Tapping into Pacific roots helps siblings’ success
31 October 2018
Staying connected to their Fijian, Māori and Samoan languages and cultures has helped a family achieve at the highest level in education.
Mother-of-five Dr Rae Si‘ilata was thankful recently to see her youngest daughter Talei walk across the stage to be awarded a master’s degree in museums and cultural heritage at a graduation ceremony in Auckland. Three of Talei’s siblings are also graduates, and her younger brother will complete his degree this year.
Rae is a lecturer in biliteracy-Pasifika at the University of Auckland and her academic focus is on bilingualism, bilingual education and second language acquisition. Her mother, Dora Simpson, was born in Savusavu, Fiji, and arrived in New Zealand in 1946. Dora was a fluent speaker of Fijian but was not allowed to use her language at school.
Rae says that part of the reason for her children’s success is staying connected to their languages, cultures and identities. The family speak some Fijian and Rae has ensured that her children stay connected to their Pacific knowledge systems, including their languages and cultural practices, with their Pacific identities being central to their success at school.
“Some of our children’s early language and literacy learning experiences occurred during family evening service time, and included Pasifika literacy practices, such as talanoa (co-constructed talk), memorisation, recitation, reading aloud, choral reading, storytelling, drama and singing. They have all done reasonably well academically, but the foundations of their academic success were nested in our whānau values and world view. Our languages are central to that success.
“Although our communicative language is mainly English, we also talanoa a lot about Pacific languages and cultures. Though we don’t speak Fijian all the time, we are committed to revitalising it in the whānau for future generations, and we are focused on keeping our children connected to Fiji, to the land where their grandmother was born, and to the family members still living there.”
Rae says New Zealand’s education system does not serve all Pacific students well. In many cases, their parents’ or grandparents’ first language is one of the languages of the Pacific, rather than English. However, there are also Pacific high achievers.
“Pacific learners are more likely to succeed if they have opportunity to retain their rich linguistic and cultural heritages; if they can see themselves, their world views and their valued knowledge represented in the valued knowledge of school; and if their identities, languages and cultures are central to what it means to be successful.”
As people of the Pacific, it is not enough to be successful academically, we also need to be successful as who we are – whether it be Fijian, Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan…
“Although my mother lost much of her productive capacity in Fijian, she still kept us connected to Fiji,” says Rae. “She is proudly Fijian; she has taught us to be proud of our Fijian heritage and to retain our cultural roots, which in turn helped me in my own education.
“As people of the Pacific, it is not enough to be successful academically, we also need to be successful as who we are – whether it be Fijian, Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan…
“Maintaining English-only monolingual classrooms will not enable multilingual children to be successful. Just as we need a solid commitment to te reo Māori and the knowledge systems of tangata whenua, we need also to validate the identities, languages and cultures of Pacific and other linguistic groups by creating bilingual opportunities and normalising multilingualism in the classroom.
“I encourage teachers with Pacific students to find out about the children’s worlds, to inquire into their existing kete of knowledge and to incorporate that into their learning. Teaching for transfer can facilitate children’s English and heritage language acquisition at the same time.”
Rae recommends critically examining class inquiry foci to ascertain whose knowledge is being included in the stories told and the knowledge shared. Teachers can use Pacific dual language books to support language and literacy learning.
“We have seen these books act as catalysts to support the utilisation of Pacific languages at school and at home. Children can also ask their parents to transfer meaningful chunks of English vocabulary into their own languages to enable them to draw on all of their language resources to support their learning at school.”
Used with permission from the Education Gazette.