Language is common to all humans – our brains seem to be “hard wired” for it. Human language is also thought to be unique in being a symbolic communication system that is learned instead of biologically inherited.
Almost all human beings acquire a language (and sometimes more than one), to the level of native competency, before five years of age. Most researchers agree that children acquire language through the interplay of biology and environmental factors.
The language we use plays an important role in establishing our national and cultural identity, as well as creating cultural diversity and international connectedness. Language is vitally important for individuals and communities, bringing educational, social, cultural and economic benefits.
Official New Zealand Languages
New Zealand claims to have three official languages – English, te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. Only Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language have been formally designated as ‘official languages’ by Acts of Parliament. English is a de facto official language. However, fluency in English is necessary for full societal participation.
160 different languages are now spoken by people living in New Zealand. Yet despite our cultural and language diversity, New Zealand is unusual because so many people are monolingual. Teaching our children and young people to speak more than one language has been found to have significant benefits in terms of improved cross-cultural communication and understanding, cognition, job prospects and even health.