The power of language

Issue: Volume 97, Number 13

Posted: 30 July 2018
Reference #: 1H9jiV

Valuing Cook Islands Māori could be the key to unlocking wellbeing for children of Cook Islands descent.

Linguistics research shows that even the smallest effort to value a person’s culture and language has a tangible effect on their wellbeing and health.

Hear AUT Lecturer Dr Sally Akevai (Ake) Nicholas (pictured top right) talk about her family history and it’s not surprising that she is on a mission to help revitalise Cook Islands Māori. In fact she jokes about how she was practically “groomed” from birth to value the language.

“My grandfather is from the island of Ma'uke in the Southern Cook Islands. He got sent to New Zealand when he was young and so my mum and all my aunties and uncles were born in NZ and grew up not really being in touch with their families from back in the islands,” says Dr Nicholas.

“When my mum had me, I’m the eldest, her and my dad (who is Pākehā) decided that it was important to reconnect with that heritage so they moved to Rarotonga when I was little. I lived there until I was six and that’s how I acquired the language at the age that children normally do which is really, really fortunate for me.

“My parents, who are both teachers, were inspired by what they saw in Rarotonga with the relationship between the kids knowing their language and how much more holistically well and resilient they were than what they had experienced with Māori kids in New Zealand. They made that connection that it was the knowledge of the language that provided that strength and that resilience.

“And so when they came back to New Zealand they got very involved in the Kōhanga Reo movement. I spent the rest of my childhood under that kaupapa.”

“Eventually I ended up at university, where I studied Māori studies and linguistics and in the early part of my postgrad studies I did work about New Zealand Māori, which was great preparation for my PhD project – the description and documentation of Cook Islands Māori.

Dr Nicholas says that her parents’ experience lines up with the research she is now hearing about through her work as a linguist.

“Within linguistics the issue of the connection between wellbeing and language maintenance both on an individual level and on a community level is becoming a sort of hot topic. There’s been research coming out in, say, Canada and Australia about the connection between community language maintenance and wider wellbeing, including real serious stuff like rates of suicide and mental health and wellbeing. Or even in some cases there’s been studies that have linked. I think there’s a Canadian one that’s linked communities with higher language maintenance having lower rates of diabetes. So there’s starting to be some research that’s showing a very concrete connection between wellbeing and language maintenance.”

On the brink

It is no surprise then that Dr Nicholas is concerned by the increasing dominance of English in the Cook Islands, and in Rarotonga in particular, but also that 96.4 per cent* of Cook Islanders born in New Zealand don’t speak the language.

“Cook Islands people in New Zealand have the worst language maintenance of any group. Compare that with Samoan where we still have 50 per cent of New Zealand born Samoans speaking Samoan. Whereas we’ve got 3 per cent. So most Cook Island children who are at primary school in New Zealand now, not only do their parents not speak, but their grandparents probably don’t speak and they may know nobody who speaks the language and that’s going to be most of our children today.”

This low language retention is not surprising, given the long history the Cook Islands has with New Zealand.

“We starting coming here before everybody else. The big Pacific migration in the 60s – we were already here. My grandfather came here in 1927. Because the Cook Islands is part of New Zealand, Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens, they have complete freedom of travel and they started coming before the rest of them did, which means they’ve had longer to assimilate here in Aotearoa. And we assimilate in two directions,
We assimilate to the general Pākehā norms and we also assimilate to our Tangata Whenua cousins. because there’s quite a lot of cultural similarities. We often go in that direction, rather than in the wider Pacific direction, because Cook Island culture is probably more like the Māori culture than it is Tongan or Samoan culture. And so it’s quite comfortable and quite easy and this is really common, especially in the regions where there’s not a big Pasifika population, but there is going to be a Māori population. That’s the nice place [Māori spaces], so that’s what people do. The Cook Island Pacific identity is quite invisible. People don’t know what it is.”

Moving forward

It is this context that has driven Dr Nicholas’ work and her ambitions.

“What I produced under my PhD was a usage-based descriptive grammar of Cook Islands Māori. So there’s two elements to that. One of those is a very substantial corpus, or database, of the language as it’s used. And the other side of that is the grammar itself so the sort of written part of it which describes as much as possible the linguistic features of the language.

“Big picture, I would like to make sure that all this work that I have done can get turned into something that is useful for the community to be used in language revitalisation. At the moment the thesis is quite technical and probably not very accessible. So one of the immediate things that I’m hoping to get to is to write a pedagogically oriented grammar that can actually get used by teachers or people looking for a resource for language teaching. But then also to turn all that very valuable corpus, to set it up computationally so that it’s useable by the community, or by family or by teachers. To that end I’m collaborating with a computer science colleague trying to develop various computational tools to accelerate that process.”

Making a difference

Research shows that Cook Islands Māori is not the only language that needs help and that even small amounts of work can have an impact.

“In international language engagement discourse there’s a crisis in the world in linguistic diversity being under threat from big hegemonic languages such as English. Many communities all over the world are trying to revitalise or revive their languages. In Australia or the US or Canada there are communities where they have had no speakers of their language sometimes for a really long time and people today are trying to revive their language from written sources and have their contemporary speakers learn just some of it. And you hear stories again and again and again where people have done that project and they’ve called a hui together to try and learn their 20 words that they know and they’ve learnt these words together and then the people go away on that first step and already they feel better. Already they feel some of that positive effect of that process of accessing even that tiny part. They’re seeing the benefit.”

Dr Nicholas thinks that teachers are in a unique position to help drive some of this language revitalisation.

“There’s a lot of things that our teachers are trained to do, especially our Auckland-based teachers, where they have good skills in engaging in Mātauranga Māori or Manaakitanga Māori and in Auckland in particular they also have this general Pasifika stuff. And both of those are probably going to be overall beneficial to a Cook Island child and indeed, they are probably going to be beneficial to all children in that classroom and so that’s a good thing.

“At the same time, what happens when we do the Pasifika aggregate thing or the pan-pacific label? It has its benefits in utility but then a huge disadvantage that it has is because of the way the New Zealand Pacific population works. When we say Pasifika in New Zealand, we probably in fact mean Samoan, maybe Tongan, which is funny because there are fewer Tongans than there are Cook Islanders.

“So just including greetings or some phrases in a language is a useful thing. It’s not useless. It does help. I think it helps to say this is a welcoming environment and it also helps to say this is legitimate. This element of your culture, your heritage or your identity, we are doing it here in this classroom, therefore it’s showing that approval. That institutional approval is a powerful process.”

Mama Vaine Ngaro; Mama Tuaine Tomokino and Mama Tau Taripo every Wednesday Cook Islands’ mamas gather in Cannons Creek, Porirua to share kai and work together on Tīvaevae. Tīvaevae are among the most well-known Cook Islands cultural treasures. They have a practical use (as quilts), but are also decorative and ceremonial objects.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:10 am, 30 July 2018

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