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Ministry of Education.

Other Forms of Variation in New Zealand English

Formal/Informal Style

Formal/informal style is the term given to variation in formality of speech and writing. There is a continuum from the most formal to the most informal.

Father was fatigued.
Dad was shattered.
The old man was stuffed.

The three sentences above have similar meaning; they differ in the degree of formality of style. The first is written in a very formal style; the second and third are increasingly informal.

All three examples above are written in standard English. Slang is not the same as vernacular English. It is language in a very informal style of English.

I seen the old man was stuffed.

This sentence is written in a very informal style (slang), and it is in the vernacular.

Knowledge of appropriate formal/informal styles of language is an important social skill and one that teachers can help develop. The most formal style will be the most foreign to many students and will require modelling. The most formal style is also the language of academic writing; as students progress through the school, they will need to understand and use this style.


Register refers to the specialist languages that are associated with certain activities, such as trades and professions, sport, religious practices, school subject areas, and so on.

Certain registers may also coincide with formal language use. It would be peculiar for a doctor to use informal language in a written medical report. We would expect a doctor to write:

re: Albert Jones. Current test shows elevated haemoglobin and possible polycythaemia. Further test in 6 months indicated.

In an informal situation, the same doctor chatting to other doctors over a cup of coffee could combine technical terms and informal vocabulary.

That fellow Jones has a pretty hairy haemoglobin count. Have to keep an eye on him.

The use of the term haemoglobin is part of the register of medical usage. The layperson's term would be red blood cell.

Some professions seem to use their linguistic registers as a barrier to those on the outside. Doctors and lawyers, for example, in their communication with members of the public, can keep them in awe and ignorance - not necessarily deliberately - by using terms that are not generally understood by laypeople. An understanding about registers and their function in society could help students to question and challenge such language use and alert practitioners to the effects of the inappropriate use of that register.

Maori English or Maori-accented English

The school curriculum will recognise and value the unique position of Maori in New Zealand society [...] The school curriculum will acknowledge the importance to all New Zealanders of both Maori and Pakeha traditions, histories, and values.
The New Zealand Curriculum Framework (Wellington: Ministry of Education, 1993), page 7

In the past, some dubious comments were made about Maori children and their use of English, which was often described as limited in scope and therefore limiting in its usefulness for school purposes. A bulletin, Maori Children and the Teacher(Wellington: Department of Education, 1971) expressed anxiety about how "speakers of Maori English will have increasing difficulty with their classwork" unless the school intervened.

This booklet described quite a common perception about Maori English at that time and could be seen as implying a serious indictment of Maori families. Such statements invite questions about the very narrow view of some educationalists of what was right and wrong in language, whereby anything that did not conform to a specific "standard" was seen as incorrect and deficient, a view that emphasised the inequalities that come about through social attitudes to different varieties of language.

As this book has already shown, all children have a natural ability to acquire language. It could well be that the variety being spoken by these children had not been properly studied and described. Teachers need to recognise that children will have had diverse experiences in life and language before they come to school and should certainly not assume that lack of knowledge of a particular range of vocabulary or concepts indicates lack of language ability or competence. Teachers need to know where the children are coming from and appreciate that different groups of children will have different language experiences to share.

An important development in New Zealand is the emergence of Maori English or Maori-accented English, as it is sometimes called. It is not clear how long this has been used. A broadcast of interviews made in 1958 with young Maori men and women who had left the country to work in the city had only one speaker whose accent was slightly Maori accented out of the eight recorded.

Today this variety of New Zealand English has become a marker of certain social groups. Those who use it do not necessarily speak Maori. Indeed, it has been suggested that whereas in the past the ability to speak the Maori language was the most important marker of Maori identity, today the use of Maori-accented English has taken over that function for many. Research on this variety of New Zealand speech is limited, and so the following comments derive only from general observation.

Most features of Maori English are shared with some varieties of Pakeha New Zealand pronunciation. Maori English differs in the production of some vowels and diphthongs and is most noticeably different in its stress and rhythm, being more syllable timed than stress timed. Connecting devices between words, such as the linking r, are frequently absent.

There is no single homogeneous variety of Maori English. It seems that there are several possible features of this variety, with some speakers having only one or two in their speech and others having a much greater number.

