Assuming you only have the most cursory knowledge of New Zealand, you’ll probably guess that you can use your English there, and you’ll be correct in your assumption. However, English is not an official language of New Zealand, even if it’s kind of the de facto national language. In one sense, you could ask, “What language is spoken in New Zealand?,” and this would be a correct response. But you can’t neglect the cultural importance of Māori, or the interesting status of New Zealand Sign Language. Let’s explore.
What Language Is Spoken In New Zealand?
The two official languages of New Zealand are Māori and New Zealand Sign Language.
For official languages, though, not many Kiwis speak either one. There are roughly 600,000 ethnic Māori in the country, but only about 100,000 who can understand the language, and 30,000 – 50,000 speakers of the language over 15 years old. This accounts for roughly 3.7 percent of the population, despite the fact that it was the only language spoken on the main islands prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Māori is the standard dialect of what was once a highly regionalized group of dialects, and it was granted legal status via the Māori Language Act of 1987. This was not the first time Māori was promised protection, but perhaps the first time it stuck. In the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, Queen Victoria promised to protect Māori, but it went on to be discouraged in schools and even punished in some cases. Today, it’s spoken in schools and in the media.
New Zealand Sign Language has about 20,000 speakers, and it was recognized as an official language as of 2006. As a matter of fact, New Zealand was the first country to grant official status to a sign language.
Though it doesn’t enjoy official status, English is the main national language of New Zealand. At least 96 percent of New Zealand’s population speaks English as a native language.
However, it’s worth noting that New Zealand English is about as distinctive from American or British English as the Australian variety. And actually, it’s not too dissimilar from Australian English.
In Kiwi English, you could eat brekkie in your sunnies and togs before tossing off your jandals and going for a swim. It’s heaps of fun.
Other Native Languages
Though Māori is the main indigenous language of New Zealand, there are other varieties spoken in the more remote islands and territories. Many of them have official status on one particular island. These include Cook Islands Māori (the official language of the Cook Islands), Niuean (the official language of the Niue Island), Tokelauan (the co-official language of the Tokelau Island), and Penrhyn (spoken by about 200 people on the Penrhyn Island).
Beyond all of that, New Zealand is also home to a stunning amount of ethnic diversity. According to the 2013 Census, the five largest ethnic groups are New Zealand European, Māori, Chinese, Samoan, and Indian, but there are more ethnicities in New Zealand than countries in the world, and diversity is only continuing to increase.
It follows, then, that there are a lot of immigrant languages spoken within its borders, especially those that hail from surrounding Polynesian Islands (but not at all limited to them). There are some Polynesian languages that have more speakers living in New Zealand than in the countries they’re native to.
Chief among New Zealand’s immigrant languages: Afrikaans, Arabic, Dutch, Eastern Punjabi, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Samoan, Spanish, German, Tagalog, Tongan and Yue Chinese.