More te reo is being spoken in Australia as growing numbers of Maori use their native language, but the shift comes with warnings about sustainability.

Just over 128,000 Maori live in Australia and only a small fraction speak te reo.

However, in a report studying population, migration, citizenship and rights as well as language use, Victoria University's Paul Hamer found the number of Maori speakers of te reo grew from 5213 in 2006 to 8001 in 2011 as measured by the census.

Mr Hamer said the 53.5 per cent spike was remarkable, not the least because the increase was higher than the 38.2 per cent increase in the Maori population in Australia between 2006 and last year.


Australian-born Maori using the language increased from 620 of 31,000 people in 2006 to 1018 of 43,000 people last year - from 2 per cent of that population to 2.4 per cent.

Mr Hamer said 649 of the 1018 were aged between 0-9, suggesting parents were speaking te reo to their children. However, he warned gains would be affected by intermarriage, residential and occupational dispersal and a lack of official support.

"Given the influence of the many factors that promote language shift away from te reo Maori, this increase is unfortunately unlikely to be sustainable," Mr Hamer said.

Glenis Philip-Barbara, chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori, the Maori Language Commission, said she took a more optimistic view.

"I think it's a good thing when more Maori speak Maori. I think that that's positive. When you're living in a community that's not your own of course you're going to want to strengthen that connect to home."

Asked if she was concerned about the impact of Maori migration on the language domestically, she said while it could depopulate language communities, one of the "silver linings" might be that people who become passionate about the language overseas might return "with an increased desire to roll their sleeves up and participate in this collective project of ours to regenerate the language - hei reo korero [to speak Maori]."

Lessons a long way from Otara

Sheryl Wiki says complacency stopped her from learning Maori when she lived in New Zealand.

Ten years ago the former Work and Income New Zealand worker, now 40, moved to Sydney from Otara. Soon after she discovered that a school - Te Reo Maioha - was offering Te Ataarangi courses for beginners.

While she'd taken classes 18 years ago, she hadn't kept them up. Ms Wiki said she was happily surprised to find an offering in Australia.

"It boosted my urge to do it. How often were you going to go overseas and find anything Maori?"

She is still involved at the school, supporting teachers and has a fluent father who also lives in Australia.

"It's about holding on to our identity, holding on to who we are. We were created as a unique people in the world and our reo is part of that. We [Australian Maori) probably put more effort into it because it's harder for us to get it."