From te reo 'outsider' to te reo ambassador

There was a time when Jenny-May Clarkson felt like an “outsider” in her own culture. Yes, she “looked Māori, felt Māori”, but never quite got Māori.

Published: Rāhina, 25 Hōngongoi, 2016 | Monday, 25 July 2016

But all that has changed since the 42-year-old Ngāti Maniapoto woman, who has been beaming into our homes for years as a presenter with ONE Sport, was stirred to find that “missing piece”.

“I’ve always had this longing inside me for the language and I can honestly say that learning te reo has changed my life,” says Jenny-May.

“No longer do I feel like an ‘outsider’ in my own culture, and the joy it brings me to engage in conversations in te reo and to be able to understand it is endless.”

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori has selected Jenny-May to be one of four ambassadors to front this year’s Māori Language Week campaign – a drive to get more Māori and non-Māori learning and loving te reo.

Jenny-May’s te reo journey took a leap in 2012 when she decided to take a break from her hectic broadcasting career and study the language fulltime at Te Wānanga Takiura in Auckland.

“Learning the language has opened my eyes and my ears to an entirely new yet old world – a beautiful culture, our culture – New Zealand’s culture.”

And it is a world she and her husband Dean will be sharing with their twin boys who were born in late March.

"Charles Atawhai Te Waka Clarkson was the second one out so he's the tuakana. Charles is my grandfather's name and the name of a brother who passed away. He was kind, generous and hospitable so that's why we've included Atawhai. Te Waka is my dad's name."

"Anthony Te Manahau Maurice is the teina. Anthony is Dean's grandfather's name. Te Manahau means joyous, joyful exuberance, a little cheeky. This is also the Māori name that was gifted to Scotty Morrison – a close family friends of ours. Maurice is the name of Dean's dad."

“Te reo has become even more important to me with the birth of my twin boys."

“My desire is for our boys to be immersed in te reo and tikanga Māori.”

Her interaction with the twins is done mainly in te reo.

“It is basic but about 70 to 80 per cent of my interaction with them is in te reo Māori."

“We tune in to Te Karere every day and Māori TV on a regular basis and we also listen to waiata in te reo.”

Going back to her childhood upbringing in Piopio in the King Country, Jenny-May recalls how her five siblings and she always played at their marae Mokaukohunui during tangi and hui, but they never learnt te reo.

"My parents weren’t speakers but the generation before them were, even my Pākehā grandfather".

“The language died in my family when my grandmother passed away and my grandfather, like many at that time, thought their children would be best prepared for the world by focusing on English.”

At high school, Jenny-May took up te reo but dropped it after three years as mounting expectations – that as she was Māori she should automatically know te reo – became too much for her.

It was not until years later, when she started working on Māori TV as a presenter, that she realised how little she knew about her culture.

“There were times when I’d have to read Māori from the autocue, not really understanding what I was saying".

“There were also times when I’d be out in public and speakers would recognise me from Māori TV and want to speak to me in Māori."

“Some of them were elders and I couldn’t even respond to them because I didn’t know what they were saying. It was embarrassing.”

But Jenny-May turned that emotional rollercoaster of embarrassment into a positive.

“Learning te reo is the scariest thing I’ve done in my entire life."

“I have an ego and I’m used to being really good or the best at what I do so learning te reo really got to me."

“Besides my twin boys, learning the language is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done – absolutely life changing!”

The hardest challenge facing Jenny-May right now is not speaking the language on a regular basis. She is acutely aware that maintaining the language means surrounding herself in it every day or as much as possible.

“Use it or lose it as the saying goes and this is a taonga I can’t afford to lose."

“I know that different seasons present different challenges but I am committed to continuing to learn and develop.”

Jenny-May says she is privileged to have the support of her close friends Stacey and Scotty Morrison, both fluent speakers and leaders in Māori language revitalisation, whose youngest daughter she is the godmother of.

And it is not only the twins who Jenny-May has in learning mode. She has also inspired her husband Dean and his two daughters aged 9 and 11 to embark on their own te reo journey.

“As a whānau we are committed to learning together – bit by bit, word by word, wānanga by wānanga.”

Her father, Waka Coffin, also took up learning te reo several years ago.

“Like me, Dad has been working on his te reo recovery too. We kōrero regularly these days and the quality of it has improved, not as half-pie as it used to be."

“It brought me to tears to be able to mihi to him in te reo at his 80th birthday."

“Te reo Māori is a beautiful language – I see and hear the world so much more clearly and differently knowing the language of our ancestors – the language of the future.”