Mālō e lelei! Ta-kanga ‘emau fohe – Our oars are moving in unison

Issue: Volume 98, Number 15

Posted: 30 August 2019
Reference #: 1H9xmZ

A Manurewa school offers 125 students from new entrants to Year 8 a bilingual education in English and Tongan taught by six Tongan teachers.

Finlayson Park School’s philosophy is to nurture the first language of its students so they can become fluent in both their mother tongue and English. The school roll includes 50 per cent Māori students and 32 per cent Pacific students and it has bilingual units in Sāmoan, Tongan, Kiribati and te reo Māori, as well as a Māori immersion unit.

“Our school’s philosophy is that we nurture the first or heritage language and never cut off the mother tongue – we use it to grow the next language,” says principal Shirley Maihi.

“If a child comes to school only knowing Tongan, they are expected to read and write in their home language and then transfer to English as they feel comfortable. We employ teachers or teacher aides with that language to help them. It’s a very fast way of transitioning them to English.

“This is based on research which says that if a child stands tall and proud in their own culture and language, they can access many more aspects of life more easily.”

Shirley has no doubt this approach helps her students’ learning development.

“Our students achieve really high results – 80 per cent in reading, writing and maths. They are not the Māori and Pacific ‘tail’ and that’s because we acknowledge their culture and identity – and their self-esteem as a result of that,” she says.

Dual-language initiative

Finlayson Park School was one of 10 primary schools in Auckland selected to be part of the Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP), a professional learning and development initiative funded by the Ministry of Education that distributes dual-language books in five Pacific languages and supports teachers with their implementation in English-medium primary classrooms.

The project uses the dual-language books as catalysts for teachers to engage in culturally sustaining pedagogies and biliteracy development with Pacific children, their families, and communities, building on the first language and cultural resources and identities that children bring to school.

Finlayson’s teachers Fuamanu Mataafa, Tepola Vunga, Geraldine Watson and Soreta Felise participated in PELP, along with Olivia Latu, who was part of the PELP project team as a ‘Lea faka Tonga’ facilitator – supporting teachers with high numbers of Tongan students to understand the importance of making connections between Tongan children’s lived experiences and the stories within the dual-language books.

Both languages used each day

Olivia Latu is the senior leader of the Tongan bilingual unit, Sia Mo’ui, which is run on a 50/50 model in which both languages are used for half of each day.

“Before this bilingual Tongan role, I was teaching in the mainstream and I realised that some of my students were ashamed to show they are Tongan,” she says.

“They felt it was fakamā (embarrassing) to be a Tongan. In the Tongan unit I realised they started to stand tall and feel respected; they are proud to show their language. Even their parents are very proud.
“They come and say to me that at Sunday school, their kids are best in using the Tongan language.”

“I prefer teaching in my language!” she adds.

The students learn the curriculum through both languages and the 50/50 model gives them a good grasp of their own language every day.

“Olivia wants one language to be strong so it can link well to the next language, which is English,” says Shirley.

“She nurtures it by expecting all her teachers to speak Tongan, her children to speak Tongan and the parents to speak the language when they come to whanāu fono meetings once or twice a term,” she says.

“Most of our parents are speaking Tongan at home, but in some cases, not to a high degree of competency. So they are expected to grow in their knowledge of the language and culture alongside their children. That gives extra impetus to our children’s learning. The parents want their children in the units and are committed to it.”

Benefits of being bilingual

Research shows it takes eight years for a child to become truly bilingual. And being taught in two languages has other benefits.

“We have been in this mode since 1989, and we are finding that local high schools are telling us our students are strong and have good self-esteem,” Shirley says.

“Almost every year, in the colleges around us, one of our ex-students is head boy or head girl.

“We are a low-decile school and we have people wanting to buy houses in our zone so they can get into our bilingual unit. We’ve got 1,000 students and we have a very tight zone,” she says.

