New Tool Measures Language Skills of NZ Samoan And Tongan Children
Auckland, 23 February 2016 – Researchers from the Growing Up in New Zealand study have developed the first ever Samoan and Tongan language inventories to formally gauge the language skills of New
Zealand toddlers speaking Samoan or Tongan as their first language.
While similar language inventories are used to assess children’s skills in a range of languages, this is the first time
the vocabulary check list has been adapted for Samoan- and Tongan-speaking children in New Zealand.
Pacific peoples are the fourth largest ethnic group in New Zealand, making up 7.4 percent of the population. Compared to
some other Pacific languages, the Samoan and Tongan languages are widely spoken in New Zealand.
“Language skills are vital for children’s thinking and social interactions, as well as for their later reading and
school success,” says Professor Elaine Reese, Education Expert Adviser to the Growing Up in New Zealand study.
“That is why we need to support families in every way possible in their efforts to raise their children in a Samoan or
Tongan language environment within New Zealand.”
The researchers adapted the short form of the so called MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI), a
widely used tool to assess language abilities of young children, for the Samoan and Tongan languages. The inventories
measure a child’s language competency by asking parents if the child understands and actively uses any of 100 select
words, and if the child already combines two words when speaking (eg ‘milk gone’).
Over 500 mothers in the Growing Up in New Zealand study completed the vocabulary checklist for their 2-year-old children in Samoan (344 mothers) or Tongan (242 mothers).
Most of their children were monolingual speakers of either Samoan (83 percent) or Tongan (89 percent). Most of these
mothers were born outside New Zealand (52 percent of the Samoan-speaking children and 67percent of the Tongan-speaking
The average total vocabulary from the 100 target words for two-year-old Samoan speakers was 13.5 words, compared to 23
words for Tongan speakers.
The research also found that children knew more words in Samoan and Tongan if their mothers were born outside of rather
than in New Zealand (17 versus 10 in Samoan; 28 versus 14 in Tongan).
Just like for toddlers around the world, the most common words were about people, objects, and everyday routines: in
Samoan, susu(milk), vai (water), ‘ofu (clothes), pepe (baby) and ‘aua (don’t); and in Tongan, mami (mum), kā (car), mālō (thanks), ‘ulu (head) and inu (drink).
For Samoan speakers, girls, children of mothers born in NZ and children of more educated mothers were more likely to
combine words, whereas for Tongan speakers there were no significant differences in word combinations by gender, or the
mother’s education and birthplace.
“We know from other research in New Zealand and internationally that when children are strong in their first language,
those skills transfer to their second language and to literacy,” says Professor Reese.
“By adding more language assessment tools like the one we developed to our toolkit, we are in a better position to
realise a national language policy.”
Future analyses from Growing Up in New Zealand will be able to assess how these children’s language skills in Samoan and Tongan at age two spell success in school at
age seven and beyond.
The results in brief:
• The average total vocabulary for two-year-old speaking Samoan was 13.52 words, compared to 22.82 words for Tongan
• Children knew more words in Samoan and Tongan if their mothers were born outside of rather than in New Zealand (17
versus 10 in Samoan; 28 versus 14 in Tongan).
• Most common words in Samoan at age two: susu (milk, 51%), vai (water, 41%), ‘ofu (clothes, 38%), pepe (baby, 37%), ‘aua (don’t, 37%)
• Most common words in Tongan at age two: mami (mum, 46%), kā (car, 46%), mālō (thanks, 45%), ‘ulu (head, 45%),inu (drink, 43%)
• For Samoan speakers, girls, children of mothers born in NZ and children of more educated mothers were more likely to
combine words. For Tongan speakers there were no significant differences in word combinations by gender, or the mother’s
education or birthplace.
Download the full article from bit.ly/samoan-tongan-language
About Growing Up in New Zealand
Growing Up in New Zealand is a longitudinal study tracking the development of approximately 7,000 New Zealand children from before birth until
they are young adults. The study has collected detailed multidisciplinary information about children’s early development
and reflects the ethnical diversity of today’s pre-school children.
Growing Up in New Zealand is designed to provide unique information about what shapes children’s early development in contemporary New Zealand
and how interventions might be targeted at the earliest opportunity to give every child the best start in life.
Early information from the study provides insight into areas like vulnerable children, housing, breastfeeding/early
solids, immunisation, languages, early childhood education, interaction with health and other key services, paid
parental leave and maternal return to the workforce.
Growing Up in New Zealand is University of Auckland-led research and funded by multiple government agencies. The government contract for the
study is managed by the Social Policy and Evaluation Research Unit (Superu).