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Dr Sarai Tufala (middle) with daughter Elisa Tufala (right) and daughter-in-law Venepa Tulafono Tufala. Photo / Supplied
Tuvalu Language Week comes to an end today, as the small island nation celebrates 44 years of independence. The 2018 Census shows just over 4600 Tuvaluans live in New Zealand, with an estimated 3000 people able to speak the mother tongue. We meet a young Tuvaluan Kiwi working to maintain her mother tongue and a connection to her roots.
Auckland high school English teacher Elisa Tufala knows all too well the importance of knowing and understanding a language – dedicating her days to teaching her students.
But what they may not know is that their teacher is on a journey of her own; working to reconnect with a language that belongs to her.
The 32-year-old is learning all things Tuvaluan – from the language to dance and performance – in a bid to get reconnected to her roots and motherland: Tuvalu.
“At the moment, it’s like a toddler learning how to speak,” she laughed.
“When people are speaking Tuvaluan, they’ll say a word and I’ll pick it up. But I wouldn’t understand the whole conversation.”
Tufala teaches at Liston College in Henderson, West Auckland. She is also a self-proclaimed Westie; having grown up in the area and attended Kelston Girls’ College.
Most of her friends were Samoan or Tongan and so she picked up words in those languages over the years, she said.
Tufala’s parents are of Tuvaluan and Tokelauan descent. When they migrated to New Zealand, there was a push for their six children to know how to speak English, so English was the prominent language used.
“We didn’t speak Tuvaluan at home. It was just too much of a hassle. It was that migration idea, I guess – [the focus] on education, working, buying houses.
“When more Tuvaluans started coming to New Zealand, we didn’t know them.”
Tufala acknowledged that it would be in her later years that she realised her want to connect with her roots – and to learn her mother tongue properly.
“Some words are similar to other Pacific languages like Samoan. In Tuvaluan, hello is Talofa – the same as Samoan. Goodbye is also the same – tōfā. Fetaui is sort of like catch you later.”
One of the big things that is helping her to stay involved with her culture and language is taking part in cultural dancing and family items set up by her husband Reuben O’Brien’s family, who also hail from Tuvalu.
“My husband speaks fluent Tuvaluan and sometimes when I say something, he looks at me and laughs,” she laughed.
“I tell you, it’s hard. I’ve been trying to go to the dances but when you haven’t grown up around the people there, when you arrive, they don’t know you and you don’t know them.
“But I really don’t want that for my descendants. I want them to know where they are from and speak the language.”
The young teacher is also involved with a special homework centre run in Ranui every fortnight specifically for students of Tuvalu descent and their parents.
Tufala’s mother is well-respected community leader and mental health expert, particularly in the Pacific field, Dr Sarai Tufala.
Dr Tufala can speak or hold a conversation in six languages – English, Tuvaluan, Tokelauan, ni Kiribati, French and Samoan.
She grew up in Kiribati before her family migrated to New Zealand in the 1970s in search of better opportunities.
“In those days, English was the language to speak. You didn’t speak your own language,” she said.
After marrying husband Senio Tufala and having their children, the couple stuck to the idea of maintaining English as the main language used in their home and raising their family.
“At the that time, when other people heard me speak Tuvaluan for some reason, they’d say: ‘Wow, you can speak it’?
“I used to say to my husband sometimes: ‘Can you speak to the kids in Tuvaluan’? Unfortunately, we spoke English most of the time.”
Dr Tufala said she was happy about her daughter’s moves to pick up the Tuvaluan language now, as an adult, but acknowledged her own regret at not maintaining it earlier on in her children’s lives.
“It’s just a reminder to other Tuvaluans and ethnicities to speak it in the home because we’ll lose it.
“The Tuvaluan community here in New Zealand is very small. But they’re very robust.”
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