By Aaron Ryan of Whakaata Maori
As Tongan Language Week (Uike Lea Faka-Tonga) sweeps across New Zealand, Stats NZ data sheds light on the nation’s linguistic landscape.
Statistics New Zealand finds 40 per cent of New Zealand’s population can speak Tongan, underscoring the significant presence of the Tongan community in the country.
The week-long celebration, which began on Saturday and concludes this coming Saturday, aims to promote and preserve the Tongan culture.
However, only 12 per cent of individuals under the age of 15 can speak the language fluently, raising questions about its future.
In the age of social media, Tongan culture is finding new avenues to thrive.
Traditional Tongan dance, in particular, is gaining a global audience on platforms like TikTok.
This surge in popularity prompts the question: Could digital platforms be the key to keeping the Tongan language alive among the younger generation?
Ministry of Pacific Peoples chief executive Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone emphasises the importance of the 2023 Tongan Language Week theme: “E tu’uloa ‘a e Lea faka-Tongá ‘o ka lea’aki ‘i ‘api, siasí (lotú), mo e nofo-’a-kāingá,” which translates to “The Tongan Language will be sustainable if it is used at home, church, and in the wider community.”
Tongan culture is inherently tied to its youth, with an average age of 20 years among Tongan people in Aotearoa.
They are harnessing the power of social media trends, like Tongan dance, to both preserve their heritage and engage with a global audience.
Aisea Latu, from the Black Grace Dance Company, underlines the significance of this exchange: “As long as you pass it down properly and you see other cultures getting involved with it too, then it’s just another way of expressing Tongan-ness.”
The Ministry of Pacific Peoples looks to the success of Māori language revitalisation as a model for Tongan language preservation.
Clifford-Lidstone notes that many Tongans are calling for total immersion learning and cites Māori efforts as an inspiration for Pacific peoples.
Faith also plays a crucial role in Tongan language learning, with phrases integrated into dances.
Latu highlights some common expressions: “Tongans love saying ‘Malie’ [mean], there’s ‘Vela Vela’ [amazing], and Seuke [oh my gosh].”
This year’s focus remains on celebrating Tongan culture, encouraging youth participation, and finding innovative ways to ensure the language’s enduring presence in New Zealand.