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Talking to babies is everybody's business


De-colonising and re-centering

Hana Tuwhare (Ngāpuhi), Community Activator for Talking Matters 

I began a journey of decolonising and re-centering matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) around the same time I was studying to be a Speech-Language Therapist (SLT). During this time, I was introduced to Māori health and education frameworks but I struggled to apply these in a practical sense. 

It felt important to bring these conceptual frameworks to life in my practice as part of my own journey in re-centering matauranga Māori, but also as an equity issue as our education system has long been underperforming for our Māori tamariki and their whānau. 

I took a deeper dive in my honours research and explored whakawhanaungatanga (relationship building) when working with Māori tamariki and their whānau. I knew relationships were fundamental to supporting our Māori whānau, but I wasn’t sure how this looked in professional practice. So, I asked the people who were doing it: Māori SLTs (published research coming soon). 

I felt like I was just scratching the surface with this exploration and knew if I wanted to get it right with our Māori whānau, I had a lot more learning to do. After completing my SLT studies I spent a year in a full-immersion te reo Māori learning environment: no English spoken, only te reo Māori from 9am – 3pm, 5 days a week. This was a year of living and breathing Māori ways of thinking, doing and speaking. The year was full of deep learnings and it affirmed to me that I wanted to work in an environment that valued matauranga Māori and supported the revitalisation of te reo Māori. 

I now work with Talking Matters, a campaign to get everyone talking with babies and young tamariki under the age of three. As language, culture and identity are inextricably linked, the vision is that when young tamariki are wrapped in an environment rich in the language(s) and practices of their whānau and home they thrive as thinkers, learners and talkers who stand strong in their identity. 

I was first introduced to Talking Matters as a student on placement. I spent a day on a marae with whānau who were on a journey to create richer oral language environments for their young ones: Tamariki were running around, whānau were sharing their knowledge and kai as well as listening intently to kaumatua (elders) who shared pūrākau (ancient stories) that carried wisdom around parenting. They were relaxed, engaged, sharing and laughing – and it was all focused around building rich language environments. This was the kind of kaupapa I wanted to be around. The whanaungatanga was there, the engagement was there, the knowledge around building language was there. Since working with Talking Matters, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of key ways environments like this can be fostered. 


Whanaungatanga is about connecting. It's about creating ongoing reciprocal relationships developed through shared experiences and working together. Whanaungatanga puts whānau at the centre and creates space for people to speak from their heart, rather than what we might want to hear. Through this process of connecting, we gain a deeper understanding of whānau aspirations, barriers, and strengths. If there is one thing I’ve learned, whanaungatanga is the work. It’s the work that allows us as SLTs to be responsive to whānau in the support we provide because there is a shared understanding, trust and respect. Taking the time to build relationships will always be worth it. 

Whānau to whānau coaching  

Some whānau on the Talking Matters kaupapa become coaches or champions who support other whānau in their community. When whānau experience the impact on wellbeing when focusing on interacting, responding and talking with tamariki, they are empowered and excited to share that knowledge in culturally affirming ways with other whānau. Parents often look to people they trust for advice and information about parenting, particularly whānau and friends. A network of coaches is whanaungatanga in action and can provide a sustainable way to support many whānau in a connected community. This reminds me that as the SLT, my role can be to step aside, make space for the people we work with who know their communities. 


Māori are descendants of discoverers, explorers and innovators and our knowledge was used, and is still used, to traverse the unknown. Through a process of whanaungatanga we can gain a better idea of what that whānau are traversing and how to support them with our unique skills (in my case, as an SLT). When we view whānau as explorers and innovators of their own journeys, we make space for them to take the lead. I’m inspired by the many whānau who take the knowledge around building language for tamariki and determine their own way forward in how it fits in to their lives. I am humbled by the knowledge and strengths that whānau inherently possess and it can be a powerful as a ‘professional’ to simply affirm what whānau know. I am truly humbled by what whānau have to offer when we make the space for it and look forward to continuing the journey. 

This article originally appeared in the magazine of the NZ Speech Therapy Association, Communication Matters Issue 40, Spring 2020. Reused with permission. 


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