The sun peers through French-style doors in the reception area couched in rattan armchairs. 

With a smile, the hypnotherapist comes out to get me. I follow them, feeling comfortable, and sit in the patient’s chair. Why am I here?

After many years of learning and improving my reo Māori through university classes, Te Whare Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Ataairangi, and working in a Māori workplace where a lot more is spoken, I still have panic attacks when someone talks to me in te reo Māori.

If I calmed down, I could reply, as I usually understand what the speaker is saying. Still, my mind stops working because of my body’s reaction - imagine a possum in headlights.

This fight or flight response is to an event perceived as stressful or frightening.

It leads to body freezing and mind blanks.

As an 8-year-old, I began my te reo journey through correspondence school in an empty classroom. 

I’d listen to the woman’s voice on the cassette tape. She would ask “Ko wai ahau” and I’d fill in a workbook. Ko Ataria ahau.

A few years older and on a work trip with my dad, we visited a kura kaupapa. To my amazement and terror, I discovered that the ākonga were only allowed to kōrero in te reo Māori. 

It was the opposite world to me, who was in Pākehā schooling.

I was lucky one of the sweet younger tamariki looked after me. The kōtiro snuck in English words on the school field as I grappled with not understanding what anyone was saying, even though I’m Māori too.

Dr Awanui Te Huia (Ngāti Maniapoto) has a PhD in Psychology that focuses on supporting heritage language development for Māori learners of te reo Māori. I recommend reading her pukapuka He reo tuku iho: tangata whenua and te reo Māori, which speaks to the lived experiences of tangata whenua and how they can reclaim te reo.

I share my anxiety with Dr Te Huia, who notes: “We’re still in a phase where we’re learning to acknowledge and identify these experiences of language anxiety. Our people need to know that it’s normal to have a heightened emotional response when we’re learning our ancestral language.”

“There is so much attached to wanting to reclaim our language, which is tied into history and has implications for our cultural identity and feelings of ingroup belonging.

“However, we’re bringing these conversations into our collective consciousness.”

I stand behind a wooden desk in the dark and dank teaching theatre. 

It’s the opening te reo Māori lecture, and our first task is to stand up, one by one and recite our pepeha. My palms go sweaty, and my heart palpitates.

I keep my pepeha short and simple and sit down as fast as possible, hoping the chair might swallow me. The kaiako comments that my pronunciation needs work. They say this in front of the class.

I feel like I want to cry, but stop myself because that’d be even more embarrassing.

Most would agree that triggering a stress response and activating the nervous system is not the ideal place to start when reciting your pepeha.

What is it that causes this bodily response? 

Perhaps many things: language and whakapapa trauma from my nan, who went through the native schools and the violence that that story entails. 

But today, I think it’s the fear of making a mistake—the fear of looking bad, the fear of judgement.

I know this isn’t correct thinking. I believe other people are much less worried about us than we give them credit for. Often, they’re kind and supportive, too.

I feel many of my struggles are explained when Dr Te Huia shares: “The more people associate panic attacks or similar bodily responses with language learning, the more they’ll do anything to avoid it."

When you go on a mind journey with a therapist, you’d expect to de-programme te reo anxiety through the beautiful motif or symbolism of a taonga gifted by a tūpuna Māori or something of that likeness. That would be poetic, anyway

Instead, when the therapist begins the mental exercise, where I allow my mind to construct a story to assist with the subject, I imagine a vibrant and animal-filled forest, sitting quietly in a cottage in a clearing, te taiao.

While sipping a kaputī, a tiny fairy joins me. I’m taken through a misty rift to a fairy village amid a festival, dancing around a fire. I speak to the kūini Fairy, who gives me a putiputi necklace.

I put this around my neck and am taken back to the cottage, where the flowers sink into my chest, notably around my throat. 

To me, it symbolises the confidence to speak te reo Māori. It helps; I feel less emotional and more solid when I finish the exercise.

Dr Te Huia kindly shares kaupapa Māori tools supporting heritage language learners (Māori learners of te reo Māori). They range from waiata and karakia to connecting to te taiao. 

Often, it’s about releasing the anxious energy from the tinana through bodywork and breathwork.

“Waiata is an important tool because it brings the group together in sync; it acts to slow the heart rate and deepens the breathing.”

One way to get ahead of the anxiety, Dr Te Huia explains, is to redirect energy away from the ‘self’ and our internal dialogues that can limit us.

“Instead focus towards achievable incremental goals as a language learner. 

“What are your short-term, mid-term and long-term goals? What do you want to achieve with your reo and direct energy to making it a reality.”

As a heritage language learner, sometimes it’s a struggle to get in the car and to that wānanga, noho marae or therapy session. 

Dr Te Huia reminds me that “language learning is hard, but not learning the language can be hard, too”.

“It’s about what kind of hard you want. The hard where you stayed home and didn’t go to the kaupapa reo Māori, or the hard where you went and turned up and challenged yourself despite the internal turmoil?”

After our kōrero, I consider my te reo Māori goals. 

At this moment, I think it’s to have a comfortable conversation in the language about everyday things in everyday spaces like the kāinga and mahi. 

You know, “Homai te kaputī me pihikete”.

I know I have the reo to do this. It takes doing it in real life, not just in my head, and that’s hard.

But today, I’ve decided it’s the hard I want.

Ataria Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) was born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara; she now lives in Hikurangi, Te Tai Tokerau. Ataria has a Master of Arts and spent a year researching mana wahine and atua wāhine. Her first novel Hine and the Tohunga Portal by Huia Publishers, was a finalist in the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Youth and Children.

Illustrations for this piece by Josie Selkirk.

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