A decade-long, science-based, technological project may not seem the most likely research to highlight during Māori Language Week but that is exactly where the Māori Pronunciation Aid, or MPAi, belongs.

It is a computer-assisted language tool that is being developed by a team that combines academic expertise in computer engineering, linguistics and Māori language with the highly revered oratory skills of respected Māori elders. 

MPAi enables users to hear the correct pronunciation of a Māori word, record and analyse their own pronunciation and get feedback on what is right and what is wrong. It runs on Windows and can be used on computers, tablets and mobile devices.

An online beta version is already being used on the internal network of the University of Auckland, one of three universities involved in its development, and the long term aim is to make a version available for the general public.

“MPAi is the first tool to provide real time feedback to help learners pronounce Māori correctly, and is one of the few computer-assisted learning tools for a language that is undergoing revitalisation,” says Dr Peter Keegan (Waikato-Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou), senior lecturer at Te Puna Wānanga, the university’s School of Māori and Indigenous Education.

“It is part of our team’s contribution to the revival of te reo Māori,” says Associate Professor Catherine Watson from the University of Auckland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“From the 1200s to the 1700s Māori had no contact with any other languages, and even with the arrival of the Europeans in the 1800s, the language remained strong in many Māori communities. However, from the 1920s onwards, the language became severely compromised by the impact of English and was genuinely under threat.

“Fortunately, that changed in the 1980s and since then there has been serious revitalisation going on and we are really excited to be a part of this,” says Watson.

The team realised the need for a pronunciation tool while undertaking research for the MAONZE (Māori and New Zealand English) Project. This is an on-going project looking at changes in the sound of the Māori language over a 100 year period using recordings of elders in the 1880s and voices from present day elders and young speakers.

Keegan explains: “Over the years we have recorded the speech of more than 40 Māori speakers for our study, half of which are kaumatua or kuia and highly respected orators. The language as spoken by these current elders is highly valued, and many younger speakers consider it a compliment if they are told they sound like an elder.”

The project and recordings sparked a lot of interest from within the Māori speaking community, particularly in the language as spoken by the elders.   

“They wanted the elders’ way of speaking to be the gold standard from which others could learn and it became clear to us that many second language speakers of Māori wanted to improve their own pronunciation,” he adds.

This interest in accuracy and improvement from the te reo community became the team’s motivation to develop a pronunciation tool using their combined skills, namely Watson’s phonetic and computer engineering skills and the Māori language and linguistics skills of Keegan, Professor Margaret Maclagan and Professor Jeanette King from the University of Canterbury, and Dr Ray Harlow formerly of the University of Waikato.

The team uses voices recorded for the MOANZE language research as the voices providing pronunciation guidance on MPAi and users have a choice of who they listen to –  male or female elders; male or female young speakers.

Surprisingly, until the MAONZE project launched in 2004, there had been very little formal research into changes in pronunciation of the Māori language despite speakers being aware of changes that they thought had occurred because younger generations were no longer learning from older generations.

The archived recordings of fluent native Māori speakers from the late 19th century have been a crucial and fascinating resource for the team.  They were able to compare these speakers of almost 150 years ago with Māori speakers of today, young and old, to see how the language has changed, particularly through the massive shift to English that started in the early part of the 20th century.

Says Watson: “The study is revealing significant changes in young Māori speakers compared to both the present day and historical elders, particularly in the vowel sounds.”  

The team is also researching dialects by matching early speakers from different regions with modern speakers from the same areas.

The on-going nature of this longitudinal study means these pronunciation and dialect changes will be tracked over a long period of time. Since 2004, the project has been funded by two Royal Society Marsden grants and a University of Auckland Strategic Initiatives Fund grant. The University of Auckland has recently granted further funding to Watson and Keegan to continue their research.

Says Watson: “It is thrilling to be involved in this work that could play a part in the new life that is being given to te reo Māori. After all, it is the indigenous language of New Zealand and had no contact with any other language from the time Māori settled here around 1200 AD to the late 1700s.”

Keegan adds: “The fact that it has survived the huge dominance of the English language is to be celebrated. And the fact that so many people want to improve how they speak Māori is worthy of more celebration.”

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