“I nga mo, J”

I’m writing to my colleague and my first task has been to look up the greeting that he would use in his mother language. It takes a bit more time than just assuming I should use ‘Dear…,’. It’s a tiny gesture but that additional effort at equity and courtesy, of placing myself in the position of linguistic vulnerability, can matter.

When I do this, the response is a face full of smiles or an email full of emojis. When I don’t, it’s perfunctory and my linguistic dominance and the knowledge systems which underpin this remain untroubled.

In his work on the social bond, the theologian Rowan Williams speaks of how society is remade anew, on a daily basis, in the social rituals of meeting, greeting and eating. The time we spend together at a table, or setting the tone and following the greeting and meeting protocols of any place or community is a strong determinant for how to get a common task, a piece of work, a potential idea underway.

It’s in these almost fleeting encounters that Mary Douglas, in her work on symbols, saw decisions being taken about safety, power, possibility, comfort. I’ve watched myself recoiling on many occasions when, in the conferences of the Global North, the first thing we do is tell people the Wi-Fi code and where the fire exits are. How to get out of the room where we gather, rather than how to attend to where we are, is signalled as the most important protocol.

We aren’t going to decolonise migration research by doing it in English. Hillary Footitt’s report from The Listening Project is full of excellent guidance and a challenge to all English language-using researchers to pause, and switch things around. This is not simply a matter of courtesy or researcher integrity, it is about ensuring the rigour of understanding, and forming proposals, projects and work solutions in the languages through which they will be enacted. It is about challenging the power dynamics of languages, and making attempts to renew and set a different course.

But this doesn’t mean our research must be perfectly bilingual or multilingual. Rather, that it might accept re-conceptualisations from other languages, and move towards different cosmologies and ways of understanding. It also means being as knowledgeable as possible as to the way the languages used by people migrating will bear a rich variety of improvisations and terms they have come to find will help. Usually, with eating, greeting and meeting – establishing courtesy, safety and trust.

What might this look like? I’m writing this in Aotearoa New Zealand, a country at the forefront of attempts to decolonise language through the revitalisation of te reo māori. Listening to the English here, it is not an English I know, not even in the academic settings which will begin with ceremony in te reo. To write, to speak with integrity, language needs to morph.

A little like this.

Po ki runga o whiria

For Piki

There is a mountain

In the saltair of the north

Where Tane Muhuta

Stands guard

Watching the breakers.

Your Maunga

where sea meets slopes

and spring smiles.

A haven.


Is laughing as Tamanuiterā

Bejewels Moana

and Tāwhiri-mātea

Tangles with our hair

For a while

Ranganui ceases

his weeping

absorbing the dew

From Papatūakanu

Tamariki of Matariki

race to the peak

flowers in extended hand

manaaki making and

in my palm,

Taonga indeed

Kia Kaha


She lilts

Kia maia

my precious ones

She murmurs

Kia manawanui

She whispers

turning us in a circle

And calling us


Kia ora

Thank you

Oye wala do