It’s time to put New Zealand’s language under the microscope. I want to take a look at everything from what languages are spoken in New Zealand to where their speakers reside.
Let’s dive straight in.
The most widely spoken language in New Zealand is English, but it is far from the only language spoken there. Te reo Māori, Samoan, Mandarin, and Hindi all have sizeable speaker numbers. In fact, there are seven languages spoken in New Zealand (in addition to English) that have speaker populations of 50,000 or more. I’ll take a look at each of these below.
New Zealand proudly recognizes three official languages: English, Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language. Initially, English stood as the sole official language for many years. However, in 1987, Te reo Māori, commonly referred to as Māori, rightfully gained recognition as an official language of New Zealand. Later, in 2006, New Zealand's Sign Language was also granted official status, emphasizing the nation's commitment to linguistic inclusivity and cultural diversity.
Until the early 19th century, Māori was the dominant language in New Zealand, having arrived there from the Southern Cook or Society Islands region of Eastern Polynesia many hundreds of years previously.
Māori developed in isolation until around 1800 when English-speaking colonists arrived. By the middle of that century, increasing numbers of Māori people had learned English, with schooling increasingly filtering out the use of their native language.
By 1900, much greater emphasis was placed on learning English, with the pace of Māori’s decline accelerating rapidly between 1940 and 1980 thanks to discriminatory attitudes and policies. In New Zealand, language remains a contentious issue to this day as a result of the active suppression of Māori.
From the early 1980s onward, a number of Māori language recovery programs have been implemented to promote the use of the language. They have managed to slow the pace of decline but not reverse it, with the result that only around 4% of New Zealanders now speak te reo Māori.
After that quick history lesson, let’s take a look at some of the most widely spoken New Zealand languages.
What language do they speak in New Zealand more than any other? That would be English, which is spoken by 95.4% of the country’s population.
In terms of the three New Zealand official languages English is far from the oldest but it is spoken either natively or as a second language by almost the entire country’s population.
New Zealand English has its own distinctive accent and incorporates vocabulary that is not found in British, American, or Australian English. Words such as tangata whenua and iwi, for example, are routinely used in English-language media without accompanying translation (they mean people of the land and tribe, respectively).
TripAdvisor sums up NZ English by saying:
“English is spoken throughout New Zealand, although there are many local acronyms and phrases that may confuse foreign visitors.”
Not all of these are words drawn from te reo Māori. If you’re looking for a small convenience store in New Zealand, for example, you’ll need to ask where the ‘dairy’ is (and not a cow in sight). A ‘Coaster’ isn’t something you put your drink on, but a resident of the South Island’s West Coast. ‘Gum boots’ are wellingtons, ‘jandals’ are flipflops, and ‘hoon’ could refer to either a hooligan or the way someone is driving.
Suffice it to say, if you’re an English speaker who is visiting New Zealand, be ready to pick up a few new words and phrases along the way.
How many people speak Māori? Despite being the predominant NZ language for centuries, te reo Māori is spoken by just 4% of the country’s population today. That still makes this native New Zealand language the second most spoken tongue in the country, but speaker numbers continue to decline. The 2018 census recorded 185,955 Māori speakers.
Māori is written using the Latin alphabet, as introduced by missionaries in the early 19th century, who found that the language didn’t have an indigenous writing system.
There are several dialects/variations of Māori, all of which are mutually intelligible to fluent Māori speakers. For a discussion of the differences between languages and dialects, click the link below. While vocabulary, idioms, and pronunciation vary across Māori’s variations, the language’s grammatical structure remains consistent.
In support of the revival of Māori, initiatives over the past few decades have aimed to increase the use of the language both at home and in public and business settings. Te Wiki o te reo Māori (Māori language week) has been celebrated since 1975, to raise general awareness of the historic and cultural importance of the language.
Other notable Māori revival projects have included the Kōhanga Reo (language nests) movement, which launched in 1982 and aimed to immerse infants in Māori between birth and school age. Children, families, and respected elders gather together to talk, play, learn, and pray, all in te reo Māori, thus building important community links as well as growing language skills.
Another important project was the Kura Kaupapa Māori project, which promoted primary and secondary Māori-language immersion schools. With Māori as their primary language of instruction, the growth of these schools can be attributed to the success of the Kōhanga Reo initiative (it has also inspired similar projects in New Zealand for other minority languages, including the Hawaiian language, Fijian and Tongan).
While such projects have slowed the decline of te reo Māori, greater effort is needed if speaker numbers are ever to begin rising again.
Read more: What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?
Another language spoken in New Zealand is Samoan, which is spoken by 101,937 New Zealanders, according to the 2018 census. That’s just over 2% of the country’s total population, making Samoan the third most spoken of the NZ languages.
