“Starting route to towel-rung-ah.”

“Make a right at Teh-ruh-nah-kee street.”

You know you are road-tripping across New Zealand when a car full of people can’t help but mock Google Maps’ attempt to pronounce Māori place names. 

Sometimes the pronunciation is so far gone you actually get confused about where you should be turning. 

While it can be entertaining for some, as Aotearoa increasingly joins together to celebrate and strengthen te reo Māori, isn’t it time Google Maps caught up too? 

Why can’t Google Maps pronounce Māori words?

The long and the short of it is Google hasn’t built a voice platform to support te reo Māori or Māori pronunciation. And the people in Aotearoa who have started to build this technology haven’t heard from Google. 

The rise and fall of ‘Say It Tika’

In 2017 the ‘Say It Tika’ (Say It Right) campaign by Vodafone and Google was launched. 

It asked New Zealanders to correct Google Maps’ pronunciation of Māori place names across the motu. 

In just two weeks, more than 67,000 corrections were pinned across a digital map of New Zealand. 

The plan was for Google Maps and Vodafone to work with linguists and use this data to correct Google Maps’ pronunciation once and for all. 

The problem? Google never actually had the technology to do this.

Google apologised for dropping their end of the deal, but Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui says he hasn’t heard from the organisation since. 

“In hindsight, of course they couldn't do it because they didn't have the voice platform. We were thinking they were going to help develop this - but we learnt that wasn’t the case,” Apanui says.

“Until that’s done, te reo Māori words will always be mispronounced on an English voice platform.”

A Google New Zealand spokesperson told Re: News the company is “committed to reviewing and making improvements to pronunciations in all languages on Google Maps”. 

Google worked with local data providers in 2021 to ensure Māori place names are now spelt correctly with macrons on Google Maps. Google also partnered with Spark to launch Kupu, an app that recognises images of items and gives the Māori translation for it. 

However, there is no recent progress on the ‘Say it Tika’ campaign.

“While some improvements have been made to the pronunciation of Māori place names within Google Maps since ‘Say it Tika’ was launched, we acknowledge that we don't always get it right, and apologise for this,” a Google New Zealand spokesperson says. 

A Vodafone spokesperson told Re: News the company doesn’t have any new updates on the mission to improve pronunciation of Māori on Google Maps either.

‘We have to do it ourselves’

While this is all happening, Papa Reo - a multilingual language platform grounded in indigenous knowledge and tikanga - is doing the mahi Google stepped away from. 

Papa Reo has been working with Māori communities to collect data sets from around the country to build translation processing tools as well as te reo Māori pronunciation prototypes.

This has been led by Te Hiku Media in partnership with Dragonfly Data Science. 

Te Hiku Media CEO Peter-Lucas Jones says the pronunciation prototypes have been tested out by government departments and Māori organisations, and they are starting the process of moving into production. 

Despite this progress, Jones says Google hasn’t been in touch. 

“Whilst we're hopeful and we're open to working with Google on improving the pronunciation of Māori words on their maps, we haven't heard from them. 

“There's nobody else that I'm aware of that works at this level with natural language processing for te reo Māori. So if Google were serious about doing this, we're not hard to find.”

Jones says the reason why the ‘Say It Tika’ campaign couldn’t follow through with its mission is because Google is a technology platform - not Māori language experts. 

“Many corporates want to be white knights in shining armour because it's now popular to promote indigenous development. But it's important for us to remind ourselves of the role that indigenous people have in the revitalisation of languages that were beaten out of their mouths. 

“We don’t want to enable global corporations, the same capitalist system that beat this language out of people’s mouths, to then turn around and sell it back to us as a service without affirmative action for indigenous people,” Jones says.

For Jones, affirmative action looks like Google reinvesting profits from the service back into the communities the pronunciation data originated from. 

“It's more than just plugging our system into their system. It's also about them understanding the efforts of indigenous people to lead indigenous development and supporting this self-determination to keep this language alive.”

What could a partnership between Papa Reo and Google look like?

Alongside a commitment to affirmative action for Māori, Jones says any partnership with Google and other global corporations would have to honour the concept of data sovereignty and be guided by Māori values and principles such as kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

Kaitiakitanga in the digital world

Unlike most of the tech world where data ownership is bought and sold, Te Hiku Media has created a kaitiakitanga licence.

Similar to how humans are kaitiaki (guardians) of papatūānuku in te ao Māori - this licence means Te Hiku Media acts as a guardian of the data collected in partnership with Māori communities, rather than being the owners of it.

“Te Hiku Media are merely caretakers of the data and seek to ensure that all decisions made about the use of that data respect its mana and that of the people from whom it descends,” the Papa Reo website states. 

Jones says the project goes beyond just teaching computers how to speak Māori.

“It’s about protecting and having control over our data sovereignty to make sure that the work that we do does no further harm to our language. What I'm saying is that you can't just say it tika, you must do it tika too.”

The digitalisation of Māori will help keep it alive

Half of the world’s 6000 languages are under threat or facing extinction.

Researchers from the University of Manchester estimate 90% of the world's languages are likely to disappear by 2050.

Currently, one in three Maori speak te reo Maori and 8% of New Zealanders say they speak the language well. 

“Our native Māori language is counted as one of those languages in danger,” Jones says.

“If we fail to act urgently and don't find a digital future for our language, our language’s days are numbered.”

Apanui is hopeful about the digital future of te reo Māori.

“I think you will find that as the population of Māori speakers grows, so will the demands for this technology,” Apanui says. 

“If we continue this growth over the next three to five years, that'll start to put real pressure on the digital platforms like Google, Microsoft, Facebook to keep up. Now it’s about making our voices heard.”

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