Some speakers are able to move in and out of this variety according to the situation. Schoolgirls were observed speaking with marked Maori English accents among themselves but changed to general New Zealand accents when a university researcher attempted to make recordings of their speech.

In some places and situations, Pakeha can also be heard speaking Maori-accented English. It functions as a strong in-group marker that is not used exclusively by Maori.

Some linguists consider Maori English to be a myth, and its existence and status is the subject of debate. We have found, however, that students can quickly recognise Maori English speakers when presented with recorded material where they have no first-hand knowledge of the speakers. The comedian, the late Billy T. James, used Maori-accented English for comic effect; recordings demonstrate some occasions when his speech was strongly Maori accented and some where there is no trace at all of Maori-accented English.

As with other varieties of pronunciation, Maori-accented English is part of its speaker's identity and should be treated with respect.

Regional Varieties of New Zealand English

Some people claim that they can tell whether a speaker comes from Auckland or Christchurch or some other part of New Zealand. Although research has not demonstrated clear regional pronunciation differences, this does not mean that differences do not exist. The one area that is notably different from others is Southland, where remnants of the Scottish pronunciation of the early settlers can still be heard. This is sometimes called "the Southland burr". It is marked by the pronunciation of "r" after a vowel and before a consonant (in words such as card or horse) and after a vowel at the end of words (such as fur). Older Southlanders pronounce most incidents of "r" in these places. Middle-aged speakers are more varied in their usage, pronouncing the "r" after some but not all vowels and maybe only some of the time. Young speakers most commonly pronounce the "r" only in words with the /é/ phoneme (as in nurse, heard, first).

There are some regional differences in vocabulary used in New Zealand. In Otago and Southland, a bach is referred to as a crib, but on the West Coast, a crib is a miner's lunch. Names for containers for strawberries change from punnet to pottle to chip in different parts of the country. In Auckland, students might wag school; in Christchurch, they bunk school. Other examples can be found in general books on New Zealand English listed in the Useful Books.

Social Class and Vocabulary

In New Zealand, pronunciation and standard and vernacular English are not the only social class markers in language. Building up a vocabulary is a part of language acquisition that is also very closely related to society and the social background of children. In the early 1970s, some Master of Arts students at the University of Canterbury made a study comparing the vocabulary of standard 3 (year 6) students at a private school and at a state school in a lower socio-economic area of Christchurch. They found that the state school students were more likely to put the pot on the ring, whereas those from the private school put the saucepan on the element. The state school students ate lollies, and the private school students ate sweets. State school students had wash-houses, but private school students had laundries. The student researchers found that the state school students had no terms at all for some things, such as serviettes/dinner napkins and morning and afternoon tea.

When it came to words for the main living room in the house, the state school students all had lounges, but the private school students had a range of words - front room, living room, family room, drawing room. Similar results were found with names for an item the state school students called a jacket. At the private school, this was also called a parka, an anorak, a windcheater, and a windbreaker.

The student researchers responded to these results by suggesting that the state school pupils were somehow linguistically deficient, the absence of some terms and the lack of alternative terms being cited as evidence of this. Such evidence, however, only reflects the children's backgrounds. Those who live in big houses need more names for the various rooms in those houses. State school students are highly likely to have areas of expertise where their vocabulary is wider than that of private school students, but researchers are usually from the middle class themselves and may not have the social knowledge to ask questions that test other areas.

This research was done over twenty-five years ago, but it still provides a useful warning to teachers. The fact that a student does not understand a particular word does not necessarily mean that that student is unintelligent or deficient. Their understanding could well be the product of their own background and experience. By enabling children to have a wide variety of different experiences, teachers are also assisting children to build up a wide and useful vocabulary.

Students for whom English is a Second Language

  • A note on terminology
    Several phrases are used to describe students for whom English is a second language. "ESL students" was once popular but was overtaken by the more neutral "non-English-speaking background" tag. This book favours the use of ESOL - "English for speakers of other languages" - as a neutral and accurate description that labels students in terms of what they are rather than what they are not. This phrase also indicates that English may be not the second but the third or fourth language for some students.
  • A note on ESL and EFL
    Much teaching of ESOL students in New Zealand follows EFL (English as a Foreign Language) techniques and methods. This approach is not appropriate. In a genuine EFL setting, the teacher has almost complete control over the way in which the target language is learned. In an ESL (English as a Second Language) or ESOL setting such as New Zealand, where English is the dominant language of the wider community and the media, the programme will be there mainly to support and guide significant learning of the language that is taking place outside the formal programme.

