A new study has found significant growth in the use of Te Reo Māori among pre-schoolers, with nearly three-quarters of four-year-olds using at least some Te Reo Māori.

The research analysed information from Growing Up in New Zealand and was funded through the Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund.

Growing Up in New Zealand is this country’s largest longitudinal study of child development and is following the lives of more than 6,000 children born in Auckland and Waikato.

The research, led by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, examined mothers’ assessment of Te Reo Māori use in their children at age two and again at age four-and-a-half. 

The study also identified both enablers and barriers for children to learn and use Te Reo. 

Key findings around the use of Te Reo include:

  • Three-quarters of all children used at least some Te Reo Māori at age four.
  • Ten percent of children could speak or understand simple sentences in Te Reo at age four.
  • Around 20 percent of those children speaking or understanding simple sentences in Te Reo at age 4 were non-Māori.

Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, Professor Te Kani Kingi, says the findings suggest Te Reo Māori has a strong future.

“The fact so many children had some knowledge of Te Reo was unexpected and encouraging.  It shows that we are reaping the benefits of the past 30 years of investment to promote, sustain and revitalise Te Reo,” he says.

Professor Kingi says while 10 percent of children in Growing Up in New Zealand cohort could speak or understand simple sentences in Te Reo compared with only 3.7 percent of adults who could have an everyday conversation in Te Reo according to the 2013 New Zealand census.

Project Lead, Hannah Simmonds, says another exciting finding was the increased knowledge and use of Te Reo among non-Māori children.  Around 20 percent of those who speak and understand simple sentences in Te Reo were non-Māori.

“This highlights the value that many different people see in Te Reo Māori. It shows that Te Reo Māori strategies have also contributed to a growing interest in New Zealand’s national identity and cultural distinctiveness.”

The research also explored the key factors which support the knowledge and use of Te Reo Māori. Positive factors for language acquisition include:

  • Attending a Kōhanga Reo
  • Having a mother who speaks Te Reo Māori
  • Living in communities where there are more Māori people and where Te Reo is spoken
  • Parents reading books, singing songs and playing games with children in any language.

However, higher levels of screen time were associated with lower rates of Te Reo fluency.

Professor Kingi says immersion programmes such as Kōhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori have an important role in improving the widespread use of Te Reo Māori.

“The research clearly points to key factors which can support the acquisition of Te Reo Māori and which can help to inform future investment decisions.”

He says the fact that higher levels of screen time were associated with lower rates of Te Reo fluency was an important message for parents and caregivers.

Professor Kingi says Growing Up in New Zealand is uniquely placed to offer insights into the evolving use and role of Te Reo in New Zealand society.

He says this will be further enhanced by soon-to-be released information gathered directly from the children when they were eight-years-old, in which they were asked directly about their understanding and use of Te Reo.

“The Growing Up in New Zealand study provides a unique statistical research opportunity to accurately assess the state of Te Reo Māori, and provides an evidence base for future strategy and policy,” he says. 

You can read the full report: He Ara Ki Ngā Rautaki e ora tonu ai Te Reo: Pathways to Retention and Revitalisation of Te Reo Māori here.

The research was led by Hannah Simmonds of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in association with the Universities of Otago and Waikato; the Auckland Museum; Te Mātāwai, Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust; Te Whānau o Waipereira; Te Puni Kōkiri; the Ministry of Education; Te Taura Whiri I Te Reo Māori; and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa.