Our Tongan neighbours at the back of our fale moved out today. We only knew because a big blue moving truck came and took everything away. Okay, not in a dawn raid but in a rhythm that has become predictable: they are moving to another fringe area. As a young Samoan person who grew up in an inner-city suburb called Grey Lynn in Auckland, I thought living amongst other New Zealand-born Samoans and hearing it spoken amongst our parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents and fresh migrants was normal.
Until where we lived started changing. The dairies (cornershops) and fish’n’chip shops became fewer and replaced with vegan burger bars, our primary and intermediate schools became whiter, pump bike tracks took over neglected park fields and a lot of our Pasefika families started moving out to Australia, out west, out south and some even back to the Islands.
We now live in south Auckland and it’s wonderful, hearing and speaking fa’aSamoa with more Pasefika families, business owners and employers and strangers, who look and laugh like you. Until they’re not there anymore because rent is crazy expensive, jobs are disappearing and it’s cheaper to move down the line like to Huntly or another smaller and cheaper town. And that is scary.
Gentrification is a real factor in language loss and one which is being countered through different measures such as aoga amata/Samoan language nests, lotu/ church and family fa’alavelave/ important gatherings such as weddings, funerals and chiefly title bestowal ceremonies. But what if these are not enough? How do you keep speaking when there is no one there to speak, listen or even correct you?
These are questions I ask myself and have at least two answers:
- Keep speaking with as many fluent and non-fluent speakers as possible. Don’t worry about being fia manaia/haughty. Just practise saying salutations, fa’afetai lava/thank you and manuia le aso/have a great day. Aim to use one word or one phrase a day. If your parents are native speakers and still around, ask them nicely to speak to you more in your gagana and teach you some formal phrases. These are important and make a lasting impression on other speakers, especially older people, who probably know your parents.
- Make it a point of speaking to your children in fa’aSamoa or your ancestral lingo. It will probably sound weird to you but your kids look up to you and are great mimics. I realised that as a young child, I could speak and understand Samoan but I hated it because all it reminded me of was fasiga/hidings and a’amu/being told of or laughed at. And yet, these are culturally endorsed and embedded rituals. So make the gagana fun to learn, sing songs together and tell your offspring how your day it went, ask them what they want to eat and here’s a big one: say “malie lou loto/sorry”. I know my dad in particular, never said that to me and so I say it everyday. If you don’t have kids, don’t despair. Hang out with your nieces, nephews, younger cousins or your friends’ kids and practise. Kids aren’t as judgemental as adults so appreciate the convos and ata/laugh.
- Follow the food markets and hang out in suburbs where heaps of your people meet up, eat, smoke ciggies and faitatala/gossip. Just being immersed and hearing your ancestral language, even if you can’t speak it, gets your ears attuned to the cadences and melodies of the languages. It may even bring your eyes and heart to tears. Let them weep for joy.