01.01.03. Key languages, ethnic groups and minority groups | New Zealand

01.01.03. Key languages, ethnic groups and minority groups | New Zealand

13 Sep 2022


Statistics NZ (n.d.) defines ethnicity as a self-identified measure of cultural affiliation and is not a measure of race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship. An individual can belong to more than one ethnic group. The 2005 New Zealand standard classification of ethnicity is a hierarchical classification of four levels. Level 1 of the classification has six categories and is used solely for output, not for collection. Apart from Māori, level 1 categories are ethnic groups, not ethnicities as such.

Ethnicity level 1 categories:

1 European
2 Māori
3 Pacific Peoples
4 Asian
5 Middle Eastern/Latin American/African (MELAA)
6 Other ethnicity
9 Residual categories.

Level 2 has 21 categories, which include the larger ethnicities within the level 1 groups – for example New Zealand European, Tongan, Indian. Level 3 has 36 categories, and level 4 has 233 categories (excluding residual categories). Individual ethnicities are aggregated into progressively broader ethnic groupings from level 3 up to level 1, according to geographical location or origin, or cultural similarities. Most government policy and research in NZ uses the level 1 ethnicity categories.

Table 3 outlines the proportion of the level 1 ethnicities in NZ from the 2018 census. The total adds up to >100% due to multiple ethnicities. Europeans make up the largest proportion of the population at 70%, followed by Māori (16.5%) and Asian (15%). Pacific people comprise 8.1% of the population and Middle Eastern/Latin American/African (MEELA) make up 1.5%.

Table 3: NZ level 1 ethnicity (2018 census)

Population proportion
European 70.2
Maori 16.5
Asian 15.1
Pacific peoples 8.1



New Zealand has three official languages – English, Māori, and NZ sign language. According to the 2018 census (Table 4), English is the most common language spoken, with 94.5% of the population able to hold a conversation about everyday things. The next most common languages spoken are Māori (4%), Samoan (2.2%), Northern Chinese (including Mandarin) (2%), and Hindi 1.5% (Pasifika Futures, 2017). NZ sign language is used by 0.5% of the population (Statics NZ, 2020).

Table 4: Five most common languages spoken in NZ from census 2018.

Language spoken Proportion (%)
English 94.5
Maori 4
Samoan 2.2
Northern Chinese 2
NZ sign 0.5


The most common Pacific languages spoken in NZ are Samoan, Tongan, and Cook Island Maori (table 5) (Pasifika Futures, 2017). Over a third of Pacific people can speak at least two languages (table 6), compared to 14.6% of the total population.

Table 5: Number of speakers and proportion who can speak the first language of their ethnic group, census 2013

Language Number of speakers Proportion of people who could speak the first language of their ethnic group
Samoan 86,403 55.6
Tongan 31,839 53.2
Cook Island Maori 8,124 13.0
Fijian 6,273 27.6
Niuean 4,548 18.7
Tokelauan 2,469 31.9


Table 6: Number of languages spoken by ethnicity, census 2018

Ethnic group Languages
1 2 3 or more
Maori 75.7 19.7 1.1
Pacific 55.6 37.7 2.5
European 89.4 7.2 1
Asian 42.1 42.6 9.8
Total 77.7 16.9 2.5

Pasifika Futures. (2017). Pasifika People in New Zealand: how are we doing? Auckland Pasifika Futures 2017. Pasifika Futures: Prosperity for Pacific Families.

Statistics NZ. (n.d.). Ethnicity. New Zealand Government Website. Available from: https://www.stats.govt.nz/topics/ethnicity.

Statistics NZ. (2020). 2018 Census totals by topic – national highlights (updated). New Zealand Government Website. Available from: https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/2018-census-totals-by-topic-national-highlights-updated.