Learning language enriches cultural knowledge

Issue: Volume 98, Number 9

Posted: 30 May 2019
Reference #: 1H9ueX

As well as learning new vocabulary, grammar structures and other linguistic essentials, students at Mangere College in South Auckland are acquiring knowledge about their own culture, history and traditions, of which they are often unaware.

One hundred students at Mangere College – one in six of the school’s roll – study Samoan, reflecting the large Pacific community in the area. Their learning includes exploring their own history and culture, often for the first time, because in many cases the history and traditions of Samoa are not being passed on.

In learning languages, students learn to communicate in an additional language, develop their capacity to learn further languages, and explore different world views in relation to their own.

Samoan is primarily an oral language. Year 12 student Siti Pio has Samoan parents and was born in Auckland but is not fluent, as the main language he uses every day is English. His parents use Samoan as their first language at home.

Now in his fourth year of Samoan studies, Siti’s vocabulary and linguistic abilities are rapidly improving, along with literacy, and knowledge of cultural traditions such as oratory and its associated rituals and protocols.

“Generally, at home we don’t talk about the past or our history. That’s what I appreciate learning about at school,” he says.

“Now, my skills, confidence and understanding have grown and I am starting to have long, everyday conversations in Samoan with my mum and dad and my sister.

“They are teaching me words too, to expand my vocabulary. As we drive around in the car, for example, my parents will point out signs and tell me what the words mean in Samoan.”

Culture and language interwoven

The school’s methodology includes Reciprocal Teaching, with cultural content – such as calling traditions and protocols, which are important for ceremonies in Samoa – interwoven with the linguistic component to give it relevance and context.

In class, as the students examine a subject (such as a photograph and text relating to 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived for many years in Samoa) they are introduced to new grammatical structures or new vocabulary, and talk with their teacher about the substance and meaning of the texts.

“We are trying to cultivate deeper thinking,” says lead teacher Lemoa Henry Fesulua’i, “to take the students beyond talanoa (conversations) and rote learning, and Bible studies, which most children do, as their families are Christian.

“Many students have strong oral skills from their family background or from living earlier in Samoa, and have studied the Bible through Sunday school and church programmes, but we need to strengthen their reading and literacy skills. For some students literacy is a challenge, so that is a big focus for us.”

Homework involves reading assignments, and resources include hymn books, which many students are familiar with, translation activities and worksheets. Google Translate is also a valuable tool.

Partnerships with other schools

Mangere College works in partnership with other schools in South Auckland to develop literacy resources, and many students are gaining endorsements like, Merits and Excellences in NCEA Samoan Language, but Lemoa says there is a lot more to be gained than just improved language skills.

“The language is at the heart of their identity,” he says. “We are trying to normalise retention of language, and to promote pride in it. That provides a strong foundation for learning achievement across the board.”

Year 13 student Julia Kilipati finds her other subjects are being helped by studying Samoan. She is fluent, having spent her first 14 years living in Samoa, and English is her second language.

Julia is doing Business Studies and her teacher is Samoan. “If I have a question about a topic I’m studying, I can ask her and she can explain it to me in Samoan, so I then understand it perfectly, plus that expands my English vocabulary as well.” She is aiming to become an accountant or a business advisor in the Pacific community once she graduates.

Helping parents to support learning

Lemoa says schools need to find ways to help parents and the wider community to be involved in the learning of their young people. “In a sense we want to work with parents, as well as students, about what they can do with us to support their young people to achieve.

"An active partnership is the best approach, we know what a difference it can make when the families and the wider community are actively supporting their children’s learning and achievement," Lemoa says.

College principal Tom Webb says parental involvement can have a major impact on how a student engages and progresses.

“In schools we see the impact that things like parent attendance at teacher-parent meetings can have on the motivation and engagement of students.”

For more information on Samoan language teaching, visit the Fotu o Malama Facebook(external link) page.

 New Zealand is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the OECD*, with 200-plus ethnicities represented and 160-plus languages spoken. Parents, families and communities are the repositories of language, identity and culture and schools are encouraged to foster learning- focused relationships with them to enrich their local curriculum.

Fostering diversity is crucial in preparing young people to engage and work with people from cultural and linguistic backgrounds that are different from their own.

*Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


In 2018, 1,824 students were studying Samoan language at 19 Auckland schools. In 2017, 68.6 per cent achieved Merit or Excellence in NCEA internals and externals.

The Ministry of Education wants to make sure that every child in schools across New Zealand is given an opportunity to learn a language, and provide further support for schools.

The Leading Local Curriculum Guide series has been developed to steer reviews of schools and kura curriculum, assessment, and design decisions to strengthen their local curriculum, respond to progress, and reinforce learning partnerships with parents and whānau.

At the heart of local curriculum design is including what works and improving learning for all students. Local curriculum should be responsive to the needs, identity, language, culture, interests, strengths and aspirations of learners and their families with a clear focus on what supports the progress of all learners.

Schools are encouraged to investigate ways of offering language learning in their environments, including with the support of parents who are requesting language learning through their school’s curriculum. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:45 am, 30 May 2019

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts