Recently Statistics New Zealand have completed the release of their Census 2013 data relating to NZSL usage. As a number of articles have pointed out, NZSL usage has dramatically reduced. This has caused considerable controversy within the Deaf/NZSL community. However these are facts and it is important for people, particularly parents of newly diagnosed children, to be informed about what is happening to NZSL user numbers.

This article sets out the numbers and provides some analysis and commentary. At the end of the article are the base numbers. People are welcome to look at these and do their own analysis.

Change in National Numbers

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The use of NZSL has been declining. In 2001 around 27,000 people could hold a conversation in NZSL. By 2013 this had dropped to around 20,000. This represents a 24% drop in 12 years. This same pattern is being observed internationally – although many countries haven’t got good census data on sign language use.

Change by age

By Age

When we look at the change between the censuses we can see some really interesting movements and patterns.

The first observation is that the profile is a “two humped camel”. There is a hump at the young (college and university aged) end and a hump at the older end. This is a general pattern observable in almost all data sets to do with NZSL and in most hearing loss data sets. Hearing loss rears its head in old age and creates a new ‘hump’ in the data.

The second observation is around the hump at the young end of the data. This has dropped significantly. The drop in the under 15yo group is 43% – almost double the overall 24% drop. Also, notice the point of this ‘hump’ has moved to the right (its getting older) as the censuses occur. This indicates that the ‘intake’ of new young NZSL users is significantly less than the flow into the older age groups. That said, the 0-4yo group has been remarkable stable at 500 children.

The third observation is that the older ‘hump’ has hit the decline slope. This slope, from 50yo onward, is where mortality has a significant impact. Again it appears that the ‘intake’ of new NZSL users due to age related hearing loss is declining. Modern effective amplification devices are likely to be lessening the need for older people who lose their hearing to learn NZSL.

A look by region

The decline in NZSL numbers has particularly hit the regions.

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There are now only significant numbers (greater than 1500) NZSL users in:

Auckland – 5439

Wellington – 3519

Christchurch – 2784

Waikato – 1773

Manawatu-Wanganui – 1557

Interestingly every single region has been hit by a decline except the Wellington Region. Wellington is now strongly the second largest number of NZSL users having increased by 28%. Christchurch, which was second, has declined by 29%. The Wellington growth is startling when considering that overall the numbers have declined by 24%.

Wellington’s growth has been across every age band. When we look at the data closely there was decline between 2001 and 2006. However there was a substantial jump up between 2006 and 2013. During that time (April 2006) NZSL became an official language.

Wellington also has a significantly different age profile to all other regions. It is highly likely this is due to the presence of the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Victoria University – the out of pattern numbers are university aged users. Where as in the past the Deaf Education Centres at Christchurch and Auckland were the focal points for NZSL users, the Deaf Studies unit now appears to be assuming that role.


Very few people now choose an NZSL only option. While there are a few people for whom Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants are not suitable, for most people with hearing loss appropriate amplification can be provided. This was not the case in the past.


This graph shows the age profile of people who use NZSL only. It shows the total national number as well as the five biggest regions. Every other region has less than 100 NZSL only users in total.

The graph shows the significant drop off of this option. However roughly 15 children a year are entering this world of NZSL only. Anecdotally this would seem to be more than the handful of children born each year who, due to medical reasons, can not benefit from appropriate amplification. It would therefore seem like a number of families are choosing to an NZSL only route despite their children having the ability to develop oral languages as well. The majority of these people are in Auckland.

Interestingly there is a sizeable group of older NZSL only users in Christchurch. This is probably due to a historic linkage with van Ash Deaf Education Centre.

School Kids

In the under 15yo age group there has been a 43% decline in NZSL usage. Where there was once over 5000 children using NZSL, there is now less than 3000. The only region to buck this trend is of course Wellington where there has been a 21% increase.

When we look at the changes by Deaf Education Centre zones, the Kelston zone (Northern) has declined by 48%. The van Asch zone (Southern) has declined by 38%. The difference is solely due to Wellington bucking the trend.

The decline in the under 15yo age group is the strongest decline at 43%. This is almost double the overall national decline of 24%. Interestingly the 65yo and over only declined by 5%.


There are some obvious questions that this data raises. These include:

Is this decline going to continue?

What’s causing the decline?

Can the decline be stabilised or reversed?

What has caused Wellington to buck the trends so consistently? Is it the presence of the Deaf Studies Research Unit? Is it the government sector (remembering that NZSL became an official language in April 2006)?

If it is the public sector and NZSL becoming an official language, is this concentration of users, with its corresponding decline in other regions healthy for NZSL users as a whole?

The answers to these questions will only really be seen in the next census in 2018. With the recent government announcement to pump over $6m into promoting the use of NZSL we will see if the decline can be halted or whether there is a tide that is going out on NZSL that can not be significantly impacted.

Interestingly in the UK, the use of British Sign Language (BSL) is declining significantly too. Ironically one of the factors that appears to be causing this is the uptake of young people learning American Sign Language instead of BSL. With the internationalisation of social groups and the increased use of video technologies (aided by unbundled fibre broadband), will this same pattern be seen in New Zealand?

So… roll on 2018.


Base data

The following spreadsheets contain the base data for the graphs above. This has been extracted from the 2001, 2006 and 2013 Census data sets available at http://www.stats.govt.nz

NZSL By Age Group

NZSL By Region

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