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Fanning the sparks of dying languages

 Tuvaluan dancers
According to UNESCO, the Rotuman language is listed as endangered along with four other Pacific languages — Tokelauan, Niuean, Cook Islands Māori and Tuvaluan.

Auckland, NEW ZEALAND — More than 160 languages are spoken in New Zealand.

Week-long events celebrate the unique languages heard across the country, and this week the focus is on the Rotuman language.

According to UNESCO, the Rotuman language is listed as endangered along with four other Pacific languages — Tokelauan, Niuean, Cook Islands Māori and Tuvaluan.

RNZ newsreader Marama T-Pole is trying to master the Tuvaluan language, as part of her efforts to maintain her connection to her Tuvaluan roots.

Growing up in Dunedin, she said there was a longing for her to explore her cultural identity.

"It was actually very invisible in my life — my Tuvaluan culture," she says.

"There was nothing that I could see that represented my father's culture.

"Despite that, there was this gnawing inside of me that wanted to connect to my Tuvalu side and in fact I was felt like there was something missing, even when I came to Auckland I was surrounded by a lot of Tuvaluan families and community up here but I still felt like I was not present.

"I couldn't really participate, properly connect, converse with the ladies or the aunties and it just felt like I was a bystander."

T-Pole says the push to speak Tuvaluan started when she took up the role of being a Sunday School teacher at her Tuvaluan Presbyterian church.

"All of our congregation couldn't speak English properly, and every month they would ask me to do a report back to the congregation, I would speak in English and they would be saying 'speak in Tuvaluan!'

"So in my broken language, I would try and start reporting back to them about what was happening and gradually over several years while I was doing it, I started to speak the language more.

"What happened in doing that ... is that suddenly this hole that I've had growing up had disappeared."

While T-Pole admits she still has a long way to go in speaking Tuvaluan fluently, she says holding a conversation in Tuvaluan with her father before he passed away is a memory she treasures most.

In 2022 the government launched the Pacific Languages Strategy, an action plan to reverse the declining use of Pacific languages in Aotearoa.

Referencing UNESCO's list of endangered languages, the strategy points out that language loss equals loss of Pacific knowledge, histories and connections.

But is society really worse off with the loss of a language?

University of Auckland language and linguistics lecturer Dr John Middleton says the UNESCO list of endangered languages shouldn't be completely dismissed.

"Languages are inherently human," Middleton says.

"No matter what documentation we can do, it always comes down to whether people are using languages so it does feel sometimes like it is 'dramatic' to think that language can die.

"But we've seen it so many times before, we've seen it even in our country with the Moriori language. Within 70 or so years, we found this language  (that) was spoken in the Chatham Islands lost its native speakers."

There are moves to turn that around, and while it's not exactly thriving, a spark is being fanned to re-introduce Moriori in the Chathams — find out more on this in the podcast.

Middleton also points to Australia as an example of fading languages.

"There are 20 plus languages right now that have one or one-12 speakers."

Digital tools for preserving and spreading languages are now readily available, but Middleton says that's not enough.

"I think the reality is, all the tools that we have now are really helpful for protecting languages and really valuable; however we do still need languages to be spoken and to be written and to be used."