by Catherine Delahunty
Last week the Education and Science Select Committee had a very privileged experience hearing from a number of Pasifika communities and individuals about their support for learning in their heritage languages. Although the Government restricted the inquiry to early childhood education (ECE) and Pasifika language issues, the submitters painted a broad and holistic picture of all levels of education needing to be culturally responsive. The Select Committee was also fortunate to hear a number of school groups sing beautiful sings in Pasifika languages to remind us to hear and to experience the heart of the matter.
The ECE Inquiry heard that Pasifika communities are fighting hard for their bilingual pre-school and primary school language-based models. They already know the difference it makes to learning, and to language retention, if children are taught in their mother tongue. Research shows that a number of Pasifika languages are at risk because of colonisation and migration. We heard from speakers of Samoan, Rarotonga, and Niue languages in particular but we were made aware that there are other languages and other communities which are also struggling.
All the submitters said that resources to build language capacity were crucial. They felt that the leadership from Government had deteriorated because Pasifika bilingualism is not valued for its contribution to the education of the children. Despite the clear research, the latest school curriculum does little to promote learning in Pasifika languages. Many people mentioned the loss and absence of school books and tools to help children learn in their heritage languages. Some university students came to tell us that their identity, as well as their education, had been compromised by the misguided discouragement of their heritage languages.
All the submitters urged us to train and resource qualified teachers as well as support elders who had a role to play in language education.
I found it ironic when Government members of the committee suggested that learning a language was a choice issue, as if French or Mandarin was as relevant as the Pasifika languages. After all, we are a Pacific island nation, we have the largest Polynesian city in the world, and we know we are failing those children and their right to their language. Only a monocultural and monolingual dominant majority could be so unhelpful. The norm around the world is to support unique languages because when you do cultures not only flourish but children have the best possible start in life. Let’s hope we can make some change via this inquiry because these dedicated communities need urgent recognition and resourcing!