25 Oct 2016

'Don't wait till language week' - Tokelau leader

12:30 pm on 25 October 2016

The home and church are being promoted as places to help the endangered Tokelauan language survive.

Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau or New Zealand's Tokelau language week is being marked with cultural activities, services and exhibitions across the country.

Gagana Tokelau opened with a church service over the weekend and a flag raising ceremony in Wellington on Monday.

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The local community gathered at Porirua's Pahina o Tokelau to celebrate the language. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The Reverend Tui Sopoaga said the week is special, allowing the community to acknowledge their cultural heritage.

"It is something that makes us very proud, to gather here as people of Tokelau, looking at the flag being raised and we think of our island as well and we thank God for this week," he said.

The first Pacific language week was launched with the support of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples in 2007, with the Tokelauan week established in 2012.

MPP CEO Pauline Winter

MPP CEO Pauline Winter addresses the crowd at the flag ceremony in Porirua. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The Ministry's CEO, Pauline Winter, said the initiative is seen as pivotal for the survival of Pacific language and culture in New Zealand.

"Research tells us that it takes three generations to lose a language and that is something that the Ministry does not want to see, neither does the community," Ms Winter said.

"So the introduction of the language weeks, some years ago, is helping to keep languages alive, culture alive and getting particularly New Zealand born generations engaged in their language and culture."

Ms Winter said the community unites around the language weeks and the initiative has helped them organise themselves at a grassroots level.

Tokelauan comunity leader, Rev Tui Sopoaga

Tokelauan comunity leader, Rev Tui Sopoaga Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Mr Sopoaga said although there are more than 7,000 Tokelauans in New Zealand, nearly seven times more than in Tokelau, less than a third can speak the language.

He said part of the problem is parents are hesitant to speak Tokelauan in the home because of fears their children's English may suffer.

"We requested to them to speak in our language, Tokelau language at home," Mr Sopoaga said.

"The children will learn the English language no problem, at school and on the road and everywhere but it is good to maintain the Tokelau language at home. That's where the first lessons should be."

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Tokelau's flag is raised in Wellington to mark Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

A Ministry Advisor and Tokelauan, Vaioleti Lui, agreed the home is where the language must be nurtured.

"Our homes, Tokelau households, communities and churches are the cultural havens where gagana is learnt and taught," Ms Lui said.

"We cannot learn Tokelau in any school."

"It is only available at early childhood level, so therein lies the challenge for Tokelau, that are homes, churches and communities are an integral part of where gagana will be maintained and shared for today's generation and beyond."

Ms Lui said over the past four years the community had bought into the language week.

"Our communities are now taking ownership, in terms of an awareness that our gagana is at risk. Tokelau is one of the most severely endangered languages in the world."

Mr Sopoaga said he has seen progress over the years but more needed to be done to save the endangered language.

"So hopefully I encourage all the communities to try and use the language, speak Tokelau. I mentioned during the service, it looks as if everyone waits until the language week and then they try to speak Tokelau but during the year they don't speak Tokelau," he said.

"Don't wait until the language week then you try to teach the children how to speak to Tokelau."

Ms Lui said the next challenge is to find innovative ways to use technology to promote the language so that younger generations can take ownership and feel engaged.

She saw an 'inter-generational model' as the best way forward for Gagana Tokelau, with grandparents and parents' involvement a necessity.