Rotuman – A language worth fighting for


By Marie Nakaora

Participants of the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated culture workshop and crafts session show off their tefui (Rotuman garland) craft and also map of Rotuma for their identity (tailored to school kids).

Language, culture and identity are all intricately intertwined. When the language becomes endangered, the existence of the rest is threatened as well.

For Rotuma, a Pacific island under the protectorate of Fiji, language vulnerability is real and threatens their unique identity.

A language with unique linguistic features that are distinct from other Pacific languages has now been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an endangered language with about 5,000-7,500 speakers in Fiji and on the island.

Wilfred Fimone, a linguist at The University of the South Pacific’s (USP) Laucala Campus in Suva, shared that the Rotuman language’s vulnerability could potentially affect the Rotuman culture.

He demonstrated how the Rotuman language had been used in cultural practices.

“Language and culture are intertwined. In Rotuman culture, ceremonies involve the announcement of the päega, which are the seat of mats or koua which is earthed oven food.

“These announcements are said in Rotuman and in these announcements, food is counted differently,” he said.

Fimone also described how the dominance of other languages such as English in educational platforms and work fields had affected how the community members themselves perceived their language.

“In the case of Rotuman, parents do not think that it is a socially and economically viable language. In other words, they think that in order to survive in the contemporary world, that is to get a good job or education, Rotuman will not help much,” he said.

“So they speak to their children in English in the hopes that their children’s education and financial situations will be bright, at the expense of a rich linguistic and cultural heritage.”

New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated lead language tutor for the online learning programme and community workshop, Nataniela Amato-Ali, shares insights about the language to Rotuman participants in Auckland. (By Marie Nakaora)

Tiarana Parker, a youth from the Rotuman community in Fiji, shared similar sentiments and expressed her concerns about the Rotuman language being endangered.

“Nowadays people who are known to be Rotumans are engaging more with the English language and that is why most Rotuman youths and children tend to speak or converse in English at home, work, school or other social settings,” Parker said.

She also highlighted that youths her age were ‘average’ in their fluency of the Rotuman language and felt the elders in the Rotuman community could teach them more about the language and culture.

Fortunately, to preserve the language’s uniqueness and the Rotuman culture, communities and linguists have come together to stand in solidarity for Rotuman’s language revitalisation.

Another linguist Dr Marti Vamarasi from the Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, has developed an online website called Rotuman Language and Culture for Rotumans living abroad to learn the language.

“I believe there should be sustained, ongoing classes for the younger generations wherever there are significant populations of Rotumans,” she said.

“In order for there to be classes, there need to be teachers who should be native Rotuman speakers, and they should be trained to teach their language.

“I developed a sort of handbook for teachers to help with teacher preparation as well. There could be summer camps for children to learn the language. The longer people wait to do this, the harder it will be to get people interested.

Dr Vamarasi believes the efforts to revitalise the language should be combined with other revitalisation and restoration efforts in Rotuma.

Meanwhile, USP has also taken steps to revitalise the Pacific language.

Dr Fiona Willans, a linguist at USP, highlighted the University’s efforts and emphasized the importance of the Rotuman language, especially during the pandemic.

“This year, we have created a website called COVID-19: Language matters in the Pacific, and we have included Rotuman resources about symptoms and protective measures on the website,” she said.

“During a pandemic, it is so important to ensure that communities can understand the information that is being disseminated, which is why we participate in translation projects.

“However, an added bonus of such initiatives is that communities begin to see their languages being used for serious subjects in a wider range of contexts than before, which helps to instil a sense of pride and ownership.

“These kinds of influences help encourage parents to keep speaking their languages with their children, which is ultimately the only way a language is going to survive.”

She also added that the USP had introduced the Rotuman language course as a minor programme from 2019.

“The first two courses help to develop students’ proficiency in the language, ready for the two 300-level courses which focus on ceremonial contexts and literature,” Dr Willans said.

“Offering this programme at tertiary level is one way of showing that the Rotuman language and culture are worthy of serious academic study.”

Dr Willans also disclosed plans to launch a Massive Open Online Course for Rotuman language and culture in 2021.

“In this sense, ‘open’ means that it will be available for anyone to participate without having to be enrolled as a university student. Being entirely online also means that our course will be available to Rotumans living in New Zealand and other countries who find it even harder to sustain their use of the language in daily life,” she said.

Rotumans in New Zealand have also joined community efforts to maintain the language, through initiatives facilitated by the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated, an incorporated society organisation that was established in 1989 but officially registered in 1993.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated continued to host virtual lessons on the Rotuman language. (By Marie Nakaora)

With about 450 members including adults and children, the organisation was set up initially as a means of getting Rotumans together to celebrate their ‘Rotuman-ness’. The group later expanded its focus towards preserving and maintaining their language and culture for the future generation.

