New Zealander of the Year Jennifer Ward-Lealand has reflected on her “never again” moment that saw her begin a language journey that would end in her becoming a Te Reo Māori advocate.
The morning after being named New Zealander of the Year, the actor, director, and union campaigner for actors told Breakfast she began learning te reo after being unable to respond to a Māori welcome on the set of her husband’s movie in 2000.
But despite being non-Māori, she had “always known the sound of it in my ears and the feel of it on my tongue”.
“I think it started when I was a 5-year-old at Te Aro School,” she said of her relationship with te reo.
“Around 9, 10, 11 I had some significantly influential Māori teachers who took us to Māori club, who taught us waita.”
Ward-Lealand wouldn’t start learning te reo until her late 30s after being unable to respond to a welcome on set.
“In 2000, Michael (Hurst) directed that film Jubilee and I went out to set to celebrate and all of the Māori actors got together, Cliff, Hori Ahipene and they gave a mihi, a waiata for him and they turned to us to respond.”
“But why should we? In my heart I thought this is crazy, I was born here, this is an everyday tikanga and so I went never again, never again.”
The process of learning the language, which Mrs Ward-Lealand did alongside Breakfast co-host Jenny-May Coffin, was often terrifying.
“We studied together (with Jenny-May), I think I went everyday slightly terrified, it was a wonderful year,” she said.
“Strategies here, strategies there, if you want it, you will learn it, I wanted it, I wanted it badly.”
“People have learnt (it) a lot more quickly than I have, I’ve been all around the shops to get there.”