5 Simple Te Reo Pronunciation Tips

Do you want to use more te reo in your teaching practice? What’s holding you back? In my work as the author and publisher of Te Reo Singalong books, I meet many teachers who struggle with their pronunciation of te reo.

This article introduces five simple tips to help you gain confidence with your pronunciation of te reo. First, let’s think about why we should make an effort to improve our pronunciation of te reo Māori. When I ask teachers in my workshops why they place importance on pronouncing the names of children correctly, they always reply with the same word – respect. I also believe it’s respectful to pronounce our New Zealand Māori place names, native birds and trees and greetings correctly. So what’s stopping us?

For some it’s just a bad habit. For others, it’s lack of knowledge. Some people have never had any lessons in the correct pronunciation of te reo. Other people list their lack of confidence, embarrassment, fear of getting it wrong and being criticised – and even a fear of standing out from the crowd. I have felt all of those fears, and I pronounce te reo Māori correctly anyway. So far, nothing bad has happened to me! In fact, it feels great to respect the Māori language, the people and the land in this simple way. If you would like to join me on this pronunciation journey, read on. It’s easy!

Here are the five reasons why it’s easy to pronounce te reo.

  • There are only 15 letters.
  • Those 15 letters are pronounced consistently.
  • There are no silent letters.
  • You know a few pronunciation songs already.
  • It’s all about the vowels.

Let’s expand on those five points.

1. There are only 15 letters:

5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u); 8 consonants (h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w) and 2 digraphs (ng and wh). In a digraph, two consonants make one sound. Some people say there are 20 letters in te reo, because they include the vowels with macrons: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. I prefer to keep it simple. The macron just lengthens the original vowel sound. So I’m sticking with 15 letters. 

2. The 15 letters are pronounced consistently:

I love consistency. If your mother tongue is English, count your blessings. English is one of the hardest languages to learn because there’s no consistency. With te reo, consistency is the key. Here’s more about the pronunciation of each letter.

Vowels: It’s really important to get the vowels right. If you can do that, the rest will follow. The vowel sounds are pronounced like “car, care, key, core, coo” – without the “c” sound at the front. Try that now. Say “car, care, key, core, coo” out loud. Now repeat it without the “c” sound at the front. That’s all. Learn that, and you are more than half the way to success! The only thing that changes is the length of the vowel sound. If you see a macron over the vowel, it will be a longer sound. If there’s no macron the vowel sound is very short.

Consonants: Six of the consonants are pronounced exactly as you would expect – “h, k, m, n, p, w”. The other two – “r” and “t” – are pronounced differently to their English relations. The “r” is made by gently vibrating the tongue along the upper palate, just behind the teeth, where you would pronounce the English sounds “l” and “d”.

The pronunciation of the “t” sound depends on what vowel is coming after it. The only options are ta, te, ti, to, and tu. Pronounce “ti” as in a cup of “tea”. Pronounce “tu” as in a cup of tea for “two”. “Tea for two” is a good way to remember it. The other three options are ta, te and to. The “t” sound in those cases is made with a flat tongue. The tongue is pressed against the upper palate and behind the front teeth to make a sound which is a bit like a like a flat “d” sound.

Digraphs: These are “ng” and “wh”. The consonants in each digraph make one sound. So “ng” isn’t pronounced “inga”. It’s more like the sound at the end of the word “sing”. If you break “sing” into individual sounds, they are s...i...ng. The third sound is the “ng” sound in te reo. The “wh” sound is commonly pronounced as the “f” sound.

The important thing to remember is that all these sounds are consistently pronounced. 

3. There are no silent letters:

Every letter in a Māori word is meant to be pronounced. Many people get confused about what to do when there are two or more vowels together. No need to panic! Just pronounce them all. Practise now by saying “Aotearoa” out loud. Use the correct pronunciation of the vowels explained earlier.

In some Māori words, two vowels are said so quickly that they seem to combine to make one sound. The letters “au” in te reo, for example, can be pronounced quickly to rhyme with the English word “no”. But you can also spread them out and say them separately as “a...u”. That is still correct – perhaps even more correct. So you can pronounce the word “whānau” as “whā... na... u”. Normally, we speed the “au” up, but if you slow down your pronunciation, you will hear that the “au” is made up of the two sounds “a” and “u”. Because te reo is such a consistent language, once you know the correct pronunciation of “au”, you will be able to pronounce every other word containing “au”. Here some examples: Tauranga, ahau, maunga, kau. All these words contain “au” and that part of the word will always rhyme with the English word “no”.

4. You know a few pronunciation songs already:

The long version of the five vowels (with macrons) combine in a children’s pronunciation song: “ā, ē, ī, ō, ū... ā, ē, ī, ō, ū... piko, piko, piko, piko, piko piko... toro, piko etc.” You can find it on children’s CDs and youtube. There is another great pronunciation song available on children’s CDs and youtube. It’s known as “a, ha, ka, ma, na”. The more you practise these songs, getting the vowels right, the better your pronunciation of te reo will be. 

5. It’s all about the vowels:

Did you know that every Māori word ends in a vowel? Because of that, it’s important to make the natural breaks at the vowel, instead of the consonant. Even the longest place name in New Zealand is easy to pronounce if you put a small break after every vowel. All you have to do is imagine a dash or a slash after every vowel. Here is an example: Ra – ngi – o – ra. Try doing that with a few more Māori place names.

Every time you see a sign containing a Māori place name, use it as an opportunity to practise your pronunciation. Say the words aloud so your ears get used to hearing the correct pronunciation. Just remember the “a, e, i, o, u” song if you get stuck. Pronouncing the vowels correctly is key. And remember to have a little break after every vowel. As long as you remember the sounds of the vowels, and to put a break after every vowel, you can pronounce any word or name in te reo!

For more information about Sharon Holt’s pronunciation and sentence structure workshops, email sharon@tereosingalong.co.nz

You can watch a short video of Sharon Holt teaching the pronunciation basics at the bottom of her website home page at www.tereosingalong.co.nz

That website is also the place to see pages from Sharon’s Te Reo Singalong books, hear the tunes, and buy online.

By Sharon Holt