As Tongan Language Week wraps up for another year, we talk to Mary Jane Kivalu, president of the NZ Tongan Tertiary Students’ Association about being Tongan and the importance of maintaining the Tongan culture and language in New Zealand
Q: Can you tell us what the New Zealand Tonga Tertiary Students’ Association is and what it is about?
A: We bring together all the Tongan students’ associations from different tertiary institutions around New Zealand. Our purpose is to bring together tertiary students who are Tongan.
What we are wanting to do is provide platforms where they can connect and network so that we can build our social capital and use it to help each other and our community in the future.
Q: What is the group’s involvement in Tongan Language Week this year?
Thanks to the support of the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, each association under NZTTSA is being encouraged to run events at each institution.
We launched a Tongan Language Week competition for our associations online and two associations took up the challenge – The University of Auckland and University of Otago. (To translate an English song into Tongan).
(Students from the University of Otago translated American singer R Kelly’s hit song: I Believe I Can Fly).
The associations are also running workshops and events … in Otago and Wellington.
Q: The theme for this year is Enriching Aotearoa with our family values. As a young Tongan, what do these mean to you and why is the theme important?
A: My family values mean a lot because it is what my parents taught me, growing up. The way I conduct myself and the way I live with respect to my parents, siblings and extended family – this leads back to how my parents raised me, which is why it means a lot.
I think it’s important because the way we conduct ourselves differentiates our culture from others, especially with old school practices like faka’apa’apa, or respect.
Other cultures think Tongans take respect to an extreme extent, but it’s who we are and it pretty much tells society how your parents raised you. That shouldn’t really be like that, but that’s what tends to happen, generally – and I know that from first-hand experience.
Q: What is your own background?
A: I was born and raised in New Zealand in Otara, Auckland. I’m the second-eldest of five girls and one boy.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to speak English at home. That was one rule that my dad was really strict about. He wouldn’t reply to us or would growl us off if we spoke to him in English.
I think that was mainly because no matter where we were or what we did, if something happens that requires us to be able to speak or understand Tongan, he wanted to make sure were able to.
I was also raised in the Siasi’o Tonga Hou’eiki Church, in Mt Wellington, which helped a lot with my Tongan language because everything was in Tongan. Sometimes kids had to get up and say speeches during feeds or events.
This helped with my understanding of the structure of a Tongan speech and the formalities and it’s a bit weird for me now because when I discuss biblical stories or my understanding of the Bible, I have to think about it in Tongan and then try and explain it in English.
Q: As a young Tongan in New Zealand, what do you think of the state of the language?
A: I think people need to speak it more. Even I struggle sometimes and I was raised to speak Tongan at home my whole life. I think it also comes down to whether parents pass the language on or not.
I have friends who were raised in Tonga their whole lives and they struggle to speak Tongan also. It’s important to learn for the sake of the future of our culture and so that we can interact and have conversations with most of our family and friends who remain in Tonga.
I have noticed that the further south in New Zealand you go, the less likely you will be able to find a New Zealand-born Tongan who can speak fluently in Tongan.
Q: Lastly, tell us about your pride for your language and culture and why it is important to uphold them.
A: I love my culture and my language. I’ve noticed that there’s this certain way that fluent Tongan speakers talk to each other and it captures the essence of being Tongan. I can’t explain it in words, but I always hope to be able to speak like that one day.
My Tongan-born friends mock me, sometimes, when I struggle to understand things in Tongan. But I don’t mind because I learn from them when they pick out the mistakes and like all Tongans, we laugh about it.
Only Tongans can uphold the Tongan culture and language and New Zealand has given us a chance to make our mark here. This is our chance to be more than just a few dots in the Pacific Ocean.
This is the beginning of how we tell the rest of the world about our culture and language. The more we uphold these and practice them every day, the less likely it is to die out.
We can ignore this possibility, but we see it happen every day with other cultures and languages, so we shouldn’t let that happen to us.
**Check out the final events marking Tongan Language Week here.
New Zealand News