27 Oct 2015

Tokelauans celebrate their at-risk language

From , 6:02 am on 27 October 2015
Members of the Wellington Tokelau community dance at the start of Tokelauan language week.

Members of the Wellington Tokelau community dance at the start of Tokelauan language week. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Tokelauans around New Zealand are pinning their hopes that events this week will help revive their endangered language.

The 2013 census showed that 18 percent of New Zealand-born Tokelauans speak the language, with only Niuean and Cook Island Maori spoken by less people within Pasifika communities.

The language week or Vaiaho o te Gagana o Tokelau was launched with a flag-raising ceremony in Wellington on Monday.

A community leader says the week may be key to the language's survival.

The Reverend Tui Sopoaga says the initiative has united the Tokelauan community.

Mr Sopoaga says there is a real effort to spread the language among the youth now.

"Our language is one of these three languages that are sort of dying out. This is the fourth year that we have had this language week. To tell you the truth it is very helpful, especially to the children, they are able to speak Tokelauan now. It is nice. It is beautiful."

Wellington Tokelauan community leader, the Reverend Tui Sopoaga.

Wellington Tokelauan community leader, the Reverend Tui Sopoaga. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The MP for Mana, Kris Faafoi, has Tokelauan parents but is not a fluent speaker of Tokelauan.

Despite this, Mr Faafoi says the importance of the language cannot be overstated.  

"I'm almost the best example of the bad example.  It's important for my generation and future generations of Tokelauans that they keep the culture alive through the language. It's not easy because everyone's lives are changing. A lot of these people are living busy lives and might not have the opportunity to sit down with their kids and teach them their language as it was back in the islands. We have to find new ones to do that because we have to keep these young ones going."

Mana MP Kris Faafoi.

Mana MP Kris Faafoi. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Wellington teacher, Tufaina Faraimo, says she has noticed a spike in cultural participation from young Tokelauans during past celebrations.

"We have dance groups.  So we've got three at the moment.  In those dance groups, we experience a phenomenal growth in our groups.  All our young people crawl out of the woodwork.  All our part-Samoan, part-Maori, part-Cook Islands, part-everything, they all come out because they want to know a little bit more and we can capture their interest."

However Ms Faraimo says more still needs to be done.

"The thinking is to develop something to capitalise on these events, where our young people come and see if we can sustain their interest throughout the year and not just in bursts."      

Ms Faraimo says her generation also needs to act as a bridge between the old and the young.

"It's good to change and adapt but I think my generation, we need to think about which parts of our culture we actually need to hold on and be uncompromising on and then which parts of the culture that we can actually say to our old people, actually the young people look at things differently.  Can we just dilute that a bit so that it's digestible for them?" 

The week concludes with a talent quest and dances in Auckland and Dunedin and festivals in the Manawatu and Wellington regions, including the annual Koa o Tokelau festival in Porirua on Saturday.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta