonderful to see the level of excitement in the Whakatāne community. Shop owners we’ve approached have jumped on board and will have signs out to identify themselves as welcoming Te Reo Māori. It may be easier here than anywhere else in the country for learners to immerse themselves.”

Professor Kingi said interest from learners is extremely high.

“Before we even developed the pilot, the first four people I spoke to about this idea literally left their jobs and said count me in. All of them have taken time off work to live in this whare and work toward proficiency in the spoken language.

“The focus will be on active rather than passive learning. There’ll be less of sitting in the classroom taking notes and more of being required to speak. We’re providing an opportunity that is as wrap-around as possible, allowing students to engage 24 hours a day in learning. It will be intensive and they’ll be put on the spot – that’s the component that will activate and accelerate their learning.”