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RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Feb 26) – Last year's New Zealand census has revealed a decline in the number of Cook Islanders living there who are able to speak their mother language.

This has prompted a call by New Zealand race relations commissioner Joris de Bres for urgent action to halt the decline in Pacific island languages where the majority of the population live in New Zealand.

In a statement to mark UNESCO's International Mother Languages Day on Wednesday 21 February, de Bres said that the recently released results of the 2006 NZ census showed that only 17 percent of Cook Islanders, 24 percent of Niueans and 41 percent of Tokelauans living in New Zealand were able to speak their mother languages.

These percentages have dropped a further 1-4 percent since the last census in 2001.

"This is particularly worrying because when you look at the total number of Niueans, Cook Islanders and Tokelauans living in New Zealand and their home islands - 91 percent of Niueans, 73 percent of Cook Islanders, and 83 percent of Tokelauans live in New Zealand," de Bres says.

"Only around 2000 Niueans and 1400 Tokelauans live in Niue and Tokelau, compared to 22,000 and nearly 7000 respectively in New Zealand. The critical mass of the populations live in New Zealand.

"Action to halt the decline and maintain the languages therefore has to be taken here in cooperation with the Pacific islands concerned. These languages are at risk not only in New Zealand but in the world."

de Bres says because these countries have a special relationship with New Zealand, and their people effectively have New Zealand citizenship status, the New Zealand government has a particular responsibility for their language protection and maintenance in the global context.

Language is an important part of identity and culture, he adds.

In 2004 when Niue celebrated its 30th anniversary as an independent nation in free association with New Zealand, the government made a commitment to assist Niue in maintaining its distinct culture and language.

Since that time the NZ Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs has initiated the 'mind your language' project for the Niuean, Cook Islands Maori and Tokelauan languages in New Zealand.

In 2005 a Vagahau Niue community language resource was launched to help teach the basics of the Niuean language to Niueans, and in the 2006 budget a further NZ$600,000 [US$413,000] over three years was allocated to the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs to produce resources for Cook Island Maori and Tokelauan. The budget also included further development of the Vagahau Niue language resources.

The NZ Ministry of Education has recently completed the first New Zealand school curricula for Samoan and Cook Islands Maori, and is expecting to complete curricula for Niuean, Tokelauan and Tongan this year.

The latest census figures indicate that further investment is needed both in the community and in schools, de Bres says.

"The human rights commission had promoted the idea of a Pacific languages week to raise community awareness, and floated the idea of a Pacific languages commission, but would welcome other ways of addressing the issues. This is an issue not just for government but also for the communities concerned," he said.

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