Published Thursday 27 Oct 2022

Mālo ni! For our Tokelauan Language Week celebrations we spoke with a staff member who is part of a rare group of fluent speakers of this endangered language in Aotearoa.

When it comes to Tokelauans in Aotearoa, Hanele Lemisio is part of a close but small community.

The MHAIDS (Mental Health, Addiction and Intellectual Disability Service) Duty Manager is one out of only 8,767 Tokelauans in New Zealand. But he is rarer still as he part of an astoundingly low 23 percent of Tokelauans here who can speak their language.

In fact, the ability for Tokelauans in Aotearoa to speak their native language has become so dire, the UNESCO, has classified the language as severely endangered.

Hanele said he wasn’t surprised by the classification. Although being born in Tokelau, and coming to Aotearoa when he was six, the only way he has managed to stay fluent all these years is by forcing himself to have conversations with his parents … something he knows others haven’t been as eager, or able, to do.

“It’s really sad. I’m not surprised, but it’s really sad,” Hanele said of the classification and the low Tokelauan-speaking figures.

“I realised as I got older that if I didn’t have regular conversations with parents, my ability to speak started to slip. So I made an effort to make sure I spoke in Tokelauan every day to prevent me from losing it.

“I also noticed that my siblings weren’t able to keep up when they didn’t engage regularly in Tokelauan. Although they can speak it to a degree, they’re not as fluent as when they first got here. Thankfully I can lean on my parents for conversation but as I said, I have to consciously do it. If you don’t take that opportunity to talk regularly in the language, somewhere along the line it will drop off.”

Hanele said he was calling on all Tokelauans to take a stand against losing their language and for them to rather embrace it not only during Tokelauan Language Week, but in everyday life.

“It’s really important that Tokelauans stand up otherwise no one will know about us. Stats show we are losing the language here so taking every opportunity to showcase it is great. It worries me that by the time my nieces and nephews reach my age they might not be able to speak any words at all. We Tokelauans need to do more and show people how proud we are of the language and speak it at every opportunity which includes just saying Mālo ni (greetings). That would be a start.”

Hanele intends to celebrate Tokelauan Language Week with his family which is what he said the Tokelauan culture is all about.

“What excites me the most about my culture is the family side of things. Like most pacific people, family is really important and everything you do is for family and everything they do is for you. For me that’s what being Tokelauan is all about.

“We are also a very unique culture where in Tokelau the female has a strong role in family. We call them the Fatupaepae which is like the foundation and strength of the family. It usually goes to the oldest female in the family whether it’s the oldest sister or mum but either way they play a really significant role in the family in what they do for the family.”

This year's theme for Te Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau – Tokelau Language Week is "Halahala ki vavau, kae ke mau ki pale o Tokelau" which means "To plan for the future is to understand the past."

Connect online by visiting the official NZ Tokelau Language Week Facebook page.