National | Language

Raising awareness for 'severely endangered' Tokelauan language

This week marks the beginning of Tokelau Language Week which UNESCO says is 'severely endangered'. According to statistics the number of Tokelauan speakers now sits at 4000.

Porirua's Tokelauan community are doing their best to revitalise their language.

Les Atoni, President of the Afatu Tokelau Community Group in Wellington says "Tokelauan language is one of the dying languages of the Pacific alongside Vagahau Niue and the Cook Island Māori.  So its revival for us at the moment, it's trying to bring more awareness at this stage."

According to the 2013 General Census, just over 7000 Tokelauans resided in New Zealand compared to 1500 in Tokelau. But of that only 32% identified as speakers of Tokelauan, a decrease from 38% in 2006.

Atoni says "We've got classes running, we've got school children programs running with support from MSD and Pasifika Future and the ongoing and regular gatherings that we have up here. We take every opportunity to celebrate."

There are mounting fears that numbers will continue to decrease with climate change a growing threat to Tokelau and its culture.

"What science is saying is that eventually we are going to have to move off our island and if we do so where is our language going to end up? Where is our culture?" says Atoni.

Minister for Pacific People’s Aupito William Sio says "The battle against climate change is a global battle. Every nation in the world has to take collective responsibility and provide leadership.”

Later this month Government will host NGOs and Pacific leaders at the Council for International Development’s annual conference in Wellington where they’ll be given an opportunity to respond to its Pacific Reset agenda that aims to foster New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific.

Labour's Tokelauan MP Kris Fa’afoi visited his home country earlier this month and says it’s pivotal the Government maintains its relationship with the Pacific.

"The pressure is to make sure we can follow that up with actions in and around the language, health, housing and education."

As Tokelau Language Week draws closer to an end, Tokelauan descendants hope their language won't.