New tool to measure language skills of NZ Samoan and Tongan children

23 February 2016

Researchers from the Growing Up in New Zealand study have developed the first ever Samoan and Tongan language inventories to formally gauge the language skills of New Zealand toddlers speaking Samoan or Tongan as their first language.

While similar language inventories are used to assess children’s skills in a range of languages, this is the first time the vocabulary check list has been adapted for Samoan- and Tongan-speaking children in New Zealand.

Pacific peoples are the fourth largest ethnic group in New Zealand, making up 7.4 percent of the population. Compared to some other Pacific languages, the Samoan and Tongan languages are widely spoken in New Zealand.

“Language skills are vital for children’s thinking and social interactions, as well as for their later reading and school success,” says Professor Elaine Reese, Education Expert Adviser to the Growing Up in New Zealand study.

“That is why we need to support families in every way possible in their efforts to raise their children in a Samoan or Tongan language environment within New Zealand.”

The researchers adapted the short form of the so called MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI), a widely used tool to assess language abilities of young children, for the Samoan and Tongan languages. The inventories measure a child’s language competency by asking parents if the child understands and actively uses any of 100 select words, and if the child already combines two words when speaking (eg ‘milk gone’).

Over 500 mothers in the Growing Up in New Zealand study completed the vocabulary checklist for their 2-year-old children in Samoan (344 mothers) or Tongan (242 mothers). Most of their children were monolingual speakers of either Samoan (83 percent) or Tongan (89 percent). Most of these mothers were born outside New Zealand (52 percent of the Samoan-speaking children and 67percent of the Tongan-speaking children).

The average total vocabulary from the 100 target words for two-year-old Samoan speakers was 13.5 words, compared to 23 words for Tongan speakers.

The research also found that children knew more words in Samoan and Tongan if their mothers were born outside of rather than in New Zealand (17 versus 10 in Samoan; 28 versus 14 in Tongan).

Just like for toddlers around the world, the most common words were about people, objects, and everyday routines: in Samoan, susu (milk), vai (water), ‘ofu (clothes), pepe (baby) and ‘aua (don’t); and in Tongan, mami (mum), (car), mālō (thanks), ‘ulu (head) and  inu (drink).

For Samoan speakers, girls, children of mothers born in NZ and children of more educated mothers were more likely to combine words, whereas for Tongan speakers there were no significant differences in word combinations by gender, or the mother’s education and birthplace.

“We know from other research in New Zealand and internationally that when children are strong in their first language, those skills transfer to their second language and to literacy,” says Professor Reese.

“By adding more language assessment tools like the one we developed to our toolkit, we are in a better position to realise a national language policy.”

Future analyses from Growing Up in New Zealand will be able to assess how these children’s language skills in Samoan and Tongan at age two spell success in school at age seven and beyond.

A pregnant woman leaning on a fence during autumn.

Download the article

Reese E, Ballard E, Taumoepeau M, Taumoefolau M, Morton SMB, Grant C C, Atatoa Carr P, McNaughton S, Schmidt J, Mohal J, Perese L (2015). Estimating language skills in Samoan- and Tongan-speaking children growing up in New Zealand. First Language. 35(4-5): 407-427.
 


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

  • The average total vocabulary for two-year-old speaking Samoan was 13.52 words, compared to 22.82 words for Tongan speakers.
  • Children knew more words in Samoan and Tongan if their mothers were born outside of rather than in New Zealand (17 versus 10 in Samoan; 28 versus 14 in Tongan).
  • Most common words in Samoan at age two: susu (milk, 51%), vai (water, 41%), ‘ofu (clothes, 38%), pepe (baby, 37%), ‘aua (don’t, 37%)
  • Most common words in Tongan at age two: mami (mum, 46%), (car, 46%), mālō (thanks, 45%), ‘ulu (head, 45%), inu (drink, 43%)
  • For Samoan speakers, girls, children of mothers born in NZ and children of more educated mothers were more likely to combine words. For Tongan speakers there were no significant differences in word combinations by gender, or the mother’s education or birthplace.