Languages used at ECE services and language use at home

What We Have Found

Te reo Māori has seen a shift in reported use. With the decline of Kōhanga reo services over the past 10 years, the amount of Te reo immersion has dropped. Despite this fall, overall the amount of Te reo use is up, with more services reporting use at lower percentage levels.

Pasifika language use has gradually grown over the last 10 years and 2014 was the first year to see a slowing of this trend.

Smaller language groups have undergone the largest growth in the ECE sector. Language groups such as Chinese, South Asian and sign language were reported to be used at more than twice as many licensed services in 2014 compared to 2004. Language diversity i.e. services speaking languages other than English is predominantly occurring in education and care services.

Date Updated: October 2015

Indicator Description

The following indicators are included in this report:

  • Te reo usage over the last ten years by the amount of reported time spoken
  • Number of children attending services reporting Te reo use, by ethnic group
  • Use of Pasifika languages over the last ten years by the amount of time spoken
  • Home language use of the children attending services speaking Pasifika languages for more than 50% of the time
  • Chinese language use over the last ten years, with geographical breakdown to show where in New Zealand this growth is occurring.

Why This Is Important

Having information on language use at ECE services and home language use of children attending ECE is important because language forms a large basis of the culture it is from. Knowing the languages that are being spoken will help us understand the diverse range of cultures that New Zealand ECE services experience.

Language use at ECE services also represents how educators are interacting with children. Ethnicity can give an indication of a child's culture but language use shows the medium of the interaction with the cultural background of the child.

Information about language use is collected by the Annual Census of ECE services. Services are asked to report on the percentage of time languages are being spoken by the staff as a form of communication with the children. There is no standardised measure for the percentage reported so caution needs to be taken when interpreting these percentages, in particular the lower amounts.

How We Are Going

Te reo Māori

Māori culture is an integral part of New Zealand's society. The early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki encourages Te reo use as an important means of communication.

Figure 1 shows how the 0% spoken category has been decreasing, indicating that Te reo is being used more widely than it was ten years ago. The 12-20% category has seen an increase from 8% to 15% since 2004, while the 21-50% category has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. The 81-100% category has seen a decline from 16% in 2004 to 12% in 2014.

Figure 1: Distribution of licensed ECE services using Te reo Māori by the amount of time used, 2004-2014

The decline in the 81-100% category can be attributed to the decline in the number of Kōhanga reo services between 2004 and 2014 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Number of Kōhanga reo services, 2004-2014

Figure 3 shows the distribution of enrolments/attendances1  by child ethnicity and the proportion that services speak Te reo. With the exception of Māori children, of whom 21% of enrolments attend services where Te reo is spoken for between 81% and 100% of the time, the major share of enrolments for all the other ethnicities attend services that use Te reo for between 1-11% of the time. The high number of Māori enrolments at services using Te reo for more than 80% of the time, can be mostly attributed to Kōhanga reo services which are assumed to be 100% Te reo speaking.

The proportion of children of Pasifika ethnicity enrolled at services speaking no Te reo at all was larger than that of the other ethnic groups (16% as compared to 3% for Māori, 5% for European/Pākehā and 10% for Asian enrolments).

Figure 3: Proportion of enrolments/attendance by amount of time Te reo is spoken and ethnic group of the child, 2014

Figure 4 shows the breakdown of Te reo use by service type for 2014. 

Figure 4: Distribution of the amount of time Te reo is used by licensed ECE service type, 2014

Figure 4 shows the breakdown of Te reo use by service type. Note that Kōhanga reo data is imputed and it is assumed that all Kōhanga reo fall into the 81-100% category

Besides Kōhanga reo, education and care was the only service type to report services speaking Te reo for 81-100% of the time (13 services). Kindergarten had the lowest proportion of services in the 0% category and Playcentres had the highest proportion of services reporting no Te reo use.

Pasifika Languages

The Pasifika language group is the third largest language group. Some services cater specifically to children from Pasifika backgrounds and aim to build young children's knowledge of their own Pasifika language and culture. There is no specific Pasifika service 'type'. Rather, Pasifika services can be defined in several ways including the use of Pasifika languages.

Figure 5: Distribution of licensed services using Pasifika languages by the amount of time used, 2004-2014

Figure 5 shows the percentage of services using Pasifika language, by the amount of time it is spoken. There has been some growth in the 1-11% category, from 7% in 2004 to 9% in 2014, but very little change in the other larger language use groups; the 80%+ group has remained stable at 2% in both 2004 and 2014.

Figure 6: Distribution of the amount of time Pasifika languages are used by licensed ECE service type, 2014

Figure 6 looks at the reported use of Pasifika language by service type. All of the services speaking Pasifika language for more than 80% of the time are education and care services.

Figure 7: Number of Pasifika enrolments/attendance by amount of time Pasifika language is spoken, 2004-2014

Figure 7 shows the number of Pasifika enrolments by the amount of time Pasifika language is spoken at the service. Over the last ten years the number of Pasifika enrolments has been trending upwards for both the 51-80% and the 81-100% language categories. In 2014 there were just under 1,800 Pasifika children enrolled at, or attending, an ECE service where Pasifika language was spoken more than 80% of the time.

