The significant rise in preschoolers using Te Reo Māori

Published on Wednesday, 12 August 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Learning to communicate is a key part of young children’s development. Language allows under-fives to express their needs, wants, opinions and culture, and it’s fantastic to hear that there has been a significant growth in the use of Te Reo Māori amongst preschoolers.

A new study has found that 10 per cent of pre-schoolers use Te Reo Māori for everyday conversations and almost 75 per cent are using at least some words.

To see what this means for children and our society, let’s explore the study in more detail.

Who conducted the study and why?

This research was led by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and funded by the Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund.

The researchers were investigating ways to retain and revitalise Te Reo Māori by looking at language acquisition in early childhood. Among other things, they wanted to assess how many preschoolers learn and use Te Reo Māori and identify the key factors that support and hinder young children’s knowledge and use of Te Reo.

To do this, the researchers analysed information from the Growing Up in New Zealand study, which is following the lives of more than 6,000 children born in Auckland and Waikato and is the largest longitudinal study of child development in this country.

What did the researchers discover about the use of Te Reo Māori among preschoolers?

This study examined mothers’ assessments of their children’s Te Reo Māori use at the age of two and four-and-a-half and found that:

  • Three-quarters of all children used at least some Te Reo Māori at four years of age

  • Ten per cent of four-year-old’s could speak or understand simple sentences in Te Reo and

  • About 20 per cent of the four-year-old’s who were speaking or understanding these simple sentences were non-Māori.

This level of engagement came as a happy surprise to the researchers, and Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, Professor Te Kani Kingi, is heartened by the finding that so many young children can speak or understand simple sentences in Te Reo.

He says, ‘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.’

It’s also great to see that non-Māori children are increasingly learning and using Te Reo.

Project Lead, Hannah Simmonds says, ‘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.’

According to the 2013 New Zealand Census, only 3.7 per cent of adults were able to have an everyday conversation in Te Reo, so this new study provides hope that the figure will grow as our preschoolers do.

What are the key factors that support the knowledge and use of Te Reo Māori?

The study looked at ‘positive factors for language acquisition’ and found that the following four factors had a great influence on preschoolers’ command of Te Reo:

  1. Going to a Kõhango Reo

  2. Having a mum who speaks Te Reo Māori

  3. Living in communities where there are Māori people and Te Reo is spoken and

  4. Having parents who read books, sing songs and play games with children in any language.

The study highlights the importance of positive parent-child interactions, and Professor Kingi says that immersion programmes like Kõhango Reo (for young children) and Kura Kaupapa Māori (for school-aged children) play a key role in improving the widespread use of Te Reo Māori.

On the flipside, higher levels of screen time were associated with lower levels of Te Reo fluency, and Professor Kingi says this is an important message that parents and care-givers should take on board.

Previously, the Growing Up in New Zealand study has linked excessive screen time with behavioural and health problems in preschoolers, so we should all keep in mind that the Ministry of Health’s Active Play Guidelines recommend no sedentary screen time for under twos, and less than an hour a day for ages two to five.

What else will the Growing Up in New Zealand study tell us about the evolving use and role of Te Reo Māori?

Professor Kingi says that this longitudinal study enables researchers to accurately assess the state of Te Reo Māori and it provides evidence for future strategy and policy.

Although the current findings around pre-schoolers’ use of Te Reo were based on their mothers’ assessments, we’ll also soon get to hear from the children themselves. Data collected from participating eight-year-olds will be released soon and it will tell us about their understanding and use of Te Reo.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study will continue until the children are at least 21-years-old, and as data is collected, there’s the opportunity for researchers to gain, ‘Greater insights into the connection between Te Reo Māori usage and retention to wellbeing, resilience, identity and other measures of success.’

For the moment, it’s great to know that bilingualism has positive cognitive and social benefits for Māori and non-Māori people. Parents, whānau and early childhood educators are immersing young children in Te Reo Māori and this bodes well for our little learners and society at large.


Growing Up in New Zealand

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