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Cultural Identity:

Māori language speakers


The number of Māori who reported in the five-yearly population census they could hold a conversation about everyday things in the Māori language (te reo Māori), as a proportion of the Māori population.76


Māori language is a central component of Māori culture, and an important aspect of participation and identity. It also forms part of the broader cultural identity and heritage of New Zealand . In 1987, the Māori language was recognised as an official New Zealand language.

Current level and trends

Almost one-quarter of all Māori (24 percent, or 131,600 people) reported in the 2006 Census they could hold a conversation in Māori about everyday things. Of the 157,100 people (or 4 percent of the total New Zealand population) who could speak Māori in 2006, 84 percent were Māori.

The proportion of Māori who were fluent Māori speakers declined markedly over the last century, particularly following the rapid urbanisation of the Māori population in the 1950s and 1960s. The first national Māori language survey in 1973 estimated the proportion of fluent speakers had fallen to 18 percent. By the 1996 Census, the proportion of Māori who could hold a conversation in te reo Māori had risen to 25 percent and was still at that level in 2001. Although around 1,100 more Māori could speak Māori in 2006 than in 2001, the Māori population had grown by a greater number (39,000 people) and so the proportion of Māori language speakers recorded in the census declined slightly, from 25 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2006. 

Information is also available from the two surveys on the health of the Māori language, conducted in 2001 and 2006. These show that the proportion of Māori aged 15 years and over with some level of speaking proficiency increased from 42 percent in 2001 to 51 percent in 2006. The increase was greatest at the higher proficiency levels, particularly among younger adults. In 2006, 14 percent of all Māori adults could speak Māori "well" or "very well", up from 9 percent in 2001. The proportion of younger adults (those aged 15–24 years and 25–34 years) with a high proficiency more than doubled. The data is not directly comparable with census data because of differences in the way the information is collected and because the survey is designed to measure proficiency in te reo, rather than simply asking whether people can converse in the language.77

Figure Cl2.1 Proportion of Māori speakers in the Māori population, by age, 2001 and 2006

Figure Cl2.1 Proportion of Māori speakers in the Māori population, by age, 2001 and 2006

Source: Statistics New Zealand, 2001 and 2006 Censuses

Age differences

Older Māori are considerably more likely than younger Māori to be able to converse about everyday things in Māori. In the 2006 Census, almost half (49 percent) of Māori aged 65 years and over and more than one-third (36 percent) of Māori aged 55–64 years reported being able to converse in the Māori language, compared with less than one-fifth (18 percent) of Māori aged under 15 years.

The decline of te reo speakers recorded in the census between 2001 and 2006 occurred among young and older Māori but was most pronounced at ages 55–64 years. 

Table CI2.1 Proportion (%) of Māori speakers in the Māori population, by age group and sex, 2001 and 2006

  Under 15 15–24 25–44 45–54 55–64 65+ Total
2001 18.9 22.9 24.5 31.7 45.2 55.3 24.6
2006 17.2 21.5 23.7 28.0 37.8 49.6 23.1
2001 21.2 26.0 23.7 29.2 42.5 53.5 25.7
2006 18.9 24.5 24.0 27.1 34.3 47.9 24.4
2001 20.0 24.5 24.1 30.4 43.8 54.3 25.2
2006 18.1 23.0 23.9 27.5 36.0 48.7 23.7

Source: Statistics New Zealand, 2001 and 2006 Censuses

Sex differences

Sex differences in the proportion of Māori language speakers among Māori were also apparent, with females being slightly more likely to be able to converse in Māori than males. However, the difference varied by age. From age 45 years onwards, Māori males were more likely than Māori females to speak Māori. For those younger than 25 years, a higher proportion of females than males could speak Māori.

Ethnic differences

After Māori, Pacific peoples had the highest proportion who could speak Māori (4 percent), followed by Europeans (1.6 percent), Other ethnic group (1.1 percent) and Asians (0.5 percent).78 In contrast to Māori, the ability to speak te reo Māori was higher at younger ages than at older ages in these ethnic groups.

Regional differences

Māori who live in areas with a high proportion of Māori residents are the most likely to be Māori language speakers. In 2006, the regions with the highest proportions of people with conversational Māori skills were Gisborne (32 percent), the Bay of Plenty (31 percent), Northland (28 percent), and Waikato and Hawke’s Bay (each 26 percent).