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Exposure to te reo Māori primes the brain for language learning

15 September 2022

Listening to te reo Māori can kickstart language-learning, before officially beginning to learn the language. Recent research shows that just by living in NZ, and hearing the Māori language around them, adults automatically begin the early stages of language learning.


Director of the NZ Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury, Professor Jen Hay.

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

She says, “when we found the Māori proto-lexicon in non-Māori speaking adults, this was the first indication in the literature that adults may also automatically store memories for words when they are exposed to a language in the ambient environment.”


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

Based on the findings, her message for people wanting to learn te reo Māori, but find that they are currently too busy, is that you can ‘prime’ your brain ahead of formal language learning, which provides a significant advantage. “Even having some audio playing in the background, such as tuning into Māori language radio, actually lays a very strong foundation for language learning.”

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

“We’re still analysing our data, but what we can say is that people clearly do start acquiring this knowledge no matter when they arrive - though those who have come here at a younger age and have lived here for longer have much more detailed knowledge,” says Professor Hay.

“The discovery that this happens for people who arrive in Aotearoa after adulthood is particularly important, because it shows that this kind of learning can definitely happen during adulthood – it isn't just a feature of infant language learning.”

Professor Hay’s motivation for this piece of research began when she noticed her non-Māori-speaking young children were making up songs with fake words that sounded a lot like they could be Māori. Traditional linguistic literature would say that someone shouldn’t know what a word in a language should sound like, if they don’t already explicitly know lots of words in that language. “This led us to start researching where this surprising knowledge of Māori sounds was coming from.”

She remembers how intriguing it was to first discover that adult New Zealanders who do not speak te reo Māori still possess a strong subconscious knowledge of Māori words and an amazingly accurate understanding of sound sequences and structures associated with te reo.

“It was a stunning result to find that New Zealanders who do not speak Māori did just as well in tests of knowledge of Māori sound sequences as fluent Māori speakers,” says Professor Hay.

Meanwhile, Professor Hay and her team have 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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