Exposure to te reo Māori prepares the brain for language learning


Listening to te reo Māori can give language learning a boost, before you officially start learning the language. Recent research shows that just by living in New Zealand and hearing the Maori language around them, adults automatically begin the first stages of language learning.

  • Director of the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behavior at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury, Professor Jen Hay.

Sustainable Development Goals 4 - Quality Education

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – Quality education

Professor Jen Hay, with Professor Jeanette King and a team of collaborators and postdoctoral researchers at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | The University of Canterbury (UC) found that just by living in Aotearoa, New Zealand and hearing the Maori language around them, adults automatically begin the first stages of language learning. Known as the “proto-lexicon,” this memory store is fundamental to infant language learning.

She says: “When we found the Maori proto-lexicon in non-Maori adults, it was the first indication in the literature that adults can also automatically store memories of words when exposed to a language in the environment. ambient.

The team’s research also shows that people with strong implicit memories who begin to formally learn te reo Māori will learn word meanings faster than people without this strong foundation.

Based on the findings, his message for people who want to learn te reo Māori, but find they are currently too busy, is that you can “prime” your brain before formal language learning, which offers a significant advantage. “Even having audio in the background, like listening to Maori language radio, actually lays a very solid foundation for language learning.”

The team investigated whether the proto-lexicon of te reo Māori can still be acquired by people who did not grow up in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Extensive research has recently been conducted with participants who moved to this country after the age of seven, many of them as adults. None had formally studied te reo Māori.

“We are still analyzing our data, but what we can say is that people are clearly starting to pick up this knowledge no matter when they arrive – although those who came here at a younger age and have lived here for longer have much more detailed knowledge,” says Professor Hay.

“The finding that this happens for people who come to Aotearoa after adulthood is particularly significant, because it shows that this type of learning can certainly happen in adulthood – it’s not just a feature language learning in infants.

Professor Hay’s motivation for this research began when she noticed her young non-Maori speaking children were composing songs with false words that sounded very much like Maori. Traditional linguistic literature would say that someone shouldn’t know what a word should look like in a language, if they don’t already explicitly know a lot of words in that language. “That led us to start researching where this surprising knowledge of Maori sounds came from.”

She recalls how fascinating it was to discover for the first time that adult New Zealanders who do not speak Te Reo Maori still possess a strong subconscious knowledge of Maori words and a surprisingly accurate understanding of sound sequences and associated structures. at te reo.

“It was an amazing result to find that non-Maori speaking New Zealanders did just as well on Maori sound sequence knowledge tests as fluent Maori speakers,” says Professor Hay.

Meanwhile, Professor Hay and his team recently had a research paper accepted for publication by Te Reo, the Journal of the Linguistic Society of New Zealand, the journal’s first-ever paper written entirely in te reo Māori.

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