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Learning languages: Tongan Language Week

August 28th, 2020 By Erena Williamson

The people of Tonga enliven and enrich Aotearoa in numerous ways through their unique language and culture. Find ways to teach your students about what it is to be Tongan whilst celebrating Tonga Language Week | Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga, 6–12 September.

Fai’aki e ‘ilo ‘oua ‘e fai’aki e fanongo.
Do it by knowing, not by hearing.

Tonga flag
Flag of Tonga. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Celebrating Tongan language and culture

A proud, independent nation in the South Pacific, the Kingdom of Tonga is home to approximately 105,000 people.

Many people of Tongan descent also call Aotearoa home. According to data obtained from Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa, our Tongan community numbers 82,389, 64% of whom were born here.

The rich culture of Tonga enhances New Zealand society in many ways, and Tongan Language Week is a great opportunity to learn more about not just the Tongan language, but what it means to be Tongan as well.

Start by learning and using a few common phrases

  • Hello — Mālō e lelei.
  • Welcome — Mālō e lava mai.
  • Goodbye — Nofo ā (to those staying), 'Alu ā (to those leaving).
  • Thank you — Mālō.

Practice Tongan greetings using this YouTube clip (1:40) made by students from Randwick Park School.

Or why not try the Tongan number system:

  • 0 – noa
  • 1 – taha
  • 2 – ua
  • 3 – tolu
  • 4 – fā
  • 5 – nima
  • 6 – ono
  • 7 – fitu
  • 8 – valu
  • 9 – hiva
  • 10 – hongofulu [pronounced hoh-ngoh-foo-loo]
  • 100 – teau [pronounced teh-ah-oo].

Music, performance, and more

Music and performance are an integral part of Tongan culture. Share with students this beautiful Tongan Language Week song by Indira Stewart and John Pulu.

View these performances from Auckland’s annual Pasifika festival:

Explore visual language through ngatu (tapa cloth). See Tongan ngatu – marking moments in time from Te Papa Tongarewa to learn about Tongan design motifs and view images of ngatu from their collection.

Language: why is it important?

Language — oral, written, and visual — is the way in which we express ourselves and is vital to participating and contributing to communities, both local and national.

In Aotearoa, speakers of languages other than English need plenty of opportunities to see and hear their language in order to have their identity affirmed. In schools, this is an important part of learners feeling safe and ready to learn in the classroom and school environment as a whole.

UNESCO tells us:

…languages not only identify their [peoples'] origin or membership in a community, they also carry the ethical values of their ancestors — the indigenous knowledge systems that make them one with the land and are crucial to their survival and to the hopes and aspirations of their youth.
Indigenous languages: Knowledge and hope

Learning languages is a learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum. Language learning is for all students, and has clear benefits for both native speakers and those new to learning languages.

Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) tells us:

Languages and cultures play a key role in developing our personal, group, national, and human identities. Every language has its own ways of expressing meanings; each has intrinsic value and special significance for its users
Learning languages

TKI goes on to say:

Learning a new language extends students’ linguistic and cultural understanding and their ability to interact appropriately with other speakers. Interaction in a new language, whether face to face or technologically facilitated, introduces them to new ways of thinking about, questioning, and interpreting the world and their place in it.
Why study a language?

Language, culture, and identity as permanent school fixtures

While language weeks are a great way to engage with and celebrate the unique cultures that make up Aotearoa New Zealand, research tells us that making this a natural part of the ‘culture’ of our classrooms consistently, all year will have the greatest impact on student wellbeing and achievement.

Voices from the Pacific — Lost in translation explores what works for our learners from the Pacific, and is full of the voices of Pacific youth as well as practical ways to improve outcomes for these learners.

The following Teaching Council and Ministry of Education documents provide research-based best practice for teaching Pacific learners. Much of the research on which these documents are based was gathered from students in early childhood, primary, and secondary settings as well as their whānau:

For a summary of the research along with practical advice for educators, read Four strategies to effectively support Pasifika students from The Education Hub.

Ākonga, whānau, and communities as teachers

The best way to have authentic engagement with language and culture is to use the amazing resources that are our ākonga (students), their whānau, and community members.

Educators don’t have to be the experts — there are few more rewarding experiences for a teacher than seeing ākonga bursting with pride when sharing what they know about their language, culture, and identity.

Aupito William Sio, the Minister for Pacific Peoples, says:

Last year’s celebrations of the 2019 United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, not only illuminated the value of the languages and the cultures of indigenous peoples all around the world, but it also boosted the confidence of Pacific youth, who proudly stood as a beacon of light to show the world that they too treasure their legacy of diverse Pacific languages and cultures in Aotearoa.
2020 begins a new decade for Pacific languages as a competitive edge for Aotearoa

Accessing language and culture through proverbs and stories

Educators know the power of proverbs and stories to make learning about languages and culture more accessible. These are forms that are familiar to most ākonga, no matter where they come from.

Fill classrooms with as many traditional stories from Tonga as you can find, and don’t forget to ask students and whānau for suggestions.

There is a wonderful selection of traditional stories available from the Ministry of Education in both Junior Journals and Schools Journals, as well as through Literacy Online.

For Tongan proverbs, Ko e Kai ia ‘a e Tonga, an Alexander Turnbull Library blog post by Mereana Taungapeau, is a wonderful resource, accompanied by a stunning set of images.

Resources to support teaching and learning

There are many other digital resources that you can use in your school throughout Tongan Language Week and beyond. Here are some you might find useful for your library and classroom.

From the National Library

  • Tonga — on Topic Explorer — the Kingdom of Tonga, also called Friendly Islands is a constitutional monarchy. Explore the history, culture, myths, and celebrations of this island nation, including how the nation copes with climate change, isolation, and cyclones.
  • The Pacific: Culture, history and geography — on Topic Exporer — this set of resources looks at the extraordinary area known as the Pacific, its sea of islands, environment, and peoples, from early exploration to colonialism and 21st-century issues like global warming. This set includes information and resources about Tonga.
  • Building an inclusive collection — how to build an inclusive library collection that reflects the diversity of your school in ways that support teaching and learning.

From other quality sources

Te Papa also has a selection of blogs created especially for Tongan Language Weeks of the past:

It’s time to shift

To borrow a phrase from the government’s Action Plan for Pacific Education 2020–2030 video, it’s time to shift. Shift towards fully embracing the language, culture, and identity of our Pacific whānau.

Watch this inspiring video to hear the voices and aspirations of young people from the Pacific, and make a start on the shift in your school by engaging with Tongan Language Week in 2020.

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