5 Oct 2023

Tuvaluans overseas preserve their language to maintain their way of life

11:14 am on 5 October 2023
Tuvalu Language Week

Tuvalu youngsters participate in traditional song and dance Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton

"Our language is very important because it's our identity, that's part of our culture," says Tuvaluan community member Anita Molotoi.

Tuvaluan communities across Aotearoa have been getting together this week to celebrate Tuvalu Language Week.

This year's theme is 'fakatumau kae fakaakoi tau 'gana ke mautu a iloga o 'ta tuā,' which translates to 'preserve and embrace your language to safeguard our heritage identities'.

Tuvalu is the fourth smallest nation in the world with just over 11,000 inhabitants.

Over 4,600 Tuvaluan people live in New Zealand, most in West Auckland, but less than half can speak the language.

Molotoi said their language, their 'Te Gana', is their identity.

"You identify people by the language before you actually speak to them, and also by their looks; and so, language is part and parcel of our life; it's our culture. It's who we are."

Molotoi also said preserving the Tuvalu language is vital for Tuvaluans to maintain their way of life, especially while living overseas.

Tuvalu Language Week

Tuvalu youngsters participate in traditional song and dance Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton

On Tuesday, the taumatua (community elders) and talanoa ako (youth group), came together in Henderson to celebrate Tuvalu Language Week and promote the preservation of their heritage.

Youth leader Molia Alama-Tulafono is a fluent speaker and feels a great responsibility to teach Tuvalu youth their language and cultural heritage.

"We have a young population here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

"That's why I think it's very important to be able to pass on the language through the activities that we do; the stories and the culture and the dancing that we have here in our community in West Auckland."

Alama-Tulafono is especially passionate about teaching Tuvalu fatele, which is the traditional dance and song of Tuvalu.

"Fatele to me is not just about the dance and entertainment. It's more so the exchange of knowledge and stories from our elders to the younger generations."

She grew up dancing herself and said it is an amazing way of learning the language. Alama-Tulafono is part of a team called Maneanea Dance whose aim is to pass on language, culture, and storytelling to their students through the fatele dance, inspiring future generations of Tuvaluans to hold on to their culture.

Tuvalu Language Week

Celebrating Tuvalu Language Week Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton

An intergenerational exchange was on display at Tuesday's gathering as the young and old sat together and performed Fatele side by side.

Solofa Uota is a well-respected elder in the taumatua community and believes that young ones need to know their language to connect to their cultural heritage.

"They are supposed to inherit the language because that's their identity. The richness of the language is important; it's in the best interest of Tuvaluans to be able to impart the language to the young ones so they do understand; and not only understand it but also speak it, carrying it on for future generations of Tuvaluans."

The taumatua meets twice weekly and encourages young people to come along and spend time with their elders, in order to learn as much as possible and stay connected to their heritage.

Molotoi said, "The elders are there; they're trying to teach. The youth are welcome to come any time to ask about certain knowledge or traditional things that these elders hold."

She would like to see the new generations take a firm hold of their language, and "learn their identity, principles, and values of being a Tuvaluan".

Tuvalu Language Week.

Tuvalu elders encourage youth to learn Te Gana Tuvalu Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton

A place to meet and share our culture

The Corban Estate Pacifica Arts Centre is the hub for community gatherings.

Over 30 ethnic groups converge here, and the Tuvalu family is the biggest of them all.

Centre Director Jarcinda Stowers-Ama has grown close to the community over the years and is passionate about ensuring they are able to hold on to their heritage.

"It's said by scientists that Tuvalu will be the first digital nation in the world, meaning they will no longer have a land or a place to call home, so for us here at the centre we feel a responsibility to make sure that their stories, their knowledge, are passed on for generations to come.

"It's critical for these people to maintain their way of life, their identity through their language."

The centre is working closely with Alama-Tulafono to produce a book on Tuvalu Fatele, preserving the oral language, stories, histories, and indigenous knowledge encapsulated in this traditional art form.

The written work, which will be a first of its kind, is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The book encapsulates the theme of Tuvalu Language Week, preserving and embracing the language, and safeguarding Tuvalu heritage and identity.

Tuvalu Language Week

Tuvaluan youngsters attend celebrations Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton