Languages of New Zealand
English and Māori sign in Broadwood
VernacularNew Zealand English
SignedNew Zealand Sign Language
Keyboard layout
Source2018 New Zealand census[1]

English is the predominant language and a de facto official language of New Zealand. Almost the entire population speak it either as first language speakers or proficiently as a second language.[1] The New Zealand English dialect is most similar to Australian English in pronunciation, with some key differences. The Māori language of the indigenous Māori people was made the first de jure official language in 1987. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) has been an official language since 2006. Many other languages are used by New Zealand's minority ethnic communities.

Official languages

New Zealand has three official languages: Māori and New Zealand Sign Language[2][3] by legislation, and English which is considered a de facto official language due to its widespread use.

Otago Law Professor Andrew Geddis explains the context of official languages:

English is already a de facto official language, which may be used in any or all public or official contexts. (...) [W]e legislated te reo [Māori] and sign language as being "official languages", in order to affirmatively grant the right to use them in particular, specified situations where they otherwise could not be used. This is not the case with English. It's simply a general, background cultural presumption in our particular society that this is the language of our government. (...) English is so much an "official language" that our law actually specifies in various places it must be used in place of any other.[4]


Further information: New Zealand English

English is the most common language, spoken by 95.4 percent of those who completed the relevant 2018 national census question.[1][5] It has long been the predominant language and the de facto official language.[6] It is the primary language used in parliament, government, the courts, and the education system.[7] Its official status has been presumed and is not codified in statute.[4] In 2018, New Zealand First MP Clayton Mitchell introduced a bill to parliament to statutorily recognise English as an official language.[8][9]

New Zealand English is mostly non-rhotic with the exception of the "southern burr" found principally in Southland and parts of Otago.[10] It is similar to Australian English and many speakers from the Northern Hemisphere are unable to tell the two accents apart.[11] In New Zealand English the short ⟨i⟩ (as in kit) has become centralised, leading to the shibboleth fish and chips sounding like "fush and chups" to the Australian ear.[12] The words rarely and really, reel and real, doll and dole, pull and pool, witch and which, and full and fill can sometimes be pronounced as homophones.[13][14][10] New Zealand English exhibits the near–square merger, so hair, hare, hear and here are sometimes homophones.[15] Some New Zealanders pronounce the past participles grown, thrown and mown using two syllables, whereas groan, throne and moan are pronounced as one syllable.[16] New Zealanders often reply to a question or emphasise a point by adding a rising intonation at the end of the sentence.[17] New Zealand English has also borrowed words and phrases from Māori, such as haka (dance), kia ora (a greeting), mana (power or prestige), puku (stomach), taonga (treasure) and waka (canoe).[18][19]


See also: Māori language revival

A bilingual sign outside the National Library of New Zealand uses the contemporary Māori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa.

The Māori language of the indigenous Māori people has been an official language by statute since 1987, with rights and obligations to use it defined by the Maori Language Act 1987.[20] It can, for example, be used in legal settings, such as in court, but proceedings are recorded only in English, unless private arrangements are made and agreed by the judge.

An Eastern Polynesian language, Māori is closely related to Tahitian and Cook Islands Māori.[21] After the Second World War, Māori were discouraged from speaking their language in schools and workplaces and it existed as a community language only in a few remote areas.[22] As a consequence of this, many Māori came to view te reo Māori as a language without purpose and chose not to teach their children. Since the 1970s, the language has undergone a process of revitalisation and is spoken by a larger number of people.[23][24] Of the 185,955 people (4.0 percent of respondents) who claimed they could hold a conversation in Māori in the 2018 census, 86.2 percent identified as Māori, but, conversely, only 18.4 percent of Māori-identifying spoke te reo Māori.[25] No adult Māori alive in New Zealand today does not also speak English.[26]