New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated listed various factors that contributed to the declining number of speakers of the Rotuman language.

“Inter-racial marriages is one reason where English becomes the common medium bridging the two different languages,” the organisation shared.

“There is also migration overseas where people were moving away from daily interactions into a foreign land dominated by English or another language.

“Little to non-speakers of the language in the homes, this again is a loss to the English language being commonly spoken due to the education system since English is the language of instruction learnt and taught in schools.”

The group also noted that there were not many indigenous elders or experts available to teach the language, in addition to limited printed resources available or accessible by Rotumans.

This, according to the group, is a work in progress in terms of reprinting these resources. Losing out to dominant languages in Fiji, particularly iTaukei or indigenous Fijian and Hindi, which are widely used languages in the country.

To counter some of these concerns, the organisation engaged in a number of activities and projects to keep the language and culture alive.

Cultural campus have been organised every October since 1989 to focus on bringing Rotumans together to celebrate their heritage. These gatherings include learning and practising the language as well as other customary practices.

“The Love My Language Challenge was introduced in 2018 as a media outreach to encourage as many people as possible to briefly introduce themselves in Rotuman. This was an initiative led by our Haharagi Rotuman Youths of New Zealand, RYNZ,” the group shared.

“Last year, we piloted a face-to-face language programme in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. From April to September, 2020, we organised our online learning programme #LoveMyLanguage (#RakLaFaeagRotuam) accompanied by language charts created for families to refer to and use as a guide encouraging them to speak every day and as much as possible.”

In July and October this year, the group facilitated the #LoveMyLanguage (LML) & Culture community workshops, which included face-to-face overview of the online language programme, crafts stencilling tefui design and map of Rotuma, as well as creating face masks with Rotuman words or phrases and carving ipesis.

The response from the Rotuman community has been welcoming and supportive as the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Incorporated continues to move on.

Art and craft of the Rotuman tefui (traditional garland) and map of the island. (By Marie Nakaora)

“We will always have resistance from a few out there, however, we try to make amends but carry on with the work we have at hand and upcoming ones so as not to deter from our plans. It is with great hope that eventually all differences will be put aside and work alongside each other if not with each other going forward,” the group said.

“Our initial target or focus area for our #LML online learning language programme was locally, across NZ, but our members wanted to share this opportunity with their loved ones overseas and so we also have participants from Australia, UK, Canada and Fiji as well.”

Some of the challenges faced by the group in maintaining the language include resistance from other Rotuman groups who did not want to collaborate for their own reasons, time constraints, limited resources in terms of printed and digital materials available for families and individuals and limited number of elders and knowledge holders of the language.

“We can easily say a global pandemic, however, that would not be the case here because if anything it gave us the time and opportunity to create and deliver an online learning platform that was already tapped into by our majority of our member families and those abroad due to the lockdown periods,” the group shared.

For the group’s community lead liaison representative Marie Nakaora, the thought of her language being listed as endangered by a UN agency was extremely disheartening.

“Quite scary to know this thinking ahead to our future generation where it would possibly be extinct if nothing or not enough is done to preserve our language,” she said from New Zealand.

“We truly would not want our children and their children and so on to miss out on this unique language of ours as it is part of our living heritage.

“Imagine a world without Rotuma because that would be the norm – loss of a language would lead to loss of a culture and eventually loss of an identity and/or heritage.

“This would be evident in communities out of Rotuma where the language and culture is more alive on a regular basis.

“It is, therefore, vital and must be made a priority that we all unite – in all seriousness of the word with all differences aside – in this common plight/goal urging all Rotuman groups and individuals across the globe to revive or preserve and maintain our Rotuman language and culture. Everyone can contribute in one way or the other. It all starts from the home with a little practise every day after all, practise does make perfect.”

Taking ownership of their language from the group’s perspective includes efforts by all Rotumans to speak the language constantly at home by making it a rule or compulsory. This, they believe, would encourage everyone to become comfortable and confident in learning and speaking the language thus maintaining and/or preserving our language.

Other initiatives to revive the language included educational resources for families to use and refer to in their homes, creating and maintaining a website or mobile application for all our resources on the Rotuman language and culture, participating in social media challenges that encourage more speaking of the language as well as community drives and workshops that promote the language.

For Tiarana Parker, and many other youths from the Rotuman community as well as the Rotumans living abroad, these efforts to revitalize their language show a glimmer of hope that their language will not lose its significance.