The Sociolinguistic Situation in the Cook Islands

Download the Report on the Sociolinguistic situation in the Cook Islands

Executive summary

This report stems from a brief visit to Rarotonga in April 2013 facilitated by Roderick Dixon, Director of the University of the South Pacific in the Cook Islands and is prepared by:

Dr. Julia Sallabank
Senior Lecturer in Language Support and Revitalisation,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

9th August 2013

It addresses the following topics:

  1. Language maintenance / shift

There are anecdotal reports that English is starting to replace Maori in Rarotonga and in the other islands. Concerns are raised periodically which seem to be substantiated by education surveys. Very little sociolinguistic research has been carried out to date so it is unclear to what extent language shift is happening and in what areas of life.

  1. Languages and dialects

Official government documents stress the importance of Te Reo Maori for cultural maintenance and to strengthen Cook Islands nationhood. Te Reo Maori Act 2003 aims to create a national standard despite inter-island variation. Some informants would rather consider each island’s variety as a distinct language. How widespread is this view? In light of perceived language shift, how prevalent are language mixing and dialect levelling?

  1. Expatriate / diaspora members of the speech community

It is estimated that about 90 per cent of ethnic Cook Islanders live abroad, mainly in English-speaking countries. Language shift among expatriates is endemic, but some wish to (re-)learn their heritage language.

  1. Language policy and language in education

Official education policy promotes bilingualism and biliteracy, but there are reservations about how effective implementation of this policy is. In particular, teachers do not seem to be trained to teach Maori. It is unclear whether there is any provision for teaching Maori as a second/foreign/heritage language. Language policies often focus on education, but it is important to promote opportunities to speak the language outside school settings.

  1. Dictionaries of Cook Islands Maori

All previous dictionaries are out of print. There are three ongoing projects to adapt them for online access. None includes full multimedia or pronunciation guidance. Expatriates are a major target audience for online dictionaries, which need to take their needs into account.

  1. Records of Cook Islands Maori: (a) oral, and (b) written

Audio recordings from the 1970s are currently being digitised in New Zealand on behalf of the Language Commission. Traditional orators were also recorded between 2000 and 2005. Interface, format, levels of accessibility and security of digital archives need to be considered.  It would be valuable to collect fuller samples of Te Reo Maori in everyday settings while it is still a vital community language. Audio and video clips would also enhance multimedia dictionaries.  Some islanders have expressed a desire for the return of missionary records archived in London (a list is appended). Feasibility needs to be investigated, taking into account legal issues, the condition of the papers, etc.  In the Proposals section I suggest an interim solution involving digital scanning; some records may already be on microfilm.

  1. Proposals

A collaborative approach is suggested which would both validate local research capabilities and paradigms, and contribute to skills development. Research results would be relevant to the local context, and thus have greater validity and reliability as well as having a positive impact on language policies and planning.


  1. 1. – There is a shift in the English language therefore waste not any research funding to prove otherwise but speak/write Maori in classroom/subject/home. Use of English to elaborate a point acceptable due our limited Maori vocab specifically science, maths, law etc.
    2. – Nice to know govt stress significance of Maori Language but nicer for govt put money where their mouth is via budget support programme w/Min of Education & Tauranga Vananga. Pursue Nat Standard per 2003 Te Reo Maori Act & retain inter-island variations for historical value, synonyms, glossary.
    3. – Expat/diaspora of CKI Maori Language externally is not primal focus for CKI. The home source is primary focus to build & strengthen Maori language at home & school prior pararauare externally.
    4. – Perhaps language/cultural scholars such as Makiuti Tongia, Mataora Harry, Mapu Taia, Pastor Ngarima George, George Paniani, Maru Pureau, Tangaina Patia, Vereara Maeva, Vaitoti Tupa etc can start teaching again in schools/Tauranga Vananga.
    5. – Seek UNESCO, South Pacific Fund, various universities Institute of Pacific Studies etc funding to ngangana out of print dictionaries. CKI Govt to allocate their travel stipends for dictionary funding.
    6. -Digitised both oral/written materials. Repatriation of LMS archieves is amuti for we have no experts, facilities, & budget to maintain the facility, it stewards, & contents. Retain them overseas.
    7. – Support the proposal.

    • Thanks for the Feedback Arerangi, absolutely agree with what you are saying. I’m currently working on a strategy to address these issues.

      A key tactic will be to bring the issue to the forefront of the public regarding the dire status of the language and to build pressure on government into taking action. This will require sustained effort from many like minded people. We are currently developing a communication strategy for this.

      Our team is also in the process of putting together the technology infrastructure required to coordinate and collaborate on this. The first order of business once this is in place is to recruit volunteers.

      Let me know if you are keen to join.

  2. Cook Islands maori language is less spoken in homes in the cook islands now than ten ot twenty years ago.
    It was and is every parents dream for their children to be successful in this day and age.
    How can we revive our language?
    The Ministry of Education must come up with a plan or vision to rejuvenate the desire to fulfil this. This is my personal perspective
    1) Parliament to stop using English language in there speeches or presentations in Parliament
    2) The Ministry of Education to include Maori language in the curiculum…that including other dialects
    3) Provide resources eg by encouraging parents and elders to create dictionaries in their own dialects . ( if we wait for researchers and linguistics for approval the language will be gone and forgotten and the elders dead. And the language gone with them

    We’ve given to much of our rights and our knowledge to researchers and lingustics to dictate how to write and pronounce words that we know and what it meant
    Do we still want to continue with this.
    Kia noho ora mai i roto i na rauraunga nui o te Matua Ha’a

    • Kia Orana Rahui,

      First of all, apologies for the late reply, we’ve been flat out with various activities including the development of a mobile app for the database and adding more words to the database.

      Anyway thanks for the comment, really appreciate it as one of the things we’d like to do is get some feedback from the community regarding what you’ve mentioned.

      What we’d like to do within the next few weeks is build an email list of people who would be interested in being involved in the project as we’ve realised there’s quite a lot to do?


      Ano Tisam
      Project Lead

  3. Clark later said that if the Cook Islands wanted to be its own sovereign state, it would first need its own citizenship.


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