Opinion

Speaking An Endangered Language

The race to save many unique and remote languages in danger of disappearing is a celebrated event – and it deserves the pomp and fanfare too!
23 May 2020 16:00
Speaking An Endangered Language
The Island of Rotuma.

In a suburb in Suva, my mother chants an old Rotuman folk song while rocking my baby sister to sleep.

This got me thinking of the origins of the song and how its alluring story – in song form – still echoes many years later. It is a love story between a brother and sister – Rakitefurusia and ‘Eatoso. This is also a popular folktale in many Rotuman homes in the region and those that have settled in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asian countries.

At home, conversations take place in Rotuman, Fijian (Bauan dialect), very basic Arabic and French and English. For my siblings and I, this is a privilege and multilingualism has become a norm at home – my father is iTaukei and my mother is a Rotuman-Fijian. We picked up our basic Arabic and French from our overseas travels. Our conversations can spontaneously switch to song, dance and hanuju (story telling) in Rotuman, a language my father has also embraced and is learning fast.

Of the estimated 7000 languages that are spoken around the world, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) projects that half of these will disappear by the end of the century.

The race to save many unique and remote languages in danger of disappearing is a celebrated event – and it deserves the pomp and fanfare too!

Last week, Rotumans on the island, the Rotuman diaspora and non-Rotumans celebrated Rotuma Day on May 14, and the Rotuman Language and Cultural Week that was organised and supported by the New Zealand government.

The week-long celebration prompted a global movement, empowering and encouraging Rotumans to speak their indigenous language. The celebration comes at a critical time in the language’s history, as Rotuman has been designated an endangered language by UNESCO.

Rotuman festivals and celebrations are a response to this urgent situation and a direct attempt to preserve the language and culture and I absolutely support this.

All languages have stories and can provide a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Our indigenous languages are not just spoken words.

Be it the Rotuman language or an iTaukei dialect from any of our provinces here in Fiji, language preservation is not limited to protecting spoken communication.

It is about protecting a culture deeply rooted with rich stories, poems, songs, art and dance that celebrate and value traditional knowledge.

The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages launching a global awareness raising platform for all indigenous languages in its red alert category and I welcome any chance to celebrate and explore the linguistic diversity and vitality of indigenous languages from speakers around Fiji.

I am hopeful that after this COVID-19 pandemic, we will be able to appreciate this beautiful gift called “our mother tongue” in a mass celebration where we can discover how indigenous languages are interconnected through identity, cultural heritage and traditional ecological knowledge. We must celebrate how we are a vital part of the fabric and story of humanity.

The digital world also offers an opportunity to learn our indigenous languages – I find myself writing and speaking more Rotuman via groups and page on Facebook. I am able to send a SMS to my maternal cousins in Rotuman and switch to the Bauan dialect when I converse with my paternal side of the family.

One precious thing about our indigenous languages and the many dialects we speak and understand is its vocabulary of words – in particular, for love – they change according to the age, gender and kinship of speakers and the nature of the moment.

I pen-off with a positive vibe knowing that the future for the Rotuman language is not as bleak as UNESCO anticipated – there is hope. Please keep the momentum flowing for the sake of our unique indigenous languages.

Moreover, congratulations to all that have put an effort to preserve the authenticity of our indigenous languages!

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

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