A Tongan without the tongue - a cautionary tale

2:03 pm on 5 September 2019

First Person - I love who I am. It may have taken me decades to get there, but I do.

I love the experiences I have had, I love my family, I love being tied to this land through my Te Rarawa whanaunga.

I also love being Tongan.

Attending a church service in Tonga with my father and daughter

Attending a church service in Tonga with my father and daughter Photo: supplied

Yet being Tongan has been quite a journey for me. In many ways, a silent journey.

You see, I can't speak Tongan beyond greetings, a few songs, a limited number of phrases and words and yes, a handful of profanities.

There are a number of reasons for this.

There was a certain beauty about being brought up in a Lower Hutt household by a Māori speaking mother and a Tongan speaking father.

However, ironically, this also meant the common language of communication between them, and us children, was English.

My father was also hesitant to teach my brother and me Tongan because of the types of experiences that a migrant to New Zealand in the 1970s had.

There was concern over the impact bringing Tongan into the house could have on our English.

We now know that learning a second language doesn't inhibit the other, but you have to remember my father's thinking would have been a product of the scrutiny and treatment meted out to people like him during that era.

I have no doubt the words 'coconut' or 'fresh off the boat' would have been tossed his way a number of times and I witnessed firsthand the mockery his accent and broken English attracted.

Rightly or wrongly, my father was trying to protect us from a world that treasured English above all else, that used English as a marker for intelligence.

So here I am - a grown man with the Tongan language competence of (possibly less than) a toddler.

My ability to negotiate the Tongan world is severely hampered by this handicap.

I have been to Tonga, for both work and pleasure, over half a dozen times and have loved each visit.

Yet there is a ceiling to my interactions there.

I can comprehend more Tongan than I can speak but if the tempo of the, (often one-sided), conversation picks up speed I am lost.

There is a limit to the level of engagement with my numerous uncles, aunties and cousins both in Tonga and in New Zealand, people I adore and who adore me.

It pains me, but thankfully that pain is softened by hearty hugs, laughs and kisses that they offer up.

I don't share this for pity's sake or to garner sympathy, I share this as a cautionary tale.

I am a Tongan without a tongue.

I acknowledge I am not the only one and I acknowledge it's a struggle many deal with through their lives, including some Māori here in New Zealand.

But this is changing as people begin to appreciate the importance of languages other than English.

Preparing to go to a me'afaka'eiki with family

Preparing to go to a me'afaka'eiki with family Photo: supplied

New Zealand is a nation wrestling with mental health concerns and with atrocious levels of suicide.

Industry experts have cited connection, a sense of culture, identity and purpose as keys in safeguarding against or minimising some of these issues.

Intrinsically linked to connection, culture, identity and purpose is language.

So as New Zealand continues to mark Tongan Language Week , I hope that families and communities celebrate the importance and beauty of their tongue.

I implore parents not to give up on sharing that beauty with their children, and encourage children to recognise the wider world their language will help them access.

Tu'a 'ofa atu.

Enjoying a beach in Tonga

Enjoying a beach in Tonga Photo: supplied

*Koro Vaka'uta is RNZ Pacific's News Editor