Cook Islands Māori in decline as English language dominates in NZ

2 min read

By Rachael Nath of RNZ

Thousands of Cook Islanders across Aotearoa New Zealand are celebrating their language this week but, for the majority, their knowledge of Cook Islands Māori is declining.

Te reo Māori Kūki’ Āirani, or the Cook Islands Māori language, is at risk of disappearing as a preference from the native tongue to English grows.

The language is listed on the Unesco Oceania endangered languages as speaking in Kūki’ Āirani decreases at an accelerating pace among younger generations.


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Chief executive of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone, said “only 9 per cent of the Cook Island community in Aotearoa speak Kūki’ Āirani”.

The main native language of the Cook Islands is Cook Islands Māori, which belongs to the same language family as New Zealand Māori but there are also several distinct dialects and other languages spoken.

The latest Cook Islands census in 2021 showed the population of the 15 islands that make up the small nation is less than 15,000. New Zealand remains the largest home to a thriving Cook Islands community, with more than 80,000 people, while about 28,000 live in Australia.

A celebration as part of Cook Islands Language week in 2022. Photo / Tupu Araiti
A celebration as part of Cook Islands Language week in 2022. Photo / Tupu Araiti

With such a vibrant Cook Islands community in Aotearoa, the natural question is why te reo Māori Kūki’ Āirani is on the decline.


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Professor Stephen May from the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland said within the Cook Islands communities in Aotearoa, only 7 per cent of those under the age of 15 can speak Kūki’ Āirani.

Professor Stephen May.
Professor Stephen May.

“It’s very challenging to maintain a language if young people aren’t speaking or if parents aren’t passing it on to their children.”

May explained that years of research into preserving this language has revealed that intermarriages and lack of educational support threatened Kūki’ Āirani.

“What tends to happen in countries like Aotearoa, which is English-language dominant, that often, if there’s only one parent who speaks Cook Islands Māori, they switch to English with the children,” he said.

Professor May said to preserve this language Cook Islanders need to adopt a holistic family language policy.

“If there are Cook Islands Māori speakers in the family, one of them should continue to speak to the children in Cook Islands Māori, even if the other parent doesn’t.”

Education system not doing enough

New Zealand’s education system is also not doing enough. May said there are “very few meaningful bilingual education options for Cook Islands Māori”.

“High levels of bilingual education or immersion education, which are levels one or two … programmes [need to be] established and expanded, to strengthen the use of Cook Islands Māori in Aotearoa.”

If we are to see a real change in the preservation of Cook Islands Māori, the challenge now is to extend bilingual programmes into the primary sector.

“We have models for that, of course, the Māori medium, but we do have some very strong Pacific bilingual programmes, predominantly Samoan with some Tongan.”


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Research shows that bilingualism in any combination of languages is an educational, social and cognitive advantage.

May believes minority languages, including Pasifika languages, are threatened by the emphasis placed on learning English.

“[There’s a] presumption particularly among parents that because they’re in an English language dominant context, like Aotearoa, that their children must learn English, and no one’s contesting that,” he added.

“But what often happens is that English has been learned at the expense of other languages specifically.”

Advantages of preserving language

The onus to preserve and promote Cook Islands Māori goes beyond culture.


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May said New Zealand has “a constitutional and political commitment to try and maintain the language”.

“Cook Islanders have been New Zealand citizens since 1949, and Cook Islands Māori is a language in the realm of New Zealand,” he said.

“Not just for cultural reasons, although they’re really significant, but also because maintaining or establishing bilingualism in Cook Islands Māori and English has a whole lot of educational, social and wider advantages.”

Minister for Pacific Peoples Barbara Edmonds said deepening the bonds between the Cook Islands community and their cultural traditions is a focus which is aimed to be achieved by this year’s ‘Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani – Cook Islands Language Week.

While opening the 2023 Cook Islands Language Week celebrations in Aotearoa, Edmonds highlighted the strong shared ties.

“Cook Islands community share deep whakapapa ties with tangata whenua in Aotearoa through indigenous languages,” she added.


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“During the week, we’re continuing to support ties between Tangata Kūki ‘Āirani and their languages through cultural traditions – including song, dance, and pe’e (chants) – of their enua (island) and vaka (tribe).”

Cook Islands language week ends on Saturday.


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