New generation of New Zealand children are helping to keep te reo Māori alive

27 July 2015

The use of te reo Māori is on the rise. More parents are speaking te reo to their infants, in comparison to their own childhood. The number of toddlers of Māori descent who understand te reo has also increased. This information is revealed in a new policy brief from the Growing Up in New Zealand study that follows the lives of almost 7000 children from before birth into adulthood.

Twelve percent of all the children in the study were described by their mothers as understanding at least some te reo when they were two years old. 40 percent of Māori two-year-olds understood at least some of the language. In comparison, around 20 percent of Māori parents reported understanding te reo Māori well or very well.

“It has been proposed that Māori language could be described as safe if 50 percent of Māori spoke Māori,” says Dr Te Kani Kingi, Māori Expert Advisor for the Growing Up in New Zealand study.

“It is very encouraging to see all New Zealand children, but especially Māori, using or understanding the language and appreciating its value from an early age,” says Dr Kingi.

Te reo Māori remained a predominant, living language in the early post-colonial period, but by the mid-twentieth century concerns were raised that the language was dying out.

“Initiatives since the 1980s including kohanga reo and kura kaupapa have focused on the revival of te reo Māori and have emphasised the importance of the language to New Zealand’s national identity,” says Dr Kingi .

As described in the policy brief, it is rare for the parents of the new generation of New Zealand children to themselves have been raised in a Māori language environment. The study shows an encouraging change in that trend: by the time their own children were nine months old, 15 percent of mothers and seven percent of fathers were speaking some te reo Māori to their infants.

“Retention and use of te reo Māori is important for Aotearoa/New Zealand society as a whole, to strengthen Māori culture and identity, and to ensure that Māori succeed as Māori. These results therefore provide some indication as to how strategies to promote te reo Māori are working, why they should be supported, and what opportunities for future development could be explored,” comments Dr Kingi.

Despite more children understanding te reo today, regular use of the language at home remains low. Less than one percent of children had a parent who was speaking mostly te reo Māori to their infants. The main motivations for those parents who used te reo as the primary language at home was to maintain their Māori culture, to bring up their child in a bilingual environment, and to ensure the child’s success later in life.

“The challenge for us is now to support those children who are hearing Māori as infants and understanding Maori at age two, and to turn them into active te reo speakers later in life,” says Dr Kingi.  

Superu Chief Advisor Maori Donovan Clarke says: “Growing Up in New Zealand provides a unique opportunity to determine the longitudinal and intergenerational use of te reo Māori for all children growing up in New Zealand today.”

Clarke adds: “This study allows us to learn what opportunities are available to our tamariki to speak te reo Maori and understand how they develop their own identity and culture.”

“There is no denying that we have a major task ahead of us. To have more te reo Māori being spoken in the home effective support must be given to whānau and communities of New Zealand,” says Clarke.

Growing Up in New Zealand will continue to collect detailed information on language development within this unique and treasured cohort of children as they get older.

For more information and interviews with our researchers please contact:

Sabine Kruekel
Growing Up in New Zealand
Communications and Marketing Manager
Phone: 09 923 9690
Mobile: 027 886 0722
Email: s.kruekel@auckland.ac.nz


The results in brief

  • A small number of parents of today’s New Zealand children grew up in an environment where te reo Māori was their first language
  • At the time of pregnancy, five percent of mothers and three percent of fathers described an ability to hold a conversation in te reo Māori
  • In infancy, 15 percent of mothers and seven percent of fathers spoke some te reo Māori to their children. Less than one percent of infants at nine months of age had a parent who was speaking to them mostly in te reo Māori
  • Twelve percent of all children are described as understanding at least some te reo Māori when they were two years old
  • Fourty percent of Māori children are described as understanding at least some te reo Māori when they were two years old
  • Approximately 20 percent of Māori parents describe they are able to understand spoken te reo Māori, or able to speak te reo Māori, well or very well.
  • A greater proportion of children are described as understanding te reo Māori at age two than the proportion of their parents that used te reo Māori in their own childhood, or that spoke conversational te reo Māori as adults.