Māori language likely doomed, despite recent uptick in speakers - study

Unless drastic measures are taken the Māori language is doomed to die off with thousands of other languages with few speakers, new research suggests.

Te reo Māori, listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as 'vulnerable', is only proficiently spoken by around one in 100 New Zealanders. Another 2.7 percent are able to hold a basic conversation, according to census figures - all up that's around 185,000 people.

The Government has set a target of 1 million speakers of basic Te Reo by 2040, and 150,000 proficient. 

But a new study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, says that's going to be an uphill battle. Looking at how the decline of the Welsh language has been halted in recent years, the researchers developed a statistical model which uses demographics to predict what's going to happen to Māori - and it's a bit patu.

"The model predicts that... the language is on a path towards extinction at current learning rates," the researchers said, noting that Welsh looks on track thrive. 

"Even if learning rates can be improved to the Welsh values, the language is still on a downward trajectory; learning rates would need to be significantly higher than in Wales to enable long-term revitalization of the language in the New Zealand population as a whole."

In 1991, only 18.7 percent of Welsh people spoke their native tongue, with 11 percent fluent. A government survey last year found that could now be as high as 29 percent

The problem in New Zealand, the researchers said, is too few people speak Māori, compared to Welsh - and the vast majority of them are Māori, with little chance for non-Māori to pick up the language outside of formalised education. 

The researchers say there should be more opportunities to learn Māori, such as introducing more of it in early childhood education, integrating it further into primary and secondary schooling and training more teachers.

"These have all contributed to the nascent Welsh language revitalisation."

Two possible future for Te Reo - on the left if mostly Māori are taught,and on the right, everyone.
Two possible future for Te Reo - on the left if mostly Māori are taught,and on the right, everyone. Photo credit: Royal Society

But there's a catch. The obvious solution - getting Māori speakers to teach more non-Māori - might backfire in the short-term.

"The model shows that if proficient teachers, who are predominantly Māori, are spread across the whole population, this is detrimental to the language trajectory in the population as a whole, because the limited pool of teachers is spread too thinly... Our results suggest that resources should be focused on... supporting whānau and iwi to realise te reo as an everyday language."

In other words, putting resources into teaching people who aren't going to use the language on an everyday basis and pass it onto the next generation might only delay the language's inevitable demise.

"This does not mean that learning among non-Māori is unimportant or should not be supported, but that where capacity is limited by the number of teachers, learning among Māori should be prioritised initially.

"If and when the language is determined to be on a healthy trajectory towards revitalisation among the Māori population, resources and teachers can be distributed more broadly to promote learning across the whole population."

There's another problem the researchers note. Statistics NZ data shows over-65s make up a significant chunk of Te Reo speakers

"The prediction that the language is on a downward trajectory in the Māori subpopulation is consistent with census data showing a decline in the proportion of Māori under the age of 24 who are able to speak the language from 21 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2013."

The good news is the latest census bucked a long-term trend of declining usage. The number of Kiwis who said they could speak some Te Reo increased from 150,000 to 185,000, reversing a trend that's run for decades. 

"If the learning rates are too low, the language will be on a trajectory towards extinction; if the learning rates are sufficiently high, the language will be on a trajectory to revitalisation," the researchers say.