University of Canterbury research wins grant for study on te reo, adult language acquisition

21 January 2020

New Zealand adults who don’t speak te reo Māori nevertheless grow up hearing and seeing Māori words throughout their lives. With the support of a $660,000 grant from the 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, a University of Canterbury-led research team will explore whether adult language acquisition can be facilitated by awakening this latently acquired knowledge called ‘a proto-lexicon’.

  • Jeanette_King_NWS

    Professor Jeanette King is leading a three-year study into how exposure to te reo Māori influences learning the language, thanks to a 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau.

Without being aware of it, New Zealanders who can’t speak Māori build up a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of the word forms of te reo (the language). This type of knowledge, acquired before word meanings are fully understood, is called a proto-lexicon.

Professor Jeanette King, of Aotahi School of Māori and Indigenous Studies and the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain & Behaviour,  at UC, is leading a research project called ‘Awakening the proto-lexicon’ which recently won a three-year grant from the 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden. Other researchers on this project include the Director of the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, UC Professor Jennifer Hay, and Dr Peter Keegan from the University of Auckland.

Interestingly, the proto-lexicon plays an important role in early life when infants are learning how to speak and understand language, Professor King says. This latest research will explore whether adults can activate their proto-lexicon in a similar way.

“This study will investigate whether adult New Zealanders can activate their proto-lexicon of Māori when they learn te reo and add meanings to these word forms more quickly and accurately than learners who don’t have a Māori proto-lexicon,” she says.

As well as conducting an experimental study, the researchers will follow real-life learners.

“In harnessing the relatively unique situation of the Māori language in New Zealand, this project has implications both for second language learning internationally and the increasing role of the Māori language in New Zealand’s identity.”

Professor King has published widely in areas relating to the Māori language and is a member of the Māori and New Zealand English (MAONZE) project examining change over time in the pronunciation of te reo Māori.

This is one of 12 UC-led research projects to have received a grant from the 2019 Marsden Fund with a total of $6.54 million having been awarded across four of UC’s five colleges. A rigorous selection process was used in awarding the grants, which recognise UC as a world-class research-led teaching and learning university.

For further information please contact:

Professor Jeanette King, Aotahi School of Māori and Indigenous Studies and New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain & Behaviour, Email:, Phone: +64 3 3694140

or UC Communications team,, Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168.