Learn a language you love when you’re not speaking

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Geneva Hakaraia-Tino’s vision is that all Maori tāngata whaikaha will be able to communicate in te reo – including those who do not speak.

Read this story in Te Reo Maori and English here. / Pānuitia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.

She grew up surrounded by role models and a rich culture at Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland, which she describes as a privilege.

But Hakaraia-Tino (Ngāpuhi and Te Aupōuri) understands the barriers that people who don’t speak face when communicating in te reo.

She was born with cerebral palsy and has limited speech abilities; it was her parents’ dream for her to receive a Maori language education, but this was not possible due to the limited services available for non-speaking students.

Geneva Hakaraia-Tino suffers from cerebral palsy and has limited speech abilities.  She develops a synthetic te reo voice.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

Geneva Hakaraia-Tino suffers from cerebral palsy and has limited speech abilities. She develops a synthetic te reo voice.

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“I was basically written off by people,” she says. “It was bad enough having a disability, but I’m also mute so, in the eyes of the more capable society we live in, it was better if I was just put somewhere in the background and that was all.”

Not being able to communicate in a language that is so important to you can often leave a person in a place of silence and te ao pōuriuri (a world of darkness) as they cannot express their whakaaro (thoughts) or participate in te ao Māori , says Hakaraia-Tino.

But what people around her didn’t realize was that she was “absorbing everything” she heard, she said. “I loved the eloquence of the pronounced te reo.”

Hakaraia-Tino understands the barriers that people who don't speak face when communicating in te reo.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

Hakaraia-Tino understands the barriers that people who don’t speak face when communicating in te reo.

Her desire to learn te reo is ingrained in her being, and five years ago she enrolled in a course at university to further her reo journey.

She can now confidently hold a kōrero in te reo and deliver a mihi at hui. She says it “really pleases my heart” to know how far she’s come in her reo and how much she can relate to now.

But learning te reo was the “easiest part”. Hakaraia-Tino quickly realized that there were many obstacles when learning a language through a communication device designed to speak and pronounce English words.

She first tried to spell Māori words phonetically, but currently available voices (her “accent” is Australian because it’s closest to a synthesized New Zealand accent) “butchers” te reo Māori and “It’s just not acceptable,” she says.

Te reo is a beautiful language, but its process does not do it justice, she says.

“It’s quite embarrassing,” she adds.

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Now she has taken it upon herself to develop a synthetic te reo voice that correctly pronounces words with the eloquence she loves in te reo Māori.

This is how his project Tua o Te Pae was born.

It all started with a conversation with TalkLink Trust, an organization that helps people with disabilities find communication solutions, often through AAC (augmented and alternative communication).

Hakaraia-Tino reached out to speech therapist Ann Smaill, who is also chief executive of the TalkLink Trust, to discuss how they could launch this project.

The two have known each other for most of Hakaraia-Tino’s life.

Smaill says the organization has always recognized that it was unable to give tangata whenua the tools to communicate in te reo.

“We’ve done all kinds of work to try to make it easier for [Hakaraia-Tino]but she had to use AAC systems that use English and a very poor job of using te reo.

“It’s one of those frustrations that we’ve all had for a very long time,” Smaill says.

Hakaraia-Tino explains that it’s more than a frustration for her.

“Failure to converse in te reo Māori is likely to significantly affect the mental and spiritual well-being of tangata whaikaha Māori, as well as their connection to the whānau and the community.”

A whole new voice

AAC devices use text-to-speech technology with software that generates synthetic digitized speech.

Although there are a number of international companies specializing in the creation of synthetic voices and languages, they mainly develop common and European languages.

Smaill says indigenous languages ​​with smaller populations, like te reo Māori, are most at risk because they haven’t been the subject of much work or development. But progress is being made.

“I think the technology is almost there for us to realize some of those dreams of synthesizing smaller native languages,” Smaill says.

It took them a while to find the right company for the job, not only in terms of technology, but also a respectful and culturally appropriate company.

Hakaraia-Tino says it’s really important for the company to understand and value Māori tikanga.

Hakaraia-Tino says having a synthetic te reo voice will mean she can finally speak te reo and share the language she has learned over the years.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

Hakaraia-Tino says having a synthetic te reo voice will mean she can finally speak te reo and share the language she has learned over the years.

They started a relationship with Israel-based synthetic speech technology company The Voice Keeper.

The Voice Keeper has the technology to develop and meet the needs of a synthetic te reo voice, but first the Tua o Te Pae project needs to raise $800,000. Hakaraia-Tino envisions a voice could be developed within the next two years.

In the meantime, she’s reaching out to networks within the disabled and Maori communities to make sure they’re doing it right.

They have developed a whānau group that will guide them from a family perspective on what the project needs to consider, and they have also formed a kaupapa group for people with expertise to support the project.

Although the scope of Tua o Te Pae focuses on the use of synthetic voice in communication devices, once developed there is potential for much wider application.

The development of a synthetic te reo voice could also be used in screen reader technology used by the blind and visually impaired community and in assistive technology to help people with printing problems, such as dyslexia.

Having a synthetic te reo voice would also promote the development of a synthetic voice for other Pacific languages ​​that are linguistically similar, says Hakaraia-Tino.

Hakaraia-Tino says she will feel a real sense of accomplishment when she is able to provide non-speaking Māori tāngata whaikaha with a voice to communicate in te ao Māori.

On a personal level, she says having a te reo synthetic voice will mean that she will finally be able to express herself in te reo and share the language she has learned over the years.

“For too long we have lived in a society, especially in the Maori community, where we have been undermined and neglected.

She says that has to change and that’s what drives her to do this project.

The project also aims to help people be in a place of enlightenment where their voices are heard, she says.

“Maori AAC users and their whānau look forward to the day when they can share their mihi and stand in their own mana as a Maori speaker,” says Hakaraia-Tino.

“But right now they wonder why my culture, language and upbringing continue to be denied me in this way?”

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