Learning the Niuean language along with the culture embedded within it can bring identity and self-esteem to schoolchildren of Niuean decent, helping them to achieve their potential.
This is one of the findings of language advocate Rosa Kalauni in her master’s dissertation at AUT, which examined her experience as a Niuean educator in Auckland, as she battled for the retention and maintenance of her own identity.
“My story reinforces how important it is for learners to have access to their own language and cultural heritage in education settings,” she says.
“This is because of the complex relationship between language, culture and educational achievement. It is very hard to try and maintain your Pacific language, and with it your culture, when education is taught in English.”
Fewer than 11 per cent of people of Niuean decent in Aotearoa can speak Vagahau Niue (the Niuean language), says Rosa Kalauni, currently a teacher at Papatoetoe High School.
“Vagahau Niue is an endangered language. I hope my dissertation helps to highlight some of its struggles in New Zealand and ways that it can be grown and strengthened – because of the implications for the culture and the identity of our young people.”
Tagata Niue (Niuean people) who migrated to New Zealand in the 50s and 60s neglected Vagahau Niue out of necessity, she says.
“They needed to learn another language that would progress them in their search for that elusive success. Then, for the generations that came after, it became not as essential, not as important. There was a perception back in the 90s that Vagahau Niue was not going to take them anywhere.”
Kalauni sees hope in young people’s interest over the past few years in the Pacific Language Weeks.
“There’s more and more who are asking and are wanting and needing to find out where they are from, and what is important for them. The values that they were raised in are not necessarily coinciding with the English language.
“Fingers crossed that our young people see the strength that Vagahau Niue will give them as young people of Niue living in their adopted whenua of Aotearoa. It is important that future generations of Niueans are encouraged to develop the confidence they need to embrace their cultural distinctiveness and acknowledge that it matters.”
Kalauni says racist attitudes have over the years led tagata Niue to feel shame around speaking Vagahau Niue in New Zealand. And although racism has become less overt in New Zealand over time, these days it is microaggression that is most common.
“It can take many forms, but you know when you are being spoken down to,” she says.
“Microaggression is the cancer in the heart of the work to revitalise the language.”
Rosa Kalauni stepped into the role of a Vagahau Niue teacher in the early 1990s, wrote curriculum documents for the Ministry of Education, assessment materials for NZQA, and implemented and assessed unit standards from the Niue stage at Polyfest.
She is currently working with others on a Cultural and Language Strategic Plan for Vagahau Niue that aims to strengthen the culture and grow the language across Australia, New Zealand and Niue.
“I am hoping for the future that there are more speakers of Vagahau Niue, and that people are not ashamed to speak it whenever they can,” Kalauni says.
“Niue is an associated state of New Zealand, but there has been no specific research that I could find about the unique people of Niue and what they can offer the fabric of citizenship for Aotearoa.
“Neither has there been any significant research about the need for a sustained language revitalisation strategy for Vagahau Niue in New Zealand, even though it is a language of the realm.”
Rosa Kalauni’s dissertation Vagahau Niue for Teaching and Learning in New Zealand Schools was done in partial completion of the degree of Master of Educational Leadership, with which she graduated from the Auckland University of Technology this year.