Thursday, September 08, 2011

Language lessons

Aucklanders have been getting a lesson in vexillology over the past week or two, as rugby fans gear up for the World Cup by displaying the flags of their favourite nations. Down at Henderson mall I was startled by the medieval design Georgia recently placed on its national banner, and intrigued by Romania's version of the tricolour. All Blacks fans often seem uncertain about whether to use the silver fern flag or our rather dreary official banner. I've seen a few cars flying the national flag from one window and either the silver fern or the unofficial 'tino rangatiratanga' banner from the other.

By far the most ubiquitous flag, though, has been the symbol created for the Tongan nation back in 1875 by Tupou, the country's first modern king, and his long-time advisor, the Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist Shirley Baker. Tonga's flag was part of a series of gestures Tupou made to demonstrate his country's unity and sovereignty as he struggled to deflect the attentions of colonial powers like Britain, France, and the United States.

The continuing strength of Tongan nationalism is reflected in the thousands of red and white flags fluttering from car windows and television aerials around Auckland, in the enormous crowd which turned out to meet the Tongan rugby team at the airport last Monday, and in the rather hopeful predictions that the Ikale Tahi will defeat the All Blacks in the opening game of the World Cup on Friday night.

The first-ever Tongan Language Week has been organised to coincide with the build-up to Friday's big game, and its launch on Sunday night in Mangere attracted a big and enthusiastic crowd. It was perhaps not a good idea, though, to schedule a celebration of the Tongan language at the University of Auckland for Monday afternoon, when almost every Tongan in the city was heading for the airport. Only thirty-five people made it to the university's Fale Pasifika for the celebration, but the event included important speeches by two influential figures in the Tongan language community.

After her mother Kakala had led a prayer and a hymn, Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau, who heads the Tongan programme at the University of Auckland, spoke about the development of academic studies in the language. Taumoefalau explained that Tongan, like Samoan and Cook Islands Maori, can be studied inside Auckland's Pacific Studies department, as the 'minor' component of an undergraduate degree. Many students in Pacific Studies choose to study all three languages, and a number of Samoan scholars of Tongan were part of the audience at the Fale Pasifika.

Taumoefolau emphasised the importance of language acquisition and preservation to Pacific Studies students, observing that there were important features of Tongan culture which could only accessed, let alone analysed, in the Tongan language. She called the Tongan language "part of the being" of Tongans, and warned of the necessity of "holding on" to it.

Librarian and researcher Judy McFall expanded on Taumoeolau's argument when she took the stage at the Fale Pasifika. A Samoan of part-Chinese descent who is fluent in a variety of Pasifika languages including Tongan, McFall is a leading member of the Bilingual Leo Pacific Coalition, an organisation pushing for New Zealand to give official recognition to the Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, Samoan, and Tongan tongues. The Coalition was founded last March, after the National government decided to stop funding a range of educational books in Pasifika languages.

McFall and other members of the Coalition argue that young members of the Pasifika community are experiencing the same linguistic discrimination that Maori suffered fifty or sixty years ago, in the era when Pakeha governments pursued assimilationist policies towards their country's tangata whenua. Deprived of early reading material and of the opportunity to use their languages at school, many Pasifika youngsters are today struggling to express themselves in a foreign language, and becoming disillusioned with both the education system and with New Zealand society. The Coalition has taken a petition to Wellington, and won support for its demands from the Labour Party.

In her speech last Monday McFall warned that less than half of Tongan-born Kiwi children were fluent in the language of their homeland. These children sometimes felt trapped "between two worlds", and risked becoming part of a "Polynesian underclass". Moving easily between English, Tongan, and Samoan, and citing a series of academic studies, McFall argued that knowledge of Pasifika languages was too often treated as a "learning deficit" in New Zealand schools, when it could be a "learning advantage". Instead of losing the language which is their birthright, Tongan kids should be using that language as the launching pad for their academic adventures.

The Pacific Coalition has so far flown beneath the radar of New Zealand's mainstream media, and its proposals have received little comment from members of the country's Pakeha community. It is possible, though, to imagine a likely criticism of the group's demands. Many conservative Pakeha are still struggling with the concept of Maori immersion schooling and Maori-language broadcasting, and the prospect of giving official recognition and substantial state support to another five Polynesian languages might seem to them dangerous to the unity of New Zealand. How, conservative Pakeha might ask, will Kiwis be able to communicate with each other, if they are divided into separate linguistic communities? Won't the country become divided into a series of ghettos, if the Pacific Coalition has its way?

