Dr Sarai Tufala is proud of her Tokelau heritage but lives with the regret that she did not speak her Tokelauan language at home or share the language with her six children.
Born in Tuvalu and raised in Kiribati, the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA) member moved to New Zealand in 1970 when she was 12 years old. Her grandfather, Iosua Vaopuka, was from the Fakaofo atoll in Tokelau and she grew up speaking Tokelauan along with Kiribati and Tuvalu. But when she moved to New Zealand, English was the dominate language spoken in their new country.
“When we arrived in New Zealand, we wanted to learn English and that’s what we focused on.”
Tokelau is a small Pacific nation made up of three atolls and lies north of Samoa, east of Tuvalu and northwest of the Cook Islands. It has a small population of 1,500 people and is the fourth smallest population of any sovereign state.
Dr Tufala married a Tokelauan, Senio from the Nukunonu atoll in Tokelau. Although he was fluent in the language, they both chose to continue speaking English at their Auckland home, even after they had six children.
“When I started having children, I lost the confidence to speak Tokelauan. My children can understand some Tokelauan but are not able to speak it.”
This week is Tokelau Language Week and Dr Tufala says this is the time for families to acknowledge how important it is to retain the language and speak it in the home. She says her story is a common one and that we must learn from the past if the language is to survive.
“Learning the Tokelau language is important especially if you are a New Zealand born person because it will generate more speakers of the language. More young Tokelauans will be able to identify with their culture, participate in Tokelauan community activities and feel more at ease with the rest of their extended family.
Most jobs nowadays require bilingual speakers particularly of Pacific languages, so they are able to communicate with new migrants who speak very little English.”
Despite losing the confidence to speak the Tokelauan language, Dr Tufala is familiar with many of the country’s phrases and proverbs.
Her favourite is ‘Te Toeaina Kite Mulivaka’.
“In English this means our elders have the first and last word,” she says.
Date: Tuesday 27 October 2020