Figure 8 shows the breakdown of Pasifika languages and the number of services using any one Pasifika language for more than 50% of the time. Samoan language services make up the majority of the group, with 54 services. In 2014 60% of all services that reported using an individual Pasifika language for more than 50% of the time were speaking Samoan. This figure is unsurprising as Samoan is the largest Pasifika ethnic group in New Zealand, with 144,138 people or 3.6% of New Zealand's population stating Samoan as their ethnicity2  .

Figure 8: Distribution of Pasifika languages used at licensed ECE services by language and the amount spoken, 2014

With the Ministry's new electronic collection system ELI, we are able to see what languages are being spoken in the home of the children attending ECE for the first time. In 2014 only 40% of services used ELI to complete their Census of ECE services and this group did not include Kōhanga reo services. For this reason, only Pasifika languages are explored. Of the 96 services that reported using Pasifika language for more than 50% of teaching time, only 39 reported through ELI in 2014. The next two graphs (Figures 9 and 10) represent only these services.

Figure 9: Number of services using Pasifika language for more than 50% of the time, by the proportion of children who speak a Pasifika language at home, 2014

Figure 9 shows that, of the 39 services, 13 had more than 75% of children attending who spoke a Pasifika language at home. There were 487 children at these 13 services. However, in 13 services, less than 25% of the children attending spoke a Pasifika language at home.

Figure 10: Percentage of services speaking Pasifika more than 50% of the time by the language spoken at the service and the language spoken at the home, 2014

Figure 10 shows that in services where Tongan is spoken more than 50% of the time, the children attending speak mostly Tongan in the home (73% with 3% speaking Samoan in the home). Samoan services are slightly more diverse with 55% of children attending speaking Samoan in the home and 4% speaking other Pacific languages. In contrast, only 7% of children attending a Niuean service speak Niuean in the home but a further 15% speak other Pacific languages.

The difference between the languages spoken at home by children attending Pasifika services could be attributed to the need for children to be in a Pasifika service, rather than a Pasifika service specific to the language spoken at home. Pasifika languages also have a very similar vowel structure, which can make it easy for young children to learn and interchange between Pasifika dialects. Of course, given the low sample size and small numbers of services using a Pasifika language for more than 50% of the time, caution is needed when interpreting these figures.

Minor Language Groups

Figure 11: Proportion of services speaking languages other than English, Māori and Pasifika for any amount of time, 2004-2014

Figure 11 shows that the majority of the language groups spoken in licensed ECE services have remained at relatively stable levels throughout the last decade. The number of services using a Chinese language has grown the most, from 4% to 9% between 2004 and 2014. Sign language has had similar growth from 4% to 8% over the same period.

Hindi was reported in the 2013 census as the fourth most spoken language in New Zealand with 66,309 people (1.7%) reported speaking the language3  . Although the South Asian language group has undergone growth since 2004 (3% of services to 6% in 2014), it has slowed in the last 3 years and is spoken in a lower proportion of ECE services overall than the Chinese and Sign languages.

The volatility of the 'Other language' category is due to the large number of languages that the group encompasses. No language dialect within this group had substantial reported numbers in licensed services but, collectively, they create a large proportion.

Figure 12: Number of licensed services by language group and service type for any amount of time spoken, 2014

Figure 12 shows that education and care services make up the majority of licensed ECE services that speak different languages and this is true among all the different language groups. Of those services that reported speaking a Chinese language, 88% were education and care services.

Education and care services make up the just over half of all licensed services in New Zealand (55%). However, the proportion of education and care services that use another language as part of their teaching time is considerably higher than the proportion of education and care services in New Zealand. This shows that these smaller language groups are under-represented in the other licensed service types.

Chinese Languages

The next largest group after English, Te reo Māori and the Pasifika languages is the Chinese languages. It is also the group with the highest rate of growth over the last 10 years.

Figure 13 shows the proportion of Chinese language enrolments by the amount of time spoken over the last ten years. The amount of time spoken has only been shown for the 1-11% and 12-20% categories because of the overall low average.

The smallest category, 1-11%, is responsible for most of the growth, with 11% of enrolments in 2014 compared to 5% in 2004. The 12-20% category has increased in the last 3 years from 0.4% in 2011 to 0.9% in 2014. There were 21,950 enrolments at services using a Chinese language for any amount of time in 2014, as compared to 8,623 in 2004.

Figure 13: Proportion of Chinese languages enrolments by amount of time spoken, 2004-2014

The location of this growth has been overwhelmingly in Auckland (see Figure 14). Figure 14 shows that, in 2014, 69% of all services reporting a Chinese language were based in Auckland.  The geospatial distribution of the average amount of Chinese being spoken at services that reported Chinese in Auckland is spread evenly throughout the city.

Figure 14: Number of licensed services speaking a Chinese language for any amount for time by Regional Council


  1. In 2014, the method for data collection changed and around 40% of services completed the Annual Census of ECE services using the Ministry's new electronic collection tool for ECE: the Early Learning Information (ELI) system. For these services, the data shown relates to attendances in ECE licensed services, not enrolments. This is a change to the definition of the data and means that the data cannot be compared to previous years.
  2. Statistics NZ 2013 Census ethnic group profiles: Samoan, 2014
  3. Statistics NZ 2013 Census Quick Stats about culture and  identity, 2014


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