Bilingual Education in New Zealand

Paper Type: 
Pages:  5
Wordcount:  1302 Words
Date:  2021-03-12

The bilingual approach to education in New Zealand has been appraised as one of the most progressive steps in the education system in the country. With an increased apportionment of learning being done in the native Maori language, there is now more inclusion in the school system of the country. This paper looks at the bilingual education practices in the country by looking at the historical background of education in the country to recent practices in place in the furtherance of inclusion practices in education.

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Historical Background

The Maori people were previously settled in New Zealand as far as 500 years before the European settlers, predominantly British, came to the jurisdiction (Walker, 1990). As such, the coming of the settlers saw the need to ensure that there as a peaceful coexistence of the two groups of settlers. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi an instrument that was considered to be the peaceful and intelligent means by which there would be an amicable settlement of the English people with the locals (May & Hill, 2005). In this agreement, there would be the respecting of the locals' rights in the course of interactions between the two groups (Belig, 2001).

Despite this exciting and promising beginning in their interaction, the relations between the British and Maori people deteriorated to become similar to most colonial-local interactions of the time. The result was the disenfranchisement of political rights, socio-economic inequality among other wrongs (Kawharu, 1989). This situation was extended to the education sector, where the Maori language was considered a major hindrance to the progression of teaching. The education approach became mostly assimilationist so that all approaches to using the language as a form of communication in the education sector was despised (Stannard, 1989). This led to the loss of the language among indigenous New Zealanders so that the majority of adults in the country couldn't speak their language. In fact, only 20% of the adult population could speak the Maori language well (Benton, 1989). The endangered nature of the language has thus led to the need for its inclusion in the education system. These efforts began in the 1970s with some schools in the rural Maori communities and later extending to other schools. Eventually, the Te Kohanga Reo program begun one that was for the full-immersion program of the Maori language in the learning in schools resulting from a language reversal' revolution (Paulston, 1983).

With this language revolution at hand, primary school institutions, as well as middle school and tertiary institutions were set up in a bid to ensure that there were efforts in place to facilitate the learning in the Maori language. This was because of the 'domino effect' caused by the setting up of the first institution, which bred Maori language teachers. As of 1999, there were 59 institutions of elementary learning established as Maori bilingual institutions. Efforts to include the bilingual teaching system have continued even to higher institutions of learning to include the setting up of three higher learning institutions (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 1998).

Current Issues

With the reappraisal of the language approach to learning, the Treaty of Waitangi again came into public discussion in recent times. The Maori Language Act elevated the status of the Maori language to national language for the first time since colonization (May, 2001). Despite this important move to make the mother tongue in a country the national language, various challenges are facing the use of the Maori language in different contexts.

One such problem includes the use of the language in various environments including the home environment. The language has been made the official language, but there is no enforcement for its use in various formal settings including the court or quasi-judicial set ups. Only oral use of the language is standard in such forums. Furthermore, there is little use, if any, of the Maori language in the home setting. The language was barely used in different settings such as the church, sports gatherings, shopping or socializing. Despite the rise in the use of the Maori language in education over the last 20 years, only a small amount of state provision is set aside for the learning of the language for Maori students (Kokiri, 2001).

Challenges to Bilingual Education

When considering the recent practice in New Zealand concerning bilingual education, some challenges arise almost immediately especially when comparison with other jurisdictions is made. A full immersion approach is the one mostly taken with projects such as these in the course of engaging bilingual teaching practice. The country started by implementing the partial-immersion program for the purpose of doing a progressive change. This approach was soon found to be ineffective in promoting the maintenance of the Maori language. This is because the advocates of the program in the country have come to view all partial-immersion programs as transitional in nature thereby undermining the effectiveness of the programs in different settings. This has caused the program to be overseen with little consistency having no sound underlying theory to the relevant pedagogy and practice. Again, the effectiveness of the programs in the mainstream education still lacks in that the administrators of the program have not determined to work with evidence-based practices in this area to ensure success (Kawharu, 1989).

Another challenge that faces the full immersion of the program among Maori language learners is the fact that the majority of the teachers are second-language learners while the students are first-language learners. The fact that there is going to be a difference in the language learned poses a significant challenge to the full-immersion program. The effectiveness of learning that is going to be implemented by L2 teachers to L1 learners means that the language being transferred to the learners is not the guaranteed original Maori language. The challenge is thus embodied in the fact that there is a need to determine the quality of the language that the first language learners are assimilating.

In the wider context of language learning in New Zealand, there is also the question of the provision of learning to other language groups that are present in the country. A people of interest are the Pasifika people, who settled in the country in the 1960s. There have been delays in providing access to bilingual learning for Pasifika students despite the Ministry of Education's promise to include bilingual learning to students who speak a Pacific Peoples' language.


The intention of the paper was not to present a negative perspective of bilingual learning in New Zealand. However, there have been challenges even with the significant strides in education that have been made in the country. Consideration is made for the implementation of full-immersion programs, quality of learning from L2 teachers to L1 learners and the inclusion of other groups in bilingual learning practices. Education in the Maori language has, however, made up for lost cultural shifts and losses that were characteristic of New Zealand after colonization.


Belig, J. (2001). Paradise Reforged. Auckland, New Zealand: Allen Lane.

Benton, N. (1989). Education, language decline and language revitalisation: the case of Maori in New Zealand. Language and Education 3 , 65-82.

Kawharu, I. (1989). Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.

Kokiri, T. P. (2001). Maori Language Survey. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Puni Kokiri.

May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. London, UK: Longman.

May, S., & Hill, R. (2005). Bilingual Education in Aotearoa/New Zealand: At the Crossroad. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from Zealand Minsitry of Education. (1998). Nga Haeata Matauranga. Annual Report on Maori Education 1997/98 and Direction for 1999. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Paulston, C. (1983). Language regenesis: a conceptual overview of language revival, revitalisation and reversal. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 14 , 275-286.

Stannard, D. (1989). Before the Horro. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Walker, R. (1990). Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: struggle without end. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Publishers.

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Bilingual Education in New Zealand. (2021, Mar 12). Retrieved from

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