Rongo: Bringing back te reo Māori to the tip of the tongue

Whakahokia te reo mai i te mata o te pene, ki te mata o te arero 

Bring the language back from the tip of the pen to the tip of the tongue

 - Te Wharehuia Milroy, champion and master of te reo Māori

It’s Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, and everywhere we are seeing the successful revitalisation of te reo Māori across Aotearoa. However there is a still a long way to go to get te reo incorporated into everyday use. One of the biggest challenges for people learning Māori is fear of mispronunciation – this may end up discouraging them from learning te reo altogether, or from speaking it even if they are happy to write and read it. 

A language is there to be spoken 

However, as the late Te Wharehuia Milroy knew, a language is there to be spoken. This is the central ethos of Rongo – a new app developed to provide te reo learners with an opportunity to practice in a private space without the pressure of speaking it to others. 

The app does not use the written word – instead you only hear it, before being given the opportunity to speak it back into your phone. Rongo then gives you feedback, saying whether you got the phrase right or asking the user to try the kupu again because they didn’t quite get it right. 

Download Rongo here in the App Store

View the Rongo story below

Te reo Māori was originally taught this way. In the old houses of learning, students sat in the dark – the tohunga (expert) then recited lines of genealogy that spanned generations. The students learnt the language by focussing on the words, retaining them and then reciting it by themselves to practice. 

There is much evidence to support this method of learning languages, and already Rongo is being used across the motu to support people in their te reo journey. 

Rongo is one of the Māori language digital tools that have emerged from the Papa Reo project, funded by MBIE – which aims to use data science and artificial intelligence to support and accelerate the revitalisation of te reo Māori, as well as ensure Māori data is only being used with the community’s consent. 

The Papa Reo project is the culmination of work undertaken by Te Reo Irirangi o Te Hiku o Te Ika (Te Hiku Media) over the last 30 years to instil, nurture and proliferate the Māori language. Te Hiku now make national and international impact from Te Taitokerau, in the area of Māori language regional broadcasting, natural language processing and understanding. 

CEO of Te Hiku Media, Peter-Lucas Jones said, "Te Hiku Media is excited about getting this tool into the hands of Māori language learners. They can tackle pronunciation in the privacy of their own home, in the car or by the beach. Wherever they feel comfortable and safe. The app has been a real collaboration between our Māori-language experts, our iwi radio broadcasting production crew, our data scientists, our talented software developers and graphic designers. It was all hands on deck."

Machine learning to build a Māori language model

The team at Te Hiku Media used machine learning methods to build a Māori language model, speech recognition, speech synthesis, and real-time pronunciation models, ushering in a new generation of speech tools to help ensure te reo Māori has a place in the digital world. But machine learning wasn't the hardest part. The real challenge was finding ways to gather and manage large amounts of labelled Māori data in a way that ensures the data are treated as taonga and used to benefit Māori communities and the Māori language. The Kaitiakitanga Data License developed by Te Hiku Media does just that, and it is pioneering a vision for a positive, inclusive future of AI.

“Our vision is for a multilingual language platform that will develop cutting edge natural language processing methods and tools,” explains Jones. “The programme will begin with te reo Māori, ensuring intergenerational transmission and accessibility to the language alongside the rapid development of technologies.”


Creating strong financial functions to support our te reo journey 

BDO has been working with Te Hiku Media, the company behind Rongo, to help set up their essential financial functions, ensuring this amazing app has strong processes and structures behind it to enable it to reach as many people as possible and ultimately help Aotearoa in its te reo journey. 

“The people behind Rongo are whanaunga, and we have a family-like relationship with them which we really value,” explains Angela Edwards, BDO Māori Business Sector Leader. “We are finding more and more that Māori organisations we work with are struggling to resource their accounting functions – and they want to find people to help them with these areas who really understand te ao Māori and the kaupapa on which these organisations are based.” 

BDO’s specialist Pākihi Māori team was first contracted to provide support around payroll and HR, as well as to provide advice around the business structure. Now the team provides ongoing virtual CFO services including creating annual financial statements, budgets, GST and liaising with auditors. We are also designing custom reports to be used in governance. 

Peter-Lucas said, “It’s pivotal for any business to have access to high-quality financial advice and we are so pleased to be connected to Angela Edwards and her amazing team who have supported the growth of Te Hiku Media through applying their unique Māori business lens to the way they provide virtual CFO services, and they have become an integral part of our whānau.”

If you would like business support or advice from a team that truly understands te ao Māori and the kaupapa that your organisation is based on, reach out to BDO’s specialist Pākihi Māori team today.