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Pasifika languages in New Zealand

Maintaining Pasifika languages

The vast majority of speakers of Pasifika languages are Sāmoan speakers. This makes speakers of Sāmoan the third largest language group in New Zealand, behind speakers of English and of te reo Māori.

The language question asked in the census was: “In what language(s) could you have a conversation about a lot of everyday things?” The statistics show that more than 60 per cent of Sāmoans and Tongans living in New Zealand can hold an everyday conversation in their respective Pasifika languages. This is a significant percentage, especially given that migration has been taking place for 60 years. Most speakers of Pasifika languages speak just one Pasifika language (that of their own ethnic group), although Sāmoan and, to a lesser extent, Tongan are also spoken by some members of other ethnic groups.

Pasifika language shift and loss

Internationally, New Zealand has a very high proportion of monolingual speakers (English). The dominance of English has contributed to changing patterns of language use in Pasifika communities and to a related decline in bilingualism. This is particularly evident among New Zealand-born Pasifika, who are increasingly only speaking English.

While the language shift to English is increasingly apparent in all Pasifika communities in New Zealand, the rate and extent of the shift varies. Sāmoan and Tongan remain widely spoken in their communities, but only 28 per cent of the Niuean community still speak the Niue language and 18 per cent of the Cook Islands Māori community still speak Cook Islands Māori. This may be because the Niuean and Cook Islands Māori communities have the highest percentage of New Zealand-born Pasifika.  

Education may also be a key contributor to Pasifika language shift because the majority of Pasifika students in New Zealand are to be found in English-medium classrooms, where there has often been limited opportunity for them to use a Pasifika language.

Adopting a positive or additive view of Pasifika bilingualism is the first step to improving the educational outcomes of bilingual Pasifika speakers. The LEAP resource aims to provide New Zealand teachers working in mainstream educational contexts with knowledge about Pasifika bilingualism and effective language-teaching strategies so that they can build on the knowledge they already have and move forward with confidence.

Exploring your practice

Pasifika languages in schools

  • What opportunities do students have to speak a Pasifika language as part of the teaching and learning process:
    • in your classroom?
    • in your school?
  • What Pasifika language options does your school offer (if any) for students?
    • What are the reasons given for providing (or not providing) these options?
    • Do these reasons reflect current research findings on bilingual students? 
  • What curriculum resources and associated materials for Pasifika languages are available at your school?
    • How regularly and/or effectively are these resources used?
    • In what teaching and learning contexts are they used?
    • How might they be used more effectively or extensively?

Why are Pasifika languages keys to learning?

The Education Review Office actively prioritises Pasifika achievement as part of their Pasifika Strategy in centres and schools/kura. To assist you with your strategic planning for Pasifika success, you can look at how Pasifika languages can be used as levers for learning:

  • Examine student literacy data from your school.
    • How are Pasifika students situated in relation to their peers?
    • How do their achievements compare with national achievement norms?
  • Explore what school-based initiatives (for example, for professional development, resources, or personnel) have been specifically targeted at Pasifika students in recent years.
    • What has been their rationale?
    • Who have they been directed at (teachers, students, or parents)?
    • Has language been a principal focus?
    • Has Pasifika bilingualism ever been addressed?
    • Have the approaches taken ever reflected a subtractive (or deficit) view of Pasifika students and/or their bilingualism?
  • In light of what you have read so far, what other school-based initiatives might be useful or important for Pasifika students in your school?

Find out more

Find out more about the languages spoken by your students. Some questions that you might ask your students include:

  • What languages are spoken in your home?
  • What languages do your grandparents speak?
  • What languages do your parents speak?
  • What languages do you and your brothers and sisters speak?
  • If you know more than one language, who would you speak to most often in: your Pasifika language? English? another language?
  • If you know more than one language, where would you most often hear or speak: your Pasifika language? English? another language?


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