Around 64% of ethnic Samoan New Zealanders speak Samoan. A number of initiatives are in place to encourage the use of Samoan in New Zealand, from varying levels of language classes to Samoan Language Week.
Samoan bears some resemblance to a number of other languages, including Ilocano, which is the third most spoken native language of the Philippines. You can read more about the languages of the Philippines by clicking the link below.
Read more: The Philippines’ Language Report: What Language Is Spoken in the Philippines?
There are 95,253 Mandarin speakers in New Zealand, making this the fourth most spoken language in the country. The majority of Mandarin speakers, in common with most Chinese language speakers in New Zealand, live in Auckland.
The reporting of Mandarin speakers in New Zealand has caused some tensions in recent years. Raymond Huo, speaking for the NZ Chinese Language Week Trust, argued that “Treating Mandarin, Yue or other Chinese dialects as independent languages is deeply flawed”.
Despite this, Statistics New Zealand continues to count Mandarin, Yue, and other Chinese speakers separately, with census general manager Denise McGregor pointing out that:
“It's incredibly useful to know that in a school zone, or at a specific library, or on a particular bus route there will be people who speak specifically Mandarin or Chinese. Just knowing they speak 'Chinese' isn't likely to be as useful in targeting services.”
The 2018 census reports that there are 69,471 Hindi speakers in New Zealand. Their numbers are growing rapidly, having more than tripled since 2001, when New Zealand was home to just 22,759 Hindi speakers.
French speakers in New Zealand numbered 55,116 at the time of the 2018 census – a marginal increase compared to the 49,000 French speakers recorded there in 2001.
French in New Zealand is celebrated by multiple language and culture groups, whose members meet up in person and online to actively promote the use of the French language and celebrate their culture.
Just over 1% of the population of New Zealand speaks Yue. That equates to 52,767 individuals. As with other Chinese languages and dialects in New Zealand, Yue speaker numbers have jumped in recent years – back in 2001, just 37,143 Yue speakers were recorded.
A catch-all ‘Sintic’ classification in the New Zealand census records speakers of Chinese languages and dialects other than Mandarin and Yue. In 2001, there were 22,854 Sintic language speakers in New Zealand. Now, that figure has more than doubled, to 51,501.
Referred to as te reo Turi in Māori, New Zealand Sign Language is one of the three official languages of New Zealand. It is spoken by around 0.5% of the population, with 22,986 speakers at the time of the 2018 census.
New Zealand Sign Language has many similarities to British Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, and American Sign Language. The similarity level with British Sign Language stands at 62.5%, compared to 33% with American Sign Language.
As with the English spoken in New Zealand, New Zealand Sign Language incorporates Māori words, such as marae (a fenced-in area of land and carved buildings that serves as a community focal point) and tangi (a formal funeral rite held on a marae).
A range of other languages spoken in New Zealand were recorded in the country’s last census. Those with between 25,000 and 50,000 speakers include:
• Fiji Hindi
New Zealand languages with 10,000 to 25,000 speakers, meanwhile, include:
And when it comes to languages with 10,000 speakers or fewer, New Zealand is home to:
• Cook Islands Māori
Key to understanding any country’s linguistic makeup is looking at where within the country each of the languages is spoken. (Incidentally, this is something I found particularly interesting when looking at the languages of Malaysia. You can read more on that topic by clicking the link below.)
With English being the primary language in New Zealand by such a clear margin, it is unsurprisingly the most spoken language in all 67 of the country’s cities and districts. In 60 of those areas, the second most commonly spoken New Zealand language is Māori.
Let’s look quickly at those final seven cities and districts. When it comes to the Auckland language, Samoan speakers outnumber Māori speakers, with Samoan being the second most spoken language in Auckland and in Porirua city.
In Wellington city, it is French which is the second most spoken language. In the Ashburton district, it is Tagalog, in the Tasman district it’s German and in the Mackenzie and Queenstown-Lakes districts, Spanish is the second most spoken language after English.
Read more: Malaysian Language Overview: Exploring the 137 Languages of Malaysia
Language can be an emotive issue in many ways and this is certainly the case with language in New Zealand. While the primary language of New Zealand hasn’t been Māori for several centuries, we are just coming to understand what a huge loss that represents. This is why more must be done to promote the speaking of Māori as a key New Zealand language. Its inclusion as one of the country’s official languages is a start, but only a start.
Why is language preservation so important? Well, many reasons, but chief among them are the intrinsic links between language and culture. As the Māori language is lost, so too are Māori history, culture, values, and practices. We see this echoed around the world, with indigenous tongues being added to the list of extinct languages with alarming regularity. We don’t have time to preserve them all, but the increased focus on language preservation will help at least some of these languages to grow and flourish once more. Let’s hope that Māori is one of them.