Niuean, Cook Island Maori languages 'may die out'

Niuean and Cook Island Maori languages will die out in New Zealand unless the Government starts specialist schools to save them, researchers warn.

The Government also faced legal challenges unless it backed action to preserve the languages, said John McCaffery, a senior lecturer at Auckland University's education faculty.

Mr McCaffery and wife Judy Taligalu McFall-McCaffery this week unveiled results of two years' research into Pacific languages used by New Zealanders.

Fewer than 5 per cent of New Zealand-born Cook Islanders and less than 11 per cent of New Zealand-born Niueans can speak their indigenous languages, Mr McCaffery said.

The languages would disappear from use in New Zealand within a generation, he said.

''Our research indicates that Pacific Island languages in New Zealand show significant signs of language shift and loss, with several languages, especially Cook Island Maori and Niue language unlikely to survive unless we do something now.''

Mr McCaffery said because the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau were protectorates and part of the official ''realm'' of New Zealand, the languages were official languages of the state.

''We actually have internal and international obligations to protect them.'' he said.

But Education Minister Anne Tolley rejected that. "We do not have a constitutional obligation to preserve vagahau Niue or Cook Islands Maori."

However she said the curriculum already supported the teaching of five Pasifika languages (Cook Islands Maori, vagahau Niue, gagana Tokelau, Tongan and gagana Samoa) as "additional languages for learning."

During his research Mr McCaffery said he came across groups preparing to lodge challenges with the Human Rights Commission or courts to demand similar protection for their languages as Maori had.

This month the Ministry of Education stopped producing the TUPU Pasifika series of learner reader booklets in Pacific languages which Mr McCaffery said had angered groups who saw it as removing support.

But Ms Tolley said the Tupu books were "paused" while the Ministry looked at what worked best for Pasifika students, because the majority of them learnt in English.

"Supporting Pasifika achievement is a priority for the Government and our aim is that every child achieves literacy and numeracy levels that enable success," she said.

But being grounded in their own culture's language gave pride and belonging and meant students were more likely to succeed in life, Mr McCaffery said.

He wanted dual language primary schools like kura kaupapa for Maori.

"We spend millions on endangered geckos, skinks and birds but won't spend a penny to save these languages," he said.

The languages were dying because of colonialism. New Zealand was largely monolingual and encouraged children to speak English instead of their home language, he said.