Ngaahi Tefito’i ‘Ulungaanga faka-Tonga

As well as learning Tongan, the students are immersed in other aspects of Ngaahi Tefito’i ‘Ulungaanga faka-Tonga (Tongan traditions). Almost every day parents help children with reading, or work in the school garden where crops such as taro and sugar cane are grown in a traditional way. Students also learn to cook the produce in traditional dishes such as Lū Pulumasima (taro leaves cooked with coconut milk).

At the end of term 2, parents were invited to see what their children had been learning and were treated to an umu (hangi) in which some of the vegetables from the garden were cooked.

For Tongan Language Week, parents and the local community have been invited to attend a traditional Tongan ‘ilo kava ceremony.

“We will perform it and the students will be doing the kalanga (welcome) and everything in our language,” says Olivia.

“The students have been learning the background knowledge of this kava ceremony and will be running it for the adults.”

Multiculturalism celebrated

Finlayson Park School is multicultural and honours and celebrates all its cultures, says Shirley.

“Everyone mixes, plays together and learns together. A Tongan senior class might join with a Māori senior class for sport or art. We integrate our classes as much as we can because we don’t want a ‘them and us’ culture at our school.

“From my point of view as the principal, it has enriched this school because all of us have benefitted by learning in an in-depth way about Tongan culture, their knowledge and what they bring to New Zealanders, and how we can all help each other.”

The students in the bilingual unit may not have been born in Tonga but most of their parents were, and the children are immersed in the Tongan way of life in New Zealand, says Olivia.

“For us, our Tongan language is our heart language. Anything that goes through your heart, you can feel it. Your understanding and everything you learn about Tonga goes deep into your heart – your understanding will be deeper and not superficial,” she says.

Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga: Tongan Language Week runs from Sunday 1 September to Saturday 7 September 2019.

Pacific Early Literacy Project

The Ministry of Education’s Pacific Early Literacy Project (PELP) focuses on using Pacific dual-language resources to support the early literacy and language skills of young Pacific learners from new entrants to Year 2 by helping to transfer reading skills between their heritage language and English.

PELP works with schools, teachers, and families with Cook Island Māori, Niuean, Samoan, Tokelauan and Tongan students to support young Pacific children and teachers in classrooms with Pacific heritage languages to connect their linguistic and cultural knowledge. The project also promotes the development of reciprocal partnerships between home and school.

If your school would like to participate in PELP delivered to support the use of the Dual Language Series of resources for Pacific new entrants to Year 2 at English-medium schools, contact Angie Enoka at the Ministry of Education:
or visit: literacyonline.tki.org.nz/Literacy-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Pasifika-dual-language-books/Teacher-Support-and-PD-Materials.

What students think

Why do you like learning the Tongan language?

  • Because it is my first language and I’m proud to speak fluently in my language especially during Sunday School time. Tongan people are glad to hear that I’m a New Zealand born but I can speak the Tongan language well. Meleane, Year 8
  • Koe’uhi ko ‘eku tamai’ mo ‘eku fa’ee’ ’oku Tonga mo ‘eku famili’ ko e Tonga (Because my father is a Tongan, my mother is a Tongan and my families are Tongan). Siale, Year 2

Does it help you knowing Tongan? If so, how?

  • Yes, so we can communicate with the Tongan people who do not know how to speak English, like my Nana. Meleane, Year 8
  • I can be a Tongan every day. Sepesi, Year 1

What Tongan cultural things do you like doing and/or learning about the most?

  • Learning how to do the kava circle and structure of Tongan writing. I like it because it’s part of my culture. Jasmine, Year 7
  • Lau e tohi, tau’olunga (reading books). He oku ou ako ke u poto he tau’olunga pea na’a ku ua he fe’auhi tau’olunga (Dancing. I learned to dance and I got second in the Tongan dancing competition). Siale, Year 2

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

Posted: 4:24 pm, 30 August 2019

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