Singing to Save a Language

From Spiritual Outlook, 5:06 pm on 24 May 2015
Avatele village church and square.

Avatele village church and square. Photo: RNZ / Justin Gregory

“Our language is under threat. The younger generation now speak English at school and even at home. The Niuean language is fading away.”

In the village of Avatele the local church is taking practical measures to ensure its youngest members use and understand their native tongue. The entire service and almost all of the hymns are in Vagahau Niue, or the Niuean language. The village pastor is the Reverend Petesa Sionetuato and he says this practice is essential to sustain the language.

Avatele village church.

Avatele village church. Photo: RNZ / Justin Gregory

The Reverend says that while the home should be the first classroom for the learning of language, culture and heritage, it is essential to back that up with the everyday experience of speaking Vagahau Niue.

“We go out of our way to speak the language to them. Most of the sermons and the hymns, it’s all in Niuean, and also the reading of the Bible.”

The current population of Niue is only around 1600 but more than 15 times that number of people who identify as Niuean live in New Zealand. This is why one advocate says the future and the preservation of Vagahau Niue lies here - and not back home.

“Just two weeks ago I was there for the Niue Arts Festival and I was speaking Niuean to (the younger people) and one child said to me ‘What are you saying? Can you speak English?’”

Ione Aleke Fa’avae.

Ione Aleke Fa’avae. Photo: Supplied by Ione Aleke Fa’avae

Niuean-born Ione Aleke Fa’avae is a broadcaster and a language advocate who is very aware of the challenges that his native language faces both at home and abroad.

Fa’avae says that when Niueans move to New Zealand and no longer live in a focused, village community, then inevitably their language skills decline and will struggle to be sustained amongst their children. According to Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, as of 2013 only 18% of all Niueans living in New Zealand could speak their language proficiently. In 1996 the number was 32%. By contrast more than 60% of Samoan and Tongan New Zealanders were able to hold a conversation in their own language. Fa’avae argues that a lack of formal educational support, such as bilingual units at primary and secondary schools and at tertiary level, only increase the difficulties. Other Pacific languages that do have such resources are doing much better.

Niue is often described as a religious society with almost 100% of people living on the island identifying as having some connection to the Christian faith. That number drops in New Zealand but is still significant. Despite this, Fa’avae is unconvinced that religion is the way to save the language.

Niuean Stage Polyfest 2015.

Niuean Stage Polyfest 2015. Photo: Supplied by Penina Momoisea

“Times have changed. Not many young people are attending church services.”

Instead, he suggests that the performing arts are the avenue through which young people can engage with the language – especially the long-running and successful Polyfest, a multi-day celebration of Māori and Pacific cultures for secondary school students.

“I think that’s the way to go nowadays. And to maybe set up a Pacific Island language Commission here in New Zealand.”

Fa’avae hopes that once the language has been somewhat stabilised amongst the expatriate community, then they can assist in its revival back home. He imagines a time when Niue uses English for everyday administration but Vagahau Niue for all other purposes, especially in cultural situations. Te agrHH his is still far from ideal and he is not overly optimistic about the language’s chances of survival.

“That’s not good at all because you’re losing the meaning of it and the value.”

In 2015, Niue Language Week is being held from 12-18 October.

Backstage at Polyfest 2015.

Backstage at Polyfest 2015. Photo: Supplied by Penina Momoisea

Produced by Justin Gregory For Radio New Zealand National.

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