New Zealand schools have long taught students who come from home backgrounds in which languages other than English are used. The wide range includes both historical settlers' groups and groups that have arrived more recently.

Historical settlers' groups include people from:

  • Dalmatia, Greece, China, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Bohemia, India, and many other countries.

New settlers' groups come from:

  • Pacific Island nations, including Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, Tokelau, and Fiji
  • South-east Asian countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos
  • Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, and China.

In addition, many children also come from tangata whenua groups in which te reo Maori is a focus for home life.

Within all these groups are various degrees of bilingualism as students adopt their new language. Bilingual students often experience a diminution of skills in their first language as they develop skills in their second language. This can happen over several generations.

There is a pattern in the way in which competence in first languages often diminishes in immigrant groups. This pattern is observable in different countries and across different language groups.

First Generation of Immigrants
The parents and children are very fluent in their first language. However, the children are encouraged, and sometimes forced, to use the new language, which in New Zealand is English. Competence in the new language is seen as the key to success in education and employment. There is also pressure to learn the new language in order to cope with living in the new language community.

Second Generation
The children who learned English vigorously when they arrived have become parents who have varying degrees of competence in their mother tongue. Their children (the second generation) are passively bilingual, that is, they are likely to have only receptive skills (listening and perhaps some reading) in the mother tongue.

Third Generation
When this second generation have children of their own, the third generation is likely to have English skills and very few, if any, skills in their parents' mother tongue. At this stage, immigrant groups often turn to the education system for assistance with instruction in the mother tongue.

All language programmes in schools have an important role in attempting to arrest first language loss by encouraging students to maintain competence in their first language, while also learning English.

Supporting ESOL Students

Students from language backgrounds other than English can make use of the knowledge that they already have of their first language. For these students, the process of learning another language is one in which they are constantly asking the question, "In what ways is this new language the same as, or different from, the one that I already know?"

Teachers can assist this process in several ways.

  • They can allow opportunities for students to continue to use their first language in classroom programmes.

    Some care might be needed here to avoid causing embarrassment to the new learner. However, in settings where the degree of acceptance is such that learners are willing to use their first language, this approach becomes a powerful means of relating aspects of the new language to those in their first language.

  • Teachers can invite students to share information about their language with the teachers and their peers.

    The ESOL student brings to the classroom a valuable resource that can be harnessed to illustrate the different ways in which languages work, for instance, in names and greetings. Students who learn to respect the different language skills of other learners are building their knowledge of differences between languages and developing an understanding that there is no one correct way in which all languages work.

  • Teachers can use a range of student groupings in the classroom for different purposes.

    Using different groupings in the classroom allows teachers to use first language skills on some occasions to stimulate groups with representatives from different language backgrounds and at other times to place ESOL learners in a linguistic setting where they are surrounded by more competent users of English. Having ESOL students in the classroom is a real cause for the class to celebrate language differences and also to affirm the new students.

Language Mixing

When English speakers are required to speak in a setting that has particular requirements, they adopt a register and a formal/informal style appropriate to that purpose or setting. ESOL students can also adapt their language to different situations, but instead of changing styles within English, they often change languages. A student might use one language in the home setting and a different language at school. If a parent visits the school, the student may use the home language; if a teacher visits the home, the student will probably use the school language.

This mixing can mean that many bilingual speakers have "split language competence". In other words, they might be able to deal with wide and varied personal relationships in their first language but not in their second; or they might have strong language skills relating to certain occupations, skills, or academic knowledge in the second language that they do not have in their first language.

Bilingual people naturally and easily switch from one language to another. This can happen within a conversation or even within the same sentence. Sometimes they do not realise they are doing this. This behaviour is known as code-switching.

Our kohanga is striving hard and succeeding in te tautoko i te kaupapa.
Kei hea nga ski bunnies?

Code-switching is also a feature of the language of bilingual speakers who are gaining strength in their language use as they bridge from one language to another.

In the past, people who used words or phrases from certain European languages such as Latin, French, or German were thought to be very well educated. This is sometimes called "elitist code-switching". Those who code-switched between less prestigious languages were thought to be lazy or careless, mixing languages in a thoughtless or stupid way.

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 24 Feb 2009