Last Monday both Judy McFall and Melenaite Taumoefolau emphasised that an enthusiasm for Tongan and other Pasifika languages does not have to come at the expense of support for other languages. McFall pointed out that children who know one language find it easier to learn another, and argued that Tongan kids who are comfortable in their own tongue will also be more comfortable using English. Taumoefolau noted that New Zealand Tongans commonly identify with their adopted country as well as their homeland. "We'll support Tonga against the All Blacks, but we won't worry if the All Blacks win, because we support them too", she said to laughter. The message of the Bilingual Leo Pacific Language Coalition deserves to be considered without prejudice across New Zealand. A couple of days ago I chatted by e mail with a man who knows a great deal about the contemporary situation of Pacific languages. Vaughan Rapatahana is a poet, editor, and linguist who lives in Hong Kong, travels widely in the Pacific, and is preparing a book about some of the region's endangered languages for publication. I asked Vaughan a few questions about poetry, linguistic imperialism, and his recent visits to Palau and Guam.

Scott: In this country the Pacific Coalition, which was formed last year in response to a government decision to cut funding for Pacific-language publications, is calling for the recognition of Samoan, Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, and Tongan as official languages. The Coalition has received relatively little attention from the mainstream media, but has won wide support from the Pasifika community in South Auckland and taken a petition to Wellington. How do you feel about the Coalition and its aims?

Vaughan: Ko taku tautoko tinu nui mo tenei. Ka nui te pai nga hoa. Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui. The Pakeha uses his English language to enforce his weltenshaaung, his episteme, his power-knowledge: as Nebrija once wrote, albeit about Spanish: '...a tool for conquest abroad and a weapon to suppress untutored speech at home... language has always been the consort of empire and forever shall remain its mate'

All the more reason, then, to hold fast to indigenous tongues. Taku reo, taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria (My language, my awakening, my language is the window to my soul).

Scott: You have in recent years been active as an advocate for the preservation and advancement of Pacific languages, studying the struggles of tongues like Nauruan to survive, and criticising the arrogance of English-language users. How optimistic do you feel about Pacific languages? Are there some tongues which you feel are likely to become extinct or moribund in the next few decades?

Vaughan: If the swaggering pirate of English linguistic imperialism continues to maraud through such nations, then yes, Pacific languages will become extinct - we lose a language every week worldwide...read the Terra Lingua website, read Tove Skutnabs-Kangas discussion of linguistic genocide, read Tove's husband Robert Phillipson's seminal book Linguistic Imperialism.

Scott: Are you in a difficult position, as a critic of the imperialism of the English language who often writes in English? The great Welsh poet RS Thomas felt angry about writing in English, likening the language to a poison he imbibed with his mother's milk. Do you feel a similar anger? Have you considered writing more of your essays and poems in Maori?

Vaughan: I do write quite a few poems, especially, in Maori - some will be published later this year - and much of the rest of my work has some te reo Maori in it. I also write some stuff in Bahasa Melayu and Tagalog - that gets published here in Asia...I do indeed feel the anger of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, amongst others, and I wrote a recent letter to New Zealand Books lamenting the lack of Maori as a people and a reo in that journal...the poem in te reo Maori accompanying my letter was not accepted for publication...

It is important to note that there is a distinct Maori form of English through which more and more Maori express themselves, after Tuwhare, and that of course there is the massive traditional Maori oral literature, which not only survives intact (see Charles Royal), but also impacts on the way many Maori write now...

Scott: How do you feel about contemporary Maori and Pasifika literatures? Are there writers that palangi like myself should be paying particularly close attention to?

Vaughan: More and more and more. Apirana Taylor, Doug Poole, Serie Bradford, Mariana Isara, Alice Sommerville, Brian Potiki, Rangi Faith, Roma Potiki, Hal Hovell, Iraia Bailey, Robert Sullivan, Marewa Glover, Reihana Robinson, Terence Rissetto, David Eggleton, Tracy Watson, Tracey Tawhiao, Hinemoana Baker, Phil Kanawa, Briar Grace-Smith, Tina Makereti, Selina Marsh, Briar Wood, Tusiata Avia, Mike O'Leary, Meri Marshall, James George, Alice Tawhai, the list is endless, and - of course - will grow exponentially as Maori prosper more and more (prosper not just in an economic sense - engari ka kite te manawa ngaro, nei...As the poetry editor of a Maori and indigenous peoples' review journal I see screeds of excellent poetry - in Maori, in Maori English, in a mixture...

Scott: You recently visited Guam and Palau, places few Kiwis get a chance to explore. Some commentators have worried that the Chamorro culture of Guam is being overwhelmed by American influences, and left-wing observers have accused the US of a long and sordid history of involvement in the internal politics of Palau, a country which outraged Washington by adopting a nuclear-free policy in the 1980s. What were your impressions of Guam and Palau?
Vaughan: I first travelled to Guam in 1980 and my concern is that it will become even more of an American battleship than it was even back then, especially as Japan is throwing the Americans out of their military base on Okinawa. Chamorro culture is indeed under severe threat from Western qua American influences (the 'English' language for example) and there is a visible rage against this perceived threat...Just read the local newspapers and speak to the youth of Guam...(I see the same sort of thing in the Philippines, where we travel several times a year). I really like Guam and would probably live there if I could score a job there!

