Mother Language – Bringing us together

20 February 2018

Today is International Mother Tongue Language Day and we caught up with 10th UNESCO Youth Forum participant, Fale Lesa, who works to promote the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. Fale is a passionate proponent of the importance of mother tongue learning.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But I grew up wrestling with more than one.

Native in Samoan and immersed in her rich culture and heritage I was confident at home, and in our wider ethnic community, where I felt accepted. School was that weird place where the sky was always falling. It was there I quickly discovered I was a minority and that most people had a very negative view of my kind. They laughed at the way I spoke and excluded me because I was unusual. So, in my desire to fit in, I pursued an experiment I am not terribly proud of today, perhaps shared by other immigrants too. I needed to be less Samoan for others to like me. It started by speaking with a polished accent, insisting that my relatives use English, even avoiding Samoan friends and replacing them altogether. It would take at least a decade before I realized inner demons were robbing me of an authentic experience. Here I was trading thousands of years in tradition and identity for just a few years of schoolyard popularity. The all too powerful language of the mob rule was drowning out my own voice. You see language is like a double-edged sword. It has divided us in much the same way that it has brought us together. It was the language of the majority that made me feel primitive rather than equal. A language of privilege that compelled me to use less of my own. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones and I now lead a life of duality. I am neither Samoan nor New Zealander. I am both and it is truly glorious! Sometimes, society fools you into choosing one or the other.

In just a couple of generations, half of all languages will vanish from the face of this earth. Each one with its own record of a people with mutual destiny. It seems in our haste to go forward, we too are selling ourselves short by abandoning those who came before us. When Polynesians left Asia to settle the Pacific, we brought our languages along for the voyage. In them, we spoke life to our unique customs and traits. Embracing their new surroundings, my ancestors also honoured ways of the old and would pass their wisdom down to this very day. I write for all of them and for the struggles like mine around the world that threaten our lavish tongues and ideas. Assimilation should never mean shame or disregard. It should symbolize coexistence and the preservation of lessons from the past as we charter a future together. I hope that my time at school dies with this generation and that we learn to value diversity as a strength. But most of all, that we may fight to save our endangered languages because each one is an anchor to our origin stories. Let the record show that there is no tomorrow without yesterday. That mother language day is as much a challenge as it is a celebration. Now is the time to champion technology and social change to help promote the survival of all languages. Congratulate someone who knows another language however small. Make them feel great because they are living anchors to our history.