The Polyglot Project 2 / An Tionscadal Ilbhéarlach 2 – The Book That Every Home Needs / An Leabhar Ag Teastáil Uainn Uile / Mā Mātou Tēnei Pukapuka

Why does English have to be the mediator?

Learning Te Reo Māori (which I can’t be claiming to do of late, given I’ve spent the summer cramming French and polishing my Gramadach) was initially a process of transcribing words into my little book in Reo Māori and Reo Pākeha, like so…

You may notice I am a note taker.  It’s part of what helps me absorb the huge volume of words I’m attempting to learn. Pictures and whimsy pass the time…

Sometimes it boarders on the truly childish (as above), or the ‘Don’t you have something better to be doing?‘ (as below) ….


FYI, I was living for 6 months in Eketāhuna, and off the drink for the first time in 10 years – I didn’t have anything better to do. Also, you may never have considered how strange it is to learn the seasons and months in Southern Hemisphere language, if you’re a Northern Hemisphere person.

(You’d almost be a fool not to drawn little seasonal reminders and festive prompts in your notebook!)


Anyway, the whole point of my fantastic trip to New Zealand, and my RAK Mason Fellowship at New Zealand Pacific Studio, was to create written work exploring identity, language and the meaning of home for a dual-heritage person, within post-colonial countries (it was more pithy than that in the application).  So what does it say that I can’t think creatively in any language other than English?

So it seemed to me that the next logical step was to write my own dictionary.

A Reo Māori – Gaeilge Papakupu, or Gaeilge – Reo Māori Foclóir.


Yes, you heard that correctly, ha ha ha ha ha! I didn’t decide to spend my six months away from the distractions of Dublin life finishing a best-selling crime novel, or creating a pitch for a TV series, or penning a fine collection of poetry, a commercially viable children’s play – hell, even a commercially UN-viable children’s play.

Don’t be getting notions.

I decided, instead, to make a dictionary for myself in two minority languages that both have less than one million speakers, who live in the farthest possible places from each other on planet, and with almost no dual-speakers or mutual connection other than me and this woman from Louth (fair play to her).

When he heard about my dictionary, my esteemed colleague Tainui Tukiwaho exclaimed  ‘Ah! The book that every home’s been waiting for!

Oh, how we laughed, as I sailed towards the age of thirty, and sensible life choices just floated on by, unseized …


It turned out to be, nevertheless, bleedin’ GREAT.

One thing it taught me is how expansive Irish vocabulary is (more words for more things than an English speaker knows what to do with!) and also how mercurial and alchemic Te Reo Māori is.  It has to be the most human language I’ve ever learnt – a small amount of words buttressed with a huge amount of grammatical signifiers, hard to understand without context, without eye contact, without an understanding of the culture from which it has sprung, without understanding of the speaker.

It also taught me how restricted your vocabulary can be as an adult learner of a language.  I listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta nearly ever day – but do I know the Irish word for jellyfish?

(I do now, by the way, I learnt it last week – it means ‘seals snot’ in Irish)

I know the vocab for elections, referenda, abortion rights, funeral notices, international negotiations on Brexit – or Breatimeacht – but I don’t know the words for the zoo animals, because there’s a lot you miss out on when a language isn’t drip fed to you through a lifetime of play and story.

Not to worry. I’m getting there.

One unexpected aspect of it all, though, is that my dictionary could end up coming to some small use, after all.

Just before leaving New Zealand, the amazing writer and inaugural Poet Laureate Michelle Leggot gave me this wee gift…


It’s called a Tapa Notebook, and it’s an invitation to participate in a poetry project. You can check out the previous ones here, at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.

Once filled out, it will live as part of the Special Collections at the University of Auckland Library. And I think I know some of what’s going in it.

S x

2 thoughts on “The Polyglot Project 2 / An Tionscadal Ilbhéarlach 2 – The Book That Every Home Needs / An Leabhar Ag Teastáil Uainn Uile / Mā Mātou Tēnei Pukapuka

  1. Jonathan Saint

    Hey Sian – that’s some project! Very cool. I was at the opening of the new NZ embassy in Dublin in the week where Aoife Finn did indeed speak to us all in Te Reo Maori and one of the Ngati Ranana members who lives here in Ireland replied as Gaeilge. It was indeed a unifying moment, as they both pointed out. You have in fact chosen a very bi-partheid moment in the histories of these small fine countries to explore the home languages. More power to you!


    1. Thanks a million, Jonathan! Delighted you were at the opening of the NZ embassy – Tainui who’s working on Te Rohi with me, sent me the video link this morning ( of the opening, it looks amazing! We are in touch with Aoife, too, because she’s a bit of a celeb to me (whenever I was travelling and working in New Zealand, people would always ask if I was her because I was learning / speaking reo!) she might not be able to make the reading on the 7th but I hope she’s meet us in rehearsal. I was very impressed by the wahine from Ngati Ranana who spoke Irish at the opening, too – a tough old language to pronounce! She did great! Nga mihi, Sian


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