6 Aug 2013

Cook Islanders in NZ want more done to preserve language

5:15 pm on 6 August 2013

The Cook Islands community in New Zealand says while good work is being done in early education, much more is needed to preserve the Cook Islands language for future generations.

It is Cook Islands Language Week in New Zealand this week, which encourages the community to embrace, promote and protect their language.

Leilani Momoisea reports:

Te Punanga O Te Reo Kuki Airani is a Wellington early childhood education centre that seeks to preserve and support the Cook Islands language.

The supervisor of the centre, Bridget Kauraka, says teachers and children speak to each other in Reo Cook Island Maori all day at the centre, which gives them a good foundation. But Mrs Kauraka says it's difficult for the students to hold on to the language, as they move onto primary, intermediate and high school.

"BRIDGET KAURAKA: Some they do, but we would like to extend it to the next level of their education. That's the saddest part about it. We teachers, the Cook Island teachers, we have to try and come together to put something in place so that the children will carry on the Reo Maori. Right now we haven't got that in place."

However, Bridget Kauraka says she's very happy to be able to celebrate Cook Islands language week, after many years without such an initiative.

BRIDGET KAURAKA: I felt alone all these years because we are actually the first Pacific Island centre to be established in New Zealand. That's why it's a big thing for us, the Punanga. Finally the Cook Islands Reo Maori is actually being recognised here in New Zealand.

The Minister of Education and Pacific Island Affairs, Hekia Parata, says her focus has very much been in early childhood education. But she says the government can also support schools to teach other languages for learning, including Pasifika languages. She says the responsibility rests with the community first.

HEKIA PARATA: The first responsibility is that these communities, including Maori communities and others, are themselves interested in and engaged with our own languages and are speaking them in the homes and in informal community situations. Schools can support that work, but should not be the main carriers of it.

But the Labour Party's Pacific Island Affairs Spokesperson, Su'a William Sio, says that's not good enough. He says there's not enough action from the government to ensure that the language is maintained in the long-term.

SU'A WILLIAM SIO: The elders I've spoken with have said to me look they are putting a lot of effort into their churches and their cultural groups and in early childhood education centres. But all of that gain has been lost because there doesn't seem to be a clear path from this government about how to maintain the Cook Island language, or all the Pacific Island languages, through primary level, intermediate and to college.

Hekia Parata says the government can always do more and is keen to do so. But she says it's not possible for the government to produce teachers in all the languages that communities might like.

HEKIA PARATA: But we do provide in the curriculum for schools to offer languages and a number of schools do with strong community support. But they cannot do it without strong community support.

The government has also made scholarships available to attract Maori and Pasifika into teaching. The chief executive of Te Tuareka o Manurewa, an early childhood centre, Maurice Tuareka, says the community has been slow to respond to such initiatives. For example, he says only three Cook Islanders have enrolled for the first intake of the Pasifika Early Childhood Education paper in Manukau. He says another problem is the high school students they are trying to recruit, don't speak the Cook Islands Reo.

MAURICE TUAREKA: There's another dilemma for us, so it could be we might have to look off-shore, to look into the Cook Islands or the outer islands to draw interested parties to come here to train. Those will be the critical issues for us in tackling the shortage of Cook Island teachers in New Zealand.

He says the home is a good place to start, but there needs to be more community hubs where people can go and practice their reo, in order for it to thrive.