Each year, on 21 February, we celebrate International Mother Language Day. Around this time we talk a lot about preserving minority and indigenous tongues. We promote, we encourage, we exchange ideas. But the truth is, one day to celebrate multilingualism is simply not enough. One day will not make a difference. One day will not save hundreds of disappearing languages. To merely try to do that, we need 365 days.
Before we go any further, I should start by explaining what “mother tongue” is. The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood”. Most often (but not always), it is our dominant language, the one we feel most comfortable using on a daily basis.
Mother tongue, which is usually passed down to children by their parents, plays an important role in the development of personal, social, and cultural identity. It is a foundation that shapes our thinking and comprehension of the world. It gives us a sense of belonging to a broader family of people. Once we lose that, we lose a part of ourselves.
In the Pacific, the native tongues of the region have to compete with English and French, which were brought to Oceania in the era of colonialism. Since that time these two most prominent intrusive languages have been present in every single state of the Blue Continent. They are often the languages of choice in formal education, particularly in those countries where there are hundreds of vernacular tongues.
The presence of the colonial languages as well as increased migration of Pacific Islanders to New Zealand, Australia, the USA, and France have put the Pacific tongues in a rather unfavourable position. Even though older Islanders prefer to speak their native languages, younger generations – especially those living overseas – often choose English or French. This happens not without reason. In New Zealand, Australia, and the USA – the three countries Pacific Islanders most frequently migrate to – English is the language of wider communication, employment, and education. So in order to adjust to a new way of life, fully immerse in a different culture, and avoid isolation, they decide to “ditch” their mother tongue in favour of English.
In New Zealand, for example, the number of fluent Pacific language speakers has been declining. Most at risk are Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, and Tokelauan, which – if nothing changes – may one day become extinct.
That is why something needs to be done. Now; before it’s too late. Every single initiative that promotes linguistic and cultural diversity should be encouraged, because only then will we raise awareness of the importance of multilingualism. The UN’s International Mother Language Day or New Zealand’s Ministry for Pacific Peoples’ Pacific Language Weeks are fabulous opportunities to celebrate the native tongues of Oceania. But this is still not enough. The languages should be celebrated on a day-to-day basis, both at home and at school. One day or even one week won’t change people’s attitudes. What is needed is continuous work on all fronts. Yes, governments ought to provide support to native, minority, and endangered languages, but it is up to us to make a real difference.
Now, this is not to say that English and French should be neglected. They are major languages and as such cannot be ignored. But the same goes for Samoan, Tongan, Chuukese, Chamorro, Niuean, and any other Pacific tongue. They may be smaller, but they are important too. If children stop learning their ancestors’ language, they may lose a lot more than only knowledge of words and grammar rules. They may lose various practical skills as well as understanding of the island ways. In Marshallese, for instance, there is a vast array of terms for fishing methods. As they directly relate to the local lifestyle, they cannot be properly understood when translated into English.
Last but not least, there is one more thing I have to mention. When people abandon their mother tongues – when Pacific Islanders give up Tahitian, Pohnpeian, Nauruan, Hawaiian, etc. – no foreigner will ever get the chance I’ve got. No foreigner will get the chance to learn any of those beautiful languages. And that would be a real shame.