By Epeli Vakatawa and Solomone Meciusela in Suva
Seventy-six year old Jona Yabaki is somewhat unique when it comes to indigenous Fijians living in Suva. He does not speak the standard Fijian language (known as Bauan) that is widely used for communication in Fiji’s capital and in most parts of the county.
Yabaki, from Jiliva village in Kadavu, only speaks his village dialect. He is the only one in the family of eight fluent in the dialect. The rest speak standard Fijian or mixed form of their own dialect.
“If we want to preserve our dialect, we should speak it. We should ensure that it is also used by the community, especially children,” says Yabaki.
These are significant words, given that many different indigenous Fijian dialects are in danger of being lost forever.
Dr Paul Greaghty, associate professor in linguistics at the University of the South Pacific, says there are around 300 Fijian “communalects” in Fiji, but the figure is decreasing.
“Every part of the islands is losing its language to some extent; there is nowhere in the country where the language is being maintained,” says Dr Geraghty, an authority on indigenous Fijian languages.
Language loss occurs when a language that previously existed no longer exists because nobody speaks it any more. Many varieties of Fijian have been replaced by standard Fijian.
According to Geraghty, most villages in areas such as Nacekoro eastwards towards Naweni in Cakaudrove have lost their dialects.The list includes Qoma, Verata and many parts of Lomaiviti, including Koro to some extent. In the urban areas, the cosmopolitan make-up has contributed to language loss.
Dr Geraghty says the dominant standard Fijian spoken in the country is not the Bauan dialect it is often assumed to be.
“The Bauan dialect is the communalect spoken by the people of Bau, and increasingly, Bauans are changing their dialect to sound more like standard Fijian. In fact, the Bauan dialect is probably one of those that is endangered,” he says.
Standard Fijian became known as Vosa vakaViti Raraba in the 1970s when the first monolingual Fijian Dictionary began, according to Dr Geraghty.
“Every dialect is becoming more like standard Fijian with every generation,” he says.
A senior researcher at the Institute of Fijian Language and Culture (IFLC), Sekove Bigitibau, concurs with Dr Geraghty.
“One major reason for the loss of dialects is that people speak standard Fijian instead of their own dialects,” he says.
Bigitibau says the standard Fijian widely used today is not only spoken by indigenous Fijians who live in the urban areas but increasingly by the non-indigenous population.
Apart from standard Fijian, English is inundating Fijian dialects.
Bigitibau says it seems parents do not care about the loss of their dialects and do not bother to speak them at home, or teach them to their children.
According to Dr Geraghty, language loss also results when parents do not teach their children.
“A lot of parents think if they speak English to their child, they will become educationally successful. But there is absolutely no proof of that.”
In fact, Dr Geraghty says Fijian children in Suva who are most successful in education are the ones who actually know their own dialect.
“Children who are taught at home by their parents because they are multilingual have a broader view,” he says.
Language preservation is one of the key priorities of UNESCO. This year it launched an electronic version of the new edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
The atlas lists about 2500 endangered languages around the world. It says that although around 6000 languages still exist, many are under threat.
Fiji, according to UNESCO, is better off than some places in the world, including parts of the Pacific, where the situation is extreme and languages almost extinct.
But Fiji’s situation is still a matter of concern, especially if preservation efforts are minimal or non-existent.
According to UNESCO, language diversity is essential to human heritage.
“Each and every language embodies the unique cultural wisdom of a people. The loss of any language is thus a loss for all humanity,” says UNESCO’s new edition atlas.
Bigitibau says language is “God given” and an integral part of a people’s identity. “This makes it an important aspect of any culture.”
The Fiji government through the IFLC is conducting research and compiling records.
Bigitibau says the Fijian monolingual dictionary that was launched in 2007 is a positive breakthrough.
Dr Geraghty, one of the researchers of the Fijian dictionary, says preservation is the first step.
“We can preserve dead things, even dead languages. What is needed next is to revitalise the use of our dialects.”
Dr Geraghty adds that there is a need to make the Fijian language a medium of teaching in early education.
Dr Jacqueline Fa‘anunu, a lecturer in linguistics at USP, says that in Tonga, the use of the Tongan language in schools has proven successful in boosting literacy levels.
“In Tongan schools, students in their first six years learn literacy skill in their own language,” she says.
“This is the correct way to go because they are learning to read and write in a language they already know.”
Dr Fa’anunu adds that for Fiji, it would be a challenge to have the same concept considering the diverse ethnicity.
Yabaki of Kadavu, referred to earlier in the story, did not forget his dialect even though he has lived in a settlement in Suva alongside Fijians from different parts of the country for more than 30 years.
“We should take care of something that belongs to us,” he says, referring to the precious gift of one’s native tongue.
Epeli Vakatawa and Solomone Meciusela are student journalists at the University of the South Pacific.