New Zealand

Megan Chamberlaina
Ministry of Education

Language and Literacy

New Zealand has three official languages: te reo Māori (the indigenous language), English (by virtue of its widespread use), and New Zealand Sign Language.b Te reo Māori, a taonga (treasure) recognized under the Treaty of Waitangi and an official language since 1987, is a Malayo-Polynesian language closely related to the eastern Polynesian languages spoken in Tahiti, Hawaii, Rarotonga, and French Polynesia.c,1 New Zealand Sign Language became the country’s third official language in 2006. Other languages commonly spoken in New Zealand include western Polynesian languages, such as Samoan and Tongan, and languages from eastern and western Asia.2 New Zealand’s population has become increasingly diverse over the last 15 years, largely as a result of immigration. For example, in 2013 25.2 percent of the population living in New Zealand was born in another country, compared with 19.5 percent in 2001. These changes are reflected in both the diversity of languages spoken and relatively large increases in the numbers of people speaking languages such as Hindi (up 48.7 percent since 2006) and those of Northern China including Mandarin (up 26.3 percent since 2006). Most New Zealanders still are monolingual, with about three-quarters of the population speaking only English (73 percent).3

While most teaching and learning in New Zealand schools is in English, an important feature of the education system is learning in te reo Māori. Māori medium education has stemmed from efforts of Māori to ensure the survival of the Māori language and culture. It entails teaching and learning in Māori all or some of the time from early childhood to tertiary education. It operates within a specific cultural framework and, in some instances, culture and language specific to a particular tribe (iwi).

Some schools, in partnership with their local communities, make provisions to learn in a Pacific Islands language—most often Samoan—for all or some of the time. Pasifika medium education is viewed as a way for Pasifika communities to maintain their home language as English becomes the dominant language for many second or third generation immigrants.d,4

  • a The author acknowledges the invaluable assistance from her Ministry of Education colleagues in Early Learning and Student Achievement: Glenys Hauiti-Parapapa (Te Reo Māori Schooling) and Karen Soanes (Pathways and Progress); and Paula Pope and Paul Satherley (formerly Evidence, Data and Knowledge).
  • b Only Māori and New Zealand Sign Language have been given official status under acts of Parliament. This is not the case for English, making it a de facto official language.
  • c The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document. It takes its name from the place in New Zealand where it was first signed, on February 6, 1840. The Treaty is an agreement, in Māori and English, made between the British Crown and about 540 tribal chiefs.
  • d Pasifika refers to the people, culture, and languages pertaining to the Pacific Islands groups who now reside in New Zealand.