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Māori Language Sector Reforms


Presently there is increased political and policy interest in the health of the Māori language (‘Te Reo’) and in Māori language outcomes.

  • Te Reo Māori is classified as a vulnerable language by the United Nations, due to insufficient home and community usage of the language by Māori to ensure its ongoing wellbeing;
  • Although fragile, the most comprehensive quantitative data indicates that Te Reo revitalisation is now occurring successfully, and one in ten Māori adults (circa 50,000) can communicate proficiently in Te Reo on any topic, and a further 200,000 Māori have some conversational Te Reo abilities (beyond a few words and phrases);
  • Circa 20,000 Māori children are also acquiring Te Reo proficiency through their schooling (which supplements but cannot fully replace home learning of Te Reo);
  • Few non-Māori have Te Reo skills, although Te Puni Kōkiri research indicates a growing positive disposition to Te Reo;
  • The 2016 Māori Language Act is now in effect with the following outcomes:
  1. Te Mātāwai has been established;
  2. a Maihi Māori Strategy has been produced, and is appropriately centred on community language use and increasing Māori home usage (e.g. 25% of Māori children to have Te Reo as a first language by 2040);


Drivers of policy discussion in this area include pre-election commitments made by the Labour and the Green parties to support a future where New Zealanders from every background will have the ability to use Te Reo Māori in everyday conversations. In particular, it committed to “a target that by 2025 every child during ECE, primary school and intermediate school has Te Reo Māori integrated into their learning [and] every student at high school, once at the point they become able to choose their own subjects, has the opportunity to learn Te Reo Māori”. The Green Party also presented a similar policy platform.

This context gives rise to a series of Te Reo policy questions, particularly:

  • what is the ‘health status’ of Te Reo;
  • are revitalisation interventions, from Māori and the Government, effective; and
  • are Te Reo services mainly for Māori, or for all New Zealanders?


Healthy languages with no threat of extinction are used (‘transmitted’) in normal home and community environments; with children learning the language directly from their parents.[1]  Language usage is then carried onto adulthood and is the primary language of adult-to-adult relationships.  However this is not the case for the Māori language.  Rather, although some Māori children will be exposed to Te Reo at home and in schooling, the majority use English as a first/main language at home, and throughout their schooling, and then later in their adult relationships.  Current data (see below) indicates only one in five Māori adults use Te Reo Māori as a significant language with children in their home environments.  It is for this reason, insufficient naturally occurring ‘intergenerational transmission’ across the breadth of the Māori population, that the United Nations has recorded Te Reo Māori as an endangered language, with a classification status of ‘vulnerable’ (midrange risk).

Mixed Te Reo Health Indicators Exist

Languages have four facets – speaking, listening, reading and writing.  For robust language research, measures in all areas need to be considered, along with the frequency of use (for bilingual populations), and ‘interlocutor patterns’ (who communicates to whom within a language).

Statistics NZ[2] gathers the only national information on the health of Te Reo.  It does this via two means, censuses and Māori social surveys.  The two tools capture different aspects of language health which is useful, but the data from the two sources does not correlate well together, at a surface level.  That is, at first glance time-series data from censuses shows negative trends for Te Reo, whereas the two social survey data sets shows positive trends.  In our opinion, the censuses data trend appears to have been used by some commentators recently to overinflate negative messages about Te Reo revitalisation.[3]


In our assessment, integrating Te Reo Māori into the learning of all students will have limited impact on growing the Māori language speech community, that is, it is unlikely a large number of students will go on to acquire sufficient proficiency to live their lives through the Māori language. Rather, it is likely that students will grow their knowledge of Māori words and phrases and this will have the (somewhat perverse) result of strengthening the place of Māori within New Zealand English. This will serve to strengthen our national identity and will also support the authorising environment for the Māori language speech community.

Whether this is a good approach depends on the overarching Te Reo goal.  If the goal is to grow the Māori language speech community, as Te Mātāwai seeks, then the answer is no. If the goal is to strengthen our national identity, the answer is yes. If the goal is to achieve both (i.e. growing the Māori language speech community and strengthening national identity), it will be necessary to establish the appropriate balance of emphasis.  Further there are scarce resources available to support Māori language in education. Accordingly, the policy question is, where should these resources be applied to achieve the greatest effect. As above, the answer to this question depends on the nature of the underlying goal. That said, if resources are moved towards all New Zealanders and general Māori words in English skills, then we consider there is some risk that there will be a diminished focus on the Māori language speech community.

In sum, greater use of Māori words in English, and greater acceptance of Te Reo speakers in everyday community contexts is conducive towards Te Reo revitalisation – but is not in itself revitalisation.  Rather it has a stronger focus on matters national identity.  In our assessment Te Reo revitalisation now needs a more thorough operational plan, whereby if the goal is to ensure one quarter of Māori children can speak Māori fluently in 22 years’ time then the investment required to achieve that is calculated and budgeted for within the range of services on offer.  One-off grants, propping up un-performing services, ‘lolly scramble’ funding approaches, etc will not be sufficient to achieve this.

[1] Sometimes called ‘native’ / ‘mother tongue’ languages.

[2] Full title: Statistics New Zealand

[3] Further, we advise neither measure fully captures the key item of ‘frequency of use’– meaning although there are counts of speakers/users of te reo, how often the Māori language is heard and used has not (yet) been adequately researched and remains largely unquantified.