Kiwi Rotumans fight to keep their endangered Pacific language alive

What do you do if your language is at risk of becoming extinct? For one community organisation, the answer lies in grassroots solutions.

Rotuman language week 2021 event. Source: Supplied

For the second time, and only the first time free from the gathering restrictions of last year’s Alert Level 3 restrictions, New Zealand is officially marking Rotuman language week until Saturday. 

The language, with only about 15,000 speakers in the world, is listed on the UNESCO List of Endangered Languages as ‘definitely endangered’. 

The language, distinct from other Pacific languages, hails from Rotuma, a Fijiian dependency of tiny islands 500 kilometres north of Fiji.

While only about 2000 people live on the islands, there are about 800 Rotumans living in New Zealand. Many others live in Fiji and around the world. 

Rachael Mario, chairperson of the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group Incorporated (ARFGI), is organising numerous events to mark the week, including song and dance performances and community gatherings. 

“We have to look outwards, not inwards. We want to share our language with everybody," she said.

"In the past, what we’ve done is we’ve always had events at a community centre where people come to us. This year, we want to go out to people and market our language."

Rotuman language week 2021 storytelling event at Avondale Library. Source: Supplied

Throughout the year, Mario and the ARFGI run weekly language and culture classes, as well as math tutoring.

“Our kids, if they don’t know their identity, they won’t do well in this country. So we need to empower each other.

“Having maths improves the confidence of our children, because some of them are at the bottom of the heap education-wise … University students in our community, I can count on my fingers how many have gone.”

But programmes and classes could only do so much, Mario said.

“Yes, there are a lot of resources. But, parents need to be involved to speak Rotuman at home. They can come to class, but class is only once a week.”

She also wants to see more support from the Government to help the ARFGI run programmes nationwide because the group currently uses its own funds and resources to do so. The Ministry for Pacific Peoples provides funding for community workshops, with Budget 2019 providing $20 million over four years to support Pacific languages and cultures. 

“It’s quite tough without any funding. It’s all at grassroots level, community-based. But, we’ve got our heart and passion into it, so we go through it,” Mario said. 

Mario said she wanted to pay it forward and continue her community work because she was fortunate enough to have come to New Zealand from Fiji. She came to the country 34 years ago. 

“I wanted to uplift our people to do well in this country like I have, sort of, because I’m settled. I know my identity, I know how to speak Rotuman and I know what to do. I’m trying to help them own a home and help kids do well in school so they can finish their education and contribute positively to Aotearoa,” she said. 

“Once you know your language, you know your identity. Then, you can achieve whatever you want.”

The battle for recognition

Rotuman language week is one of nine being marked in New Zealand this year. But getting Rotuman officially recognised as a language week didn’t happen until 2020, and it was a challenge to get there, Mario said.

Rachael Mario (right), chairperson of the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group Incorporated celebrating the start of Rotuman language week. Source: Supplied

She said ARFGI first approached the Ministry for Pacific Peoples in 2018 asking for Rotuman language week to be featured on its website, like it does with other Pacific languages. At the time, the ARFGI was already marking the language week.

“Despite all our emails over two years, they kept saying they’d look into it but it didn’t happen,” Mario said.

ARFGI lodged a complaint to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) against the Ministry for Pacific Peoples in December 2019. The group claimed the ministry was unlawfully discriminating against the Rotuman language and its language week event. 

However, numerous Rotuman groups at the time, after meeting at a forum, said in a letter to the ARFGI the complaint was a “misrepresentation” of the community’s views, and said they would have preferred to work with the Government to get the language week recognised. 

But Mario said she believed the HRC complaint had led to the official recognition of the Rotuman language week in 2020.

What resulted was two versions of Rotuman language week 2021: one social media page the Ministry of Pacific People’s website links to as the “official” page for the language week, and another being run by the ARFGI. 

Both are running events to mark the language week, with the ARFGI funding its own activities.  

Mario called on the ministry to recognise all Rotuman groups, because the current model was “dividing” the community. 

She also asked the ARFGI be included in decision-making over the language week because it was doing work at a grassroots level. 

In a statement to 1 NEWS, a Ministry for Pacific Peoples spokesperson said community-led events were a "key focus" in its Pacific language weeks programme.

"Funding is available for community groups to run events as part of a collaborative approach.

"The Ministry has engaged and remains committed to engaging and working with all our nine language community groups including the Rotuman community that includes the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group," the spokesperson said.

How do languages become endangered?

Massey University linguistics lecturer Arianna Berardi-Wiltshire, whose research focuses on minority language education and revitalisation, said there were a number of factors that could put a language at risk of becoming endangered or extinct. 

Berardi-Wiltshire said these included migration, colonisation, globalisation, the pressure to shift to a more widely-used majority language, or a decrease in the number of speakers through practices like genocide. 

She said the consequences of a lost language could be devastating for communities, because a large part of their cultural identity and history would end up being lost. 

“Normally, every interaction [a community] has with spirituality, their intellectual life, the way they think about the world, it’s all filtered through the language.

“So, when indigenous languages are replaced by another language, the world becomes filtered through a different language and the first language loses its power to contain and transmit information and represent the world for those people.”

For a language to be revitalised, Berardi-Wiltshire said it was “crucial” for previous generations to pass it on to the next. 

“In order for that to happen ... the community needs to take an active path in that there needs to be enough fluent speakers. For this to happen, there needs to be support from the outside, from the society at large. 

“It’d help if society at large values the endangered language and has systems of support in place to allow the endangered language community to do what they have to do in order to resume transmission [of the language between generations]. 

“It really helps if the endangered language becomes valuable not only for the community of speakers itself, but widely valued, acknowledged and protected. Because, in that way, it gains status and prestige,” she said.

But, if the community itself doesn’t see a language as valuable, “no one will”, she added.