This week marks Niuean Language Week. This year's theme is to Sustain Niue Language and Culture for Future Generations. It is fitting, given UNESCO's classification of Niuean as an endangered language. Te Rito journalism cadet Vaimaila Leatinu'u shares his journey to learn the language with his Niuean partner and their fight to keep vagahau Niue alive
This year I decided to learn Niuean.
My roots lie with Ngāti Maniapoto and Samoa, so this is a freshly started journey to a language I don't whakapapa to.
I'm learning vagahau Niue due to my partner's whakapapa; which travels across Niue, Tahiti and Scotland. We both, however, lack fluency in our languages other than English.
But why Niuean before Māori and Samoan?
The simplest answer is it's at most risk of being lost. Māori has gone from 1 per cent te reo speakers due to post-colonialism to roughly a quarter of us being fluent within the last century.
Statistics show that in 2018, Samoan was the third most spoken language in Aotearoa. There are about 198,000 people living in Samoa, so there is a large community of gagana Samoa speakers.
The numbers are markedly different for Niue. There are just over 30,000 Niueans living in Aotearoa and about 1700 back in the motherland.
In 2017, University of Auckland lecturer John McCaffery described the Niuean language as being in a critical state and pointed out that less than five per cent of New Zealand-born Niueans could speak the language fluently.
The bigger picture answer is that my partner and I want to minimise our future children's insecurities around their whakapapa, cultures and languages.
I feel for Māori and Pasifika.
The three most painful words to utter when answering a question about our language or cultures is: "I don't know."
The most common example is when someone asks: "How do I say this in your language?"
It causes some of us to stop - sometimes timidly - and reply: "Sorry, I don't know." Or, in most cases, we crack some self-deprecating joke that we're plastic so can't answer, which may ease the misplaced guilt of us not knowing.
I've seen some of these insecurities in my partner, as we learn vagahau Niue.
Because I don't whakapapa to Niue, I feel I have embodied the privilege that non-Māori have when they learn te reo Māori.
Keeping our languages alive for future generations
Even though I am aware of this privilege when it come to te reo Māori, I still unknowingly trampled on my partner's disconnection trauma.
I persistently asked her questions she couldn't answer sometimes or asked for voice memos for pronunciations she wasn't always sure of.
I incited mamae (hurt) because I assumed we shared the same experience of learning to speak Niuean. I apologised to her, re-adjusted my behaviour. I know how hard it is.
To be in a class and be checked on your pronunciation and illogically be embarrassed. To compare yourself to your people or another person who feels more Māori or, in this case, more Niuean than you.
To practice speaking your language in your own home and certain family members laugh at the failure of your sentence structures or pronunciation. It hurts.
What I've taken away from learning vagahau Niue is that we must bear great care and caution for the rightful owners of the fale of cultures we do not whakapapa to, but wish to enter and take something from.
I must be especially careful with my future children, who will have a whakapapa I don't connect to and therefore don't share the lived experience of being Niuean, Tahitian or Scottish with.
But I look forward to our sons' hifi ulu (hair-cutting ceremony), our daughters' huki teliga (ear-piercing ceremony), and the days when we converse in the languages of our whakapapa.