The census and the languages spoken in New Zealand

Children learning Māori - the second-most spoken language in New Zealand (click for image credit)

Children learning Māori - the second-most-spoken language in New Zealand (click for image credit)

It’s census time again, and this time the census can’t come too soon – it was originally scheduled for March 2011 but was postponed due to the Christchurch earthquake. We blogged about this at the time. At Te Ara we use census data all the time, so we are geekily looking forward to the release of the 2013 data in due course. The last census was in 2006.

The census gathers data on a wide range of subjects, one of which is languages spoken in New Zealand. A few weeks ago a group of us were discussing names for entries on New Zealand words and phrases, and Kiwi speech patterns, and we realised that we don’t have an entry on language diversity in New Zealand. This is something that will hopefully be remedied in the future. For now, here’s a quick look at what recent censuses tell us about this subject.

The census measures the languages that people resident in New Zealand on census night can speak up to a level where they can have a conversation about everyday things in it. Unsurprisingly, in 2006 the most common language was English (95.9% of people). It’s interesting to think about that small group of people who can’t have a conversation in English. It’s hard visiting a country whose language you can’t speak, so I wonder what life is like for non-English speakers in New Zealand. Another fascinating fact is that 20% of people who can’t speak English were born in New Zealand.

The next most common language spoken in New Zealand in 2006 was Māori - 4% of people could have an everyday conversation in Māori. More people spoke Māori in 2001, but fewer in 1996, so it will be interesting to see how this has changed by 2013.

Multilingualism is on the increase as New Zealand becomes more ethnically diverse. In 2006, 43% more people could speak two or more languages than in 1996. The Auckland region had the highest proportion of multilingual people in 2006 because it had the most ethnically diverse population.

If you want to learn more about language diversity in New Zealand, go to ‘QuickStats about culture and identity’ on the Statistics New Zealand website and download the tables. You’ll find, for example, that 4,305 people spoke Persian in 2006, compared to 1,584 in 1996, and that the number of Tamil speakers grew 138% in that 10-year period. In 2006, 2% of New Zealanders couldn’t speak any language, most likely because they were too young to talk. In tonight’s census their voices, or at least their spoken languages, will be recorded.

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