Palau shows Television New Zealand Pasifika programmes from about two years ago and is scratching around trying to find enough money to stay afloat, thus the Taiwan embassy and influence there. The Americans have a big new embassy hidden away on the 'big' island of Babeldaob, where Palau's own new - and empty - government buildings are sited. You will see from the photos I sent that both Guam and Palau are naturally compelling. Because Palau is an ostensibly free nation, its future is far more clouded than that of the American territory of Guam, which is far richer. Because Guam has an American military presence, while Palau does not, Guam gets more American money. Palau bends over backwards to try to get money from the Americans - it is the only nation besides the US and Israel which supports the US embargo on Cuba, for example! And it took a group of prisoners which the US had to release from Guantanamo Bay... Scott: You have strong connections with Aotearoa/New Zealand, and yet you have chosen to take up residence in Hong Kong, a city which is both geographically and culturally very distant from your old home. Do you consider yourself an exile?

Vaughan: In exile - probably yes. Aotearoa is not an easy place to live in, for economic and some social reasons ('racism', narrow-mindedness, population size).

Scott: It's Tongan Language Week here, and I'm off to the country on the 15th. I wish I could learn some Tongan, but time keeps precluding this! How's your knowledge of the language?

Vaughan: I ONLY KNOW SOME EXPLETIVES!

8 Comments:

Anonymous long view of history said...

'the eyes that watch our sun expire will not be human'

food for thought eh you nationalists?

3:46 pm  
Anonymous extra Qs from V2 said...

What is Vaughan's position on the question of Maori self-determination? Does he support the establishment of a Maori state? If so why and if not why not?

Thanks in advance Vaughan.

8:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tonga did OK tonight

2:42 am  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

Kia ora mo tau patai V2.

I think that there will inevitably be a 'Maori state' (given that nga iwi Maori think Aotearoa has always been so anyway) because, given several Maori are already staunch in demanding tino rangatiratanga (autonomous territories) now, more and more Maori will also come to support such as years pass - as more and more Maori come to find themeselves as Maori, and also for the very fact that the population is increasing exponentially faster than that of Pakeha anyway (as is Asian New Zealand population - which is a whole other unrealised conundrum for white New Zealanders to have to adjust to, eh.)

I also believe that there are already semi-autonomous 'Maori states' anyway - Matakaoa and Urewera as two just examples - which is why my kainga is Te Araroa! Koro Dewes was never joking when he said there should be toll gates at the entry points up to the East Coast!

4:53 pm  
Anonymous raych said...

Kia ora Vaughan and Scott, sounds like a good working definition of 'cognitive imperialism' is being explored here..

9:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

My neighbour (left hand side) is Tongan and on the right the young man is Samoan with Maori wife.

My ex was part Samoan but didn't have any real knowledge of fa'a Samoa. Her grandfather had been Samoan and married an English woman. Her father (I liked him a lot) never talked about anything to do with Samoa or Polynesia. His wife (NZ Palangi) was a Catholic but he was an (strong) atheist. He was very interested in engineering and traveled a lot as he was in the NZ Air force as an air frame fitter.

Both neighbours are good. Their houses are tidier and better kept up than mine - the pakeha here is letting the palangi / pakeha side down!!

I see a lot of Chinese people as I play chess and some of NZ's best chess players are Chinese (or say from Hong Kong and some good players come from the Philipines which has always had very strong chess players.)

The interest in chess is a part of general cultural awareness one sees with Chinese and such people. (If not born there, their parents are born in China (or other parts of Asia.)

My friend (who is Samoan and a Psychologist as it happens) is a very keen chess player (we are currently in the Auckland Centre Club Championships together) and we cooperate in studying our opponents games etc).

8:14 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But India is a strange place. Sometimes when I am analysing chess games etc sometimes an Indian person will talk to me about chess, ad most know that Anand from India is the world Champion but there is not a big interest amongst Indians here in chess (there is some.)

NZ, since I was young is now hugely multicultural and multinational...perhaps we can stop talking about nations and start thinking of one world we can all share? Nationalism has dangers. (Again take some chess players...quite a few ex Soviet players now have lived in the US for years and some of the best players live in Switzerland, France or Spain (e.g. Shirov of Estonia, where NZ's Ortvin Sarapu came from also.)
.................................

I feel caught between myself as poet and having English parents. In many ways I don't feel like a kiwi although I have never been to England.

8:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Rugby (a rather barbaric and simplistic game) will decline (it may be more endangered than Maori or Tongan etc) as more and more Chinese and others take up chess, soccer, tapestry, and other intelligent sports or interests. These better things will supercede rugby.

As indeed, rugby is not of much significance to the world outside NZ and South Africa. o/s that it is seen much as we might see the quaint game of 'Slodoogla' [?] (yes it is very big in Mongolia, where they play by throwing around dried out vegetable roots, but is seen nowhere else...)

8:18 pm  

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