Māori Language Week kicks off today with heartening findings about the state of te reo among young New Zealanders.

About 40 per cent of more than 1500 Māori children - among 7000 youngsters whose lives are being followed by the Growing Up in New Zealand study - were described by their mothers as understanding at least some of the language by the age of 2.

They were among 12 per cent of children of all ethnicities in the study said to have at least some comprehension of Māori as toddlers.

Māori expert adviser to the study Te Kani Kingi says the challenge now is to turn them into active speakers of te reo later in life.

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"Quite often we hear about the perilous state of the Māori language," Dr Kingi said.

"It guess it's certainly not in a healthy position, but an encouraging result of this study is that it has demonstrated to me that even though parents may be unable to speak Maori themselves, there's considerable enthusiasm to make sure their children have the opportunity."

Only 8 per cent of Māori mothers, and 6 per cent of fathers, said they had been expected to speak the language at home as children.

But the study found that by the time their own children were 9 months old, 15 per cent of Māori mothers and 7 per cent of fathers were speaking some of the language to the younger generation.

"One of the encouraging things was that the birth of a child was the catalyst for many parents to start learning Māori or speaking Māori at home," Dr Kingi said.

"Probably we live in more enlightened times now, and people can appreciate that sustaining the language is worthwhile for a whole range of reasons - maintaining the culture is one of them."

Dr Kingi, who is director of Massey University's Māori health research centre in Wellington, said he was also encouraged by non-Māori parents wanting their children to take part in the revival of the language.

Tauranga parent Tessa Cameron, a European New Zealander whose husband, Tamati, is of Northland's Te Rarawa iwi, has welcomed the findings as a move towards honouring the nation's bicultural foundations.

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She said Mr Cameron did not hear Māori spoken at home when he was a child. But they have enrolled in a te reo course to keep up with their three older children, who bring new words home from school to share with Victor, 4.

Six-year-old Israel has been part of the Auckland University-led Growing Up in New Zealand study all his life.

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