Multilingualism in New Zealand

New Zealand sitting on language goldmine

New Zealand has reached a rare level of diversity with 160 languages spoken by residents, but completely lacks a plan to harness the social and economic benefits of multilingualism. The Royal Society of New Zealand paper highlights that over the past two decades New Zealand has become a “superdiverse” country, with a level of cultural complexity far greater than previously experienced. But unlike countries such as Australia and Britain, which have similar diversity of language, New Zealand does not have a plan to encourage multilingualism, with only a number of disparate policies and practices.

The costs of a monolingual society were high, such as reduced international trade, weaker integration of immigrants, and the potential decline or loss of indigenous languages. Royal Society vice-president of the social sciences and humanities Richard Le Heron said the research outlined a strong case for a national languages policy in New Zealand.

Australia’s languages policy is nearly 20 years old and its government is pushing for more access to Asian languages in schools. Britain was considering making every English-speaking child learn a second language from age 7. In New Zealand, a Labour-led 1992 languages policy discussion paper, “Aoteareo: speaking for ourselves”, was dropped by the next National-led government.

Language learning is not mandatory at any level in New Zealand. An education policy introduced in 2002 placed more emphasis on learning Asian, Pacific and European languages, but this has faded. More primary and intermediate students were studying languages compared with 2000, but fewer secondary school students were learning a language. Education Minister Hekia Parata’s office said that the number of students learning Japanese and Chinese had climbed over the past five years, and the ministry had developed services to support Pacific languages from early childhood centres to high schools.

There was no immediate plan for a shakeup of the education sector’s approach to languages. Dr Harvey said a good first step in a national-level policy would be to focus on Te Reo Maori and Pacific languages, but also encourage Asian language learning with an eye to improved trade connections. Labour MP Phil Goff felt that New Zealand had a responsibility not only for the Maori language but the Pacific languages spoken by our neighbours. “For small countries, the majority of their population reside in New Zealand. Letting a language, and therefore a culture, become extinct would be unforgivable.” His Mt Roskill electorate was the most diverse in New Zealand. When he attended the opening of an ANZ bank branch last week, the staff spoke eight languages between them. Mr Goff, who spoke “one and a quarter languages”, was concerned immigrants had no encouragement to maintain their mother tongue.


Te Reo Maori – the Maori Language

The visitor to New Zealand will become immediately aware of the Maori language as the vast majority of place names are of Maori origin. At first, visitors may be puzzled by the seemingly impossible-to-pronounce names. In fact, Maori has a logical structure, and, unlike English, has very consistent rules of pronunciation.

How Do You Say Onehunga, Whangamomona, Kahikatea, and Nguru? Maori consists of five vowel sounds: a e i o u (‘a’ as in ‘car’, ‘e’ as in ‘egg’, ‘i’ like the ‘ee’ in ‘tee’, ‘u’ like an ‘o’ in ‘to’). There are eight consonants in Maori similar to those in English – ‘h’, ‘k’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘p’, ‘r’, ‘t’, and ‘w’. There are also two different consonants – ‘wh’ and ‘ng’. Many Maori pronounce the ‘wh’ sound similar to our ‘f’. The ‘ng’ is similar to our own ‘ng’ sound in a word like ‘sing’, except that in Maori, words can start with ‘ng’.

Kia ora = Gidday!

An attempt by a visitor to use Maori greetings will almost certainly elicit a delighted response from both Maori and Pakeha (European) New Zealanders.

  • Kia ora – Hello
  • Kia ora tatou – Hello everyone
  • Tena koe – Greetings to you (said to one person)
  • Tena koutou – Greeting to you all
  • Haere mai – Welcome
  • Nau mai – Welcome
  • Kei te pehea koe? – How’s it going?
  • Kei te pai – Good
  • Tino pai – Really good
  • Haere ra – Farewell
  • Ka kite ano – Until I see you again (Bye)
  • Hei konei ra – See you later


Maori language ‘in danger of dying out’

Justice Joe Williams, chairing an inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal – the statutory body that investigates traditional grievances – says the language is in “crisis” and only urgent action will halt its decline.

As older speakers of Maori die out they are not being replaced by enough younger people and the language now needs “life support”, the report says.

Less than a quarter of New Zealand’s 530,000 Maori say they are fluent enough to hold a conversation in Te Reo Maori (the Maori language), and the number is declining every year.

At the last census in 2006 there were 8,000 fewer Maori speakers than government projections had forecast.

The study says that since 1993 the proportion of Maori children in Maori-language schools has fallen from half to a quarter.

Justice Williams’s report dismisses perceptions of a government-sponsored revival since the 1980s as “rhetoric”.

“The received wisdom is that the revival of Te Reo over the last 25 years is nothing short of a miracle, and there is an element of truth in that.

“But the notion that Te Reo is making steady forward progress, particularly among the young, is manifestly false,” it says.

The study says the language reached a nadir in the 1970s after decades of neglect and was saved only by the “sheer power” of Maori people to keep it alive.

Pita Sharples, the Minister for Maori Affairs and co-leader of the Maori party, said the problem is not just of the government’s making.

“Governments can’t save things. Governments can provide funding, programmes and so on, which help but, at the end of the day, languages and culture is up to the people if they want it, or don’t want it,” he said.

“Really it is about getting the language into homes and families talking it, and that’s how it will survive.”

The tribunal’s report has come as a surprise to many New Zealanders, both Maori and Europeans.

Along with English, Maori is an official language of New Zealand and can be used to address parliament and the courts, though it seldom is.

A Maori Language Week is held each year, during which people are encouraged to speak the language and television weather forecasts present maps showing only traditional Maori placenames.

Although Maori has incorporated many English words, such as in “motoka” for “car”, other modern inventions are described using traditional concepts.

Some examples are:

Computer = rorohiko (from the words for “brain” and “lightning”)

Television = pouaka whakaata (a “box” and the verb “to pretend” or “display”)

Radio = reo irirangi (“spirit voice” from the words for “speech” and “sky”)

Aeroplane = waka rererangi (“canoe”, “fly” and “sky”)

Refrigerator = pouaka makariri (a “box” and the verb “to be cold”)

Satellite = amiorangi (“to roam or circle round” and “sky”)







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