Journalist Elena Pasilio recently wrote an article for Radio New Zealand about how Tokelau has launched a digital project – Te Kupega o te Vateatea o te Gagana Tokelau (Tokelau Language Website) – to help preserve the atolls’ language.
The three atolls that make up the Tokelau group, Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu, are a protectorate of New Zealand. But many more Tokelauans, around 8000, live in New Zealand compared to the 1500 on the atolls.
With only about 4500 fluent Tokelauan speakers in the world today, the language has been classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO.
It is into this space that Te Kupega o te Vateatea o te Gagana Tokelau has been launched to revive and advance the language’s use by making access to the remote atolls’ resources available with a click of a mouse.
The goal is to give Tokelauans and non-Tokelauans everywhere an opportunity to bring the language up to pace with English in terms of learning.
Large range of accessible books and articles
The website will make resources available in the form of e-books, journals and articles to read and download in both Tokelauan and English from anywhere in the world.
Students now have the ability to learn about subjects from a Tokelau context.
The website holds 123 resources that Education Director, Elaine Lameta, said were aimed at educating students from Years 1 to 13 on subjects and issues in the Tokelau context.
“We have used the actual research that was conducted on Tokelau regarding Tokelau issues such as ocean acidification, water harvesting, climate change, and covid-19 – so these things are specific to the Tokelau context,” said Lameta. “So we have used this research and actually commissioned writers to write the books for students up at secondary level.
“Which means they are learning about their issues, in their language, from their own context.”
Lameta explained the thought process behind creating the site.
“We have developed a range of materials using science subjects for example [and] that was deliberately done so that we begin to grow the vocabulary – to create a vocabulary that expresses concepts in the scientific fields that we don’t normally use the Tokelau language for.
“From that point of view, it is really about advancing the language, not just maintaining it or revitalising it, which are all essential, but we’ve also got to see it expanding in terms of the fields that it can be used in.”
Tokelau elders played an important role in the production of the online texts’ translation before publication. “Behind every resource you will experience on the website is a team of writers, translators, moderators, illustrators, readers and editors,” Tokelau Minister of Education Kalolo said.
He acknowledged their tireless work in production, emphasising the crucial role of elders as the “quality assurers”.
Team keeping standards high
Ioane Tumua, a Nukunonu elder who proof-read translations of the Tautai Ake series written in Gagana Tokelau, said it was important to establish a committee or team to revise the translations so they are up to required standards in terms of learning the language.
“The Gagana Tokelau belongs to all Tokelau and not to one person. There is a saying that humans are temporarily living creatures so if these resources are made available and consistent, I may pass on but at least I left my voice and my words for Tokelau in the future.”
Hili Sakalia, a Nukunonu elder from the Fatupaepae (Women’s group), reflected the same sentiments as Tumua saying she was “thankful that [Tokelauans everywhere] now have this opportunity to strengthen and maintain the language because it is a treasure that is uniquely ours from our ancestors.”
The project was established with the help of the New Zealand and Australian governments.
Lameta said the website would not have been possible without the funding support from those governments, and design and technology expertise by Lift Education to build the website.
This milestone event was hosted by Nukunonu and livestreamed on the Government of Tokelau Facebook page during the second General Fono of 2022. This was also the first face-to-face General Fono for the Tokelau atolls in over 16 months.
Kalolo told the global audience at the launch that Gagana Tokelau can thrive if it is used, valued, and advanced in all areas of life and over a wide range of purposes.
“All of this can only be achieved by a collective commitment and actions,” he told the General Fono assembly and viewers of the website launch.
“The creation of print and multimedia resources mean our Gagana Tokelau continues to grow through having new words added to it through translations, and text creation in fields not previously available in our language,” Kalolo said.