New Zealand Sign Language

People who can use New Zealand Sign Language, 2001, 2006 and 2013 censuses

New Zealand Sign Language, the main language of the deaf community in New Zealand, has been an official language by statute since 2006, by virtue of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006.[27][28] It is legal to use it and have access to it in legal proceedings and government services. In the 2018 census, 22,986 people (0.5%) reported the ability to use New Zealand Sign Language.[1]

Immigrant languages

See also: List of ethnic origins of New Zealanders

New Zealand has immigrants from European, Asian and Pacific Island countries who have brought their languages with them. According to Ethnologue (as of 2017), the largest groups are Samoan (86,400), Hindi (66,300), Mandarin Chinese (52,300), French (49,100) and Cantonese (44,600).[29] These minority foreign languages are concentrated in the main cities, particularly Auckland where recent immigrant groups have settled.[30] In the 2018 census, 115,830 respondents who spoke at least one language did not include English as one of their spoken languages.[31]

The number and proportion of multilingual people (those who can speak two or more languages) has continued to increase since the 2001 census. In the 2018 census, the number of multilingual people was 946,275, or 20.6 percent of respondents who spoke at least one language. The highest proportions of multilingual speakers lived in the Auckland (30.9%) and Wellington (21.2%) regions.[32]


In the 2018 census, the following languages were reportedly spoken by more than 0.1 percent of the population.[31] People could report more than one language, therefore percentages do not add up to 100. Statistics include those who spoke no language (e.g. too young to talk).

Language Number Percentage Change (2013–2018)
English 4,482,135 95.37 -0.770.77
Māori 185,955 3.96 0.220.22
Samoan 101,937 2.17 -0.010.01
Mandarin 95,253 2.03 0.710.71
Hindi 69,471 1.48 -0.190.19
French 55,116 1.17 -0.060.06
Cantonese 52,767 1.12 0
Chinese, not further defined 51,501 1.10 0.020.02
Tagalog 43,278 0.92 0.190.19
German 41,385 0.88 -0.040.04
Spanish 38,823 0.83 0.150.15
Afrikaans 36,966 0.79 0.100.10
Tongan 35,820 0.76 -0.040.04
Punjabi 34,227 0.73 0.230.23
Korean 31,323 0.67 0
Fiji Hindi 26,805 0.57 0.530.53
Japanese 24,885 0.53 0.020.02
Dutch 23,343 0.50 -0.110.11
New Zealand Sign Language 22,986 0.49 -0.020.02
Gujarati 22,200 0.47 0.030.03
Russian 12,543 0.27 0.030.03
Arabic 12,399 0.26 -0.010.01
Portuguese 10,569 0.22 0.080.08
Tamil 10,107 0.22 0.040.04
Italian 9,903 0.21 0
Thai 9,066 0.19 0
Malayalam 9,024 0.19 0.080.08
Malaysian 8,097 0.17 0
Cook Islands Māori 7,833 0.17 -0.040.04
Urdu 7,824 0.17 0.040.04
Vietnamese 7,755 0.17 0.030.03
Khmer 7,551 0.16 -0.010.01
Sinhala 7,266 0.15 0.020.02
Fijian 7,143 0.15 -0.010.01
Persian 7,002 0.15 0.020.02
Indonesian 6,282 0.13 0.010.01
Min 5,760 0.12 -0.010.01
Telugu 5,754 0.12 0.040.04
Serbo-Croatian 5,502 0.12 -0.020.02
Marathi 4,770 0.10 0.030.03
None (e.g. too young to talk) 101,751 2.17 0.470.47
Total respondents 4,699,716 100.00 Steady

