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Pasifika languages in New Zealand

After 60 years of migration, Pasifika languages are going strong in Pasifika communities. New migrants and families who have been here for generations speak the familiar parent language. This creates a continuum of language proficiency, from those who exclusively speak their first language to those who exclusively speak English, and everything in between.

Those who speak Sāmoan are the third largest language group in New Zealand, behind speakers of English and of te reo Māori.

Pasifika language shift and loss

Internationally, New Zealand has a 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 exists in all Pasifika communities in New Zealand, the rate and extent of the shift varies. Sāmoan and Tongan remain widely spoken in their communities. Twenty-eight per cent of the Niuean community still speak the Niue language. Eighteen per cent of the Cook Islands Māori community still speak Cook Islands Māori. Perhaps this is 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 many Pasifika students in New Zealand are part of English-medium classrooms. Here, they have limited opportunity 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 provides New Zealand teachers working in mainstream educational contexts with knowledge about Pasifika bilingualism and effective language-teaching strategies. Having these means you can add to existing knowledge and move forward with confidence.

What teachers know from research is that the more you support Pacific students to develop their Pasifika or other languages alongside English in the classroom, the more likely it is that they will succeed academically. The way you teach is a key determinant of Pasifika students’ success. Think about how you can cater to all the levels of language proficiency in your classroom.

Why are Pasifika languages keys to learning?

The Education Review Office actively prioritises Pasifika achievement as part of their Pasifika Strategy in centres, schools, and 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. Make observations about how are Pasifika students situated in relation to their peers. Consider how Pasifika 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. Find out what the rationale has been for the initiatives, and determine if these are directed at teachers, students, or parents. Determine if language has been a principal focus or if Pasifika bilingualism  has ever been addressed. Evaluate if the approaches  have taken either a reflected or 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?

Expand your classroom 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?

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?