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I Don’t Speak the Language – Does that Make Me Less Pacific?

“I don’t understand what they’re saying and I tend to withdraw or walk away. I feel embarrassed that I don’t speak the language, but what can I do? I look silly when I try and look uncultured when I don’t.”

I listened as a young Pacific woman shared her story of how her inability to speak her native Pacific language affected her throughout her life.  It left her feeling displaced and out of touch. It also made her feel less Pacific.

Despite her feelings of isolation, she is not alone. There are hundreds of us who have experienced the feeling of disconnect and shame that is associated with not being able to speak a Pacific language. I too know how it feels.

When my parents sent me to Tonga as a teen, I didn’t even consider that communication would be a problem. But I soon found that not having any understanding of the Tongan language made me feel lesser than my peers. I made it my mission to change that – no matter how stupid I looked. That experience gave me a unique perspective, and with that I hope to shatter misconceptions for Pacific people everywhere, who have ever questioned their connection with their culture because of language.

The short answer is no

When I learnt how to speak Tongan, I realised I was no more Pacific than before. The language didn’t change who I was – I was and will always be a Pacific person. What it gave me was a bridge that connected me with people who could explain our culture to me more fully.  Language didn’t broaden my understanding – people did. And the more I could communicate with them, the more I could absorb.

With this new perspective, I realised that language and culture is similar to my experience of being a woman. I was born a woman, and will always be a woman. No amount of knowledge or wisdom will ever change that. Whether I am proud or ashamed to be one, the fact will always remain the same: I am a woman. With this analogy in mind, I ask you this: Does language change who you are? I didn’t think so. If you are a Pacific person –  nothing can take that away from you.

It’s never too late

Like me, you can still learn. Open yourself to different ways of absorbing this beautiful part of our culture. I learnt through reading and shamelessly speaking out what few words I knew. For others, language classes, music and art worked best.  I won’t lie, it’s not easy. But with time, practice and consistency, you’ll get there. And once you do, it’ll open your eyes to our culture in a way like never before.

Shifting focus

Regardless of whether you’ll ever speak the language or not, it’s important to start thinking more openly about what makes a person Pacific.  It’s all about inclusion and we all know how that works – it’s what makes our culture so warm and welcoming.

There’s always something that can be done about a language barrier. If you don’t speak it – you can always learn. If you do – you can always teach. Embrace those who are trying their best, and welcome those who have no intention to learn it at all. At the end of the day, preserving our language is and will always be important – but not as important as embracing who you are. That is what truly matters, and that is what makes you Pacific.

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Cecilia Sagote, Editor in Chief of SUGA Magazine