New Zealand doesn’t have enough parents from Pacific communities – Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau in particular – speaking indigenous languages to be able to speak to their children. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on a threat to vulnerable languages.
Report – By Eva Corlett
Pasifika and Māori cultural well-being is under threat through the decline of native language speakers – with some Pacific languages tipped to disappear this generation if the New Zealand government does not act now, say many linguists.
A recent Victoria University report indicates growing inequality in areas such as smoking, obesity, employment, tertiary degrees, beneficiary agreements and income of Pacific and Māori people within New Zealand.
“Loss of language always occurs first among the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in society,” says University of Auckland Professor Stephen May – an international and national authority on bilingualism and language rights – as Tongan Language Week opens tomorrow.
With declining populations in their native homelands, the Cook Islands Māori, Niuean, and Tokelauan languages are close to vanishing.
As Pasifika population growth continues within New Zealand, the reliance on migration of more native speakers to bring over and sustain their languages is diminishing.
This migration process enables language to be kept alive and dynamic.
Due to larger population levels, Samoan and Tongan languages are not at immediate risk, but even those figures are down, says John McCaffery, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Auckland.
He says 64 percent of Samoan people born in New Zealand cannot speak Samoan – “which is frightening really”.
Professor May stresses the importance of understanding one’s own language in order to succeed in another more dominant language, such as English.
“What all the research shows us is that bilingualism, in any combination of languages, has significant cognitive and educational advantages.
“The best way for a first language speaker of another language to succeed in acquiring English, for example, is to become literate in their strongest language; in their home language first.”
But nothing in New Zealand education, outside of Māori medium education, allows for that, he says.
“Aotearoa lacks top-down policy for languages, other than for Te Reo Māori and English.
Little policy scope
“So there’s very little policy scope, very little national support for Pasifika languages in schools or any other sectors.”
McCaffery says communities are facing a government which promotes the ideology that Pacific people are responsible for rejuvenation and restoration of their own language.
But there are not enough parents from the Pacific communities – Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau in particular – speaking the language to be able to speak to their children, he says.
“They themselves have lost the language or had it taken away from them.”
Bilingual Samoan New Zealander, Petaia Unoi, says there needs to be a shared responsibility.
“It’s on the individual to encourage speaking and sending their kids to language classes, it’s on the community to provide those environments at schools, but it’s on the government to support those classes.
“Otherwise our language will die.”
Unoi was bought up by his grandparents in Samoa, before returning to New Zealand at the age of 13.
He says he felt privileged to know both Samoan and English, unlike his siblings who remained behind in NZ and had to learn their native language through him.
Unoi says it is incredibly important that his children learn Samoan too.
“I don’t want my kid to be visiting their cousins in Samoa and not know how to communicate, or feel uncomfortable talking to them and connecting with them.
“I want them to feel a part of their community.
“And it’s a part of who I am,” says Unoi.
Native language is tightly interwoven with cultural identity and community.
You can’t have a culture without a language, says McCaffery.
“The cultures, history and heritage of that part of the Pacific are seriously at risk of disappearing in this generation.”
Pacific Education Centre spokesperson Caroline Harris says their student surveys indicate that students wish to learn language because it connects them to their identity.
“For many of our 30-40s learners engaging in our language classes they are strategic in their choice as consumers, they are thinking futuristic – they are now in leadership roles in their families.
“Learning cultural knowledge is an investment for the future.”
Pasifika language or any other language is the vehicle for cultural identity, family connection and provides a positive sense of belonging, she says.
McCaffery has been active in trying to engage the government in discussion about preservation of Pasifika languages.
On behalf of their children, McCaffery, and other families, brought a human rights case to the Human Rights Commission against the Ministry of Education for failure to provide adequate Pacific language services to early childhood centres and schools.
Progress halted in 2012 when the ministry refused to attend hearings or take part in discussion.
Alongside a group of law academics, he made a submission to the United Nations highlighting the constitutional rights Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau have as their indigenous languages are under the legal realm of New Zealand.
The government has shown no sign of responding to research or data, says McCaffery.
“It’s a shame because it’s the same struggle Māori had to go through – they had to drag the New Zealand government through the court for 40 years before the government conceded it had a responsibility and obligation to Māori.”
But the fight to preserve and strengthen Te Reo Māori in its own country – after a history that’s seen it banned by official government policies – is an ongoing one that is eternal, says the Human Rights Commission’s Christine Ammunson.
“Only last week a young woman in Whangarei was told off by her boss for saying Kia Ora. Last month a newspaper in Tauranga began running a series of anti-Māori language editorials: so there is still a lot of work to do.”
Professor May says one of the key problems with language policy is that it “isn’t politically sexy or compelling, particularly in English language dominant contexts like Aotearoa”.
He says this is partly because English language speakers are monolingual and typically aren’t as interested in other languages.
“It’s a similar pattern right across the world in English-language dominant contexts.
“No language is linguistically superior to another, it’s just that English, through a combination of historical accidents has ended up the major international language today.
“But that means English speakers are spectacularly unconcerned generally about learning other languages”, he says.
Harris says a contemporary world is inclusion of Pasifika curriculum in history, language, numeracy and literacy in the NZ curriculum, from ECE to adult tertiary sector.
Based on detailed analysis of the 2006 census, McCaffery estimated that if you put one bilingual school in Mangere and one in East Tamaki, 60-70 percent of all the Cook Island people who wanted their children to be schooled in their own language and English, would be catered for.
The government did not respond to his suggestion.
“We spend millions of dollars on a spotted lizard or a little black robin that may disappear, but we seem unconcerned that the languages and cultures of three… territories are also about to disappear.”
“The Human Rights Commission and United Nations will hopefully force the government to act, but the real question is, will it be too late?,” he says.
Eva Corlett is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist from AUT University. She is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.
Tongan Language Week runs this week from September 1 – 7.