Regional breakdown

According to the 2018 census, English is the most-spoken language in every district of New Zealand. Māori is the second-most spoken language in 60 of the 67 cities and districts of New Zealand. The second-most spoken languages in the remaining seven cities and districts are:[33]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "2018 Census Totals by Topic – National Highlights (Updated)". Statistics New Zealand. 30 April 2020. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  2. ^ Bardsley, Dianne (7 October 2018). "English Language in New Zealand - Characteristics of New Zealand English". Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  3. ^ "Language". Stats NZ. Archived from the original on 28 October 2020. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  4. ^ a b Walters, Laura (16 February 2018). "Analysis: Why English does not need to be made an official language". Stuff. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  5. ^ "2018 NZ census questions" (PDF). p. 87. Retrieved 17 June 2022.
  6. ^ New Zealand Government (21 December 2007). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Fifth Periodic Report of the Government of New Zealand (PDF) (Report). p. 89. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 January 2015. Retrieved 21 April 2015. In addition to the Māori language, New Zealand Sign Language is also an official language of New Zealand. The New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 permits the use of NZSL in legal proceedings, facilitates competency standards for its interpretation and guides government departments in its promotion and use. English, the medium for teaching and learning in most schools, is a de facto official language by virtue of its widespread use. For these reasons, these three languages have special mention in the New Zealand Curriculum.
  7. ^ "New Zealand's Official Languages". Human Rights Commission. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  8. ^ "NZ First submits Bill for English to be recognised as official language". Newshub. 15 February 2018. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  9. ^ "NZ First Bill: English set to become official". Scoop. 15 February 2018. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  10. ^ a b Kortmann & Schneider 2004, p. 605.
  11. ^ Hay, Maclagan & Gordon 2008, p. 14.
  12. ^ Crystal 2003.
  13. ^ Kortmann & Schneider 2004, p. 582, 589, 592, 610.
  14. ^ Trudgill, Peter and Jean Hannah. (2002). International English: A Guide to the Varieties of Standard English, 4th ed. London: Arnold., p 24.
  15. ^ Hay, Maclagan & Gordon 2008, pp. 39–41.
  16. ^ Kortmann & Schneider 2004, p. 611.
  17. ^ Crystal 2003, p. 355.
  18. ^ Bardsley, Dianne (September 2013). "English language in New Zealand – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  19. ^ "Māori Words used in New Zealand English - Māori". Māori Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  20. ^ "Waitangi Tribunal claim – Māori Language Week". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. July 2010. Retrieved 19 January 2011.
  21. ^ "Austronesian languages". Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  22. ^ Phillips, Jock (March 2009). "The New Zealanders – Bicultural New Zealand". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  23. ^ "Māori Language Week – Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  24. ^ Squires, Nick (May 2005). "British influence ebbs as New Zealand takes to talking Maori". The Telegraph. Great Britain.
  25. ^ "Maori descent indicator and languages spoken (official and common) by age group and sex, for the census usually resident population count, 2006, 2013, and 2018 Censuses (RC, TA, SA2, DHB, urban rural indicator)". Statistics New Zealand. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  26. ^ Keegan, Peter (5 June 2018). "FAQ about the Māori Language". Māori Language Information. Retrieved 4 July 2018. All (adult) Māori speakers can also speak English.
  27. ^ "New Zealand Sign Language Bill 2006". Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  28. ^ Governor-General gives assent to Sign Language Bill, Press Release: Governor General, 10 April 2006. Retrieved 11 April 2006.
  29. ^ Gordon, Raymond G. Jr., ed. (2017). "Languages of New Zealand". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (20th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  30. ^ Bell, Allan; Harlow, Ray; Starks, Donna (2005). Languages of New Zealand. Victoria University Press. p. 271. ISBN 978-0-86473-490-7.
  31. ^ a b "2018 Census totals by topic – national highlights (updated)". Statistics New Zealand. 30 April 2020. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  32. ^ "Number of languages spoken and birthplace (broad geographic areas) by age group and sex, for the census usually resident population count, 2006, 2013, and 2018 Censuses (RC, TA, SA2, DHB)". Statistics New Zealand. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  33. ^ "Languages spoken (total responses) and birthplace (broad geographic areas) by age group and sex, for the census usually resident population count, 2006, 2013, and 2018 Censuses (RC, TA, DHB)". Retrieved 2021-09-30.