The bottom line: preserving Pacific cultures through language conservation


Of Utah’s 38,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 44 percent report speaking a language other than English at home. The figures are even higher in Polynesian families, with 45 percent of Utah Samoans and 68 percent of Utah Tongans reporting use of at least two household languages.

But according to Marianna Di Paolo, a professor of sociolinguistics and anthropology at the University of Utah, most immigrant families will lose their language of national origin within three generations. Although little research has been done on language attrition in Pacific Islanders — Di Paolo and her colleague Adrian Bell are some of the first to research Tongan language use in American immigrant communities — the standard seems to hold as true for Polynesian languages as it does for more researched languages like Spanish and Italian.

“The norm is loss in three generations,” Di Paolo said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t mean it has to be that way, but that’s the norm.”

Marianna Di Paolo

Anthropologist Marianna Di Paolo is one of the first researchers to study Tongan language use in the U.S.

Di Paolo explained that language loss frequently occurs as a byproduct of assimilation. First-generation immigrants, who arrive in the United States with varying levels of English proficiency, tend to use their language of national origin in the home, so children born to immigrants often learn their ancestral languages before or alongside English. However, most bilingual children go on to attend primarily English-speaking schools full of primarily English-speaking students.

“The children start using English primarily with their peers, so who are they going to marry? People who are also using English with their peers,” Di Paolo said. “English will become the household language of the second generation, the generation that is born and raised here.”

This means that third-generation Pacific Islanders born into English-speaking households are far less likely to speak and understand their ancestral languages than their older family members.

“If English becomes the language of the home, it is very likely that the grandchildren of immigrants will shift completely to English, or only use Samoan when talking with a grandparent, or understand Samoan but not speak it,” Di Paolo said. “In three generations, you have moved from a nearly-monolingual Samoan-speaking family to a nearly-monolingual English-speaking family.”

Marianna Di Paolo

Much of Di Paolo’s research focuses on recording and revitalizing immigrant and indigenous languages.

Heritage languages are lost even more quickly when first-generation parents use English in the home or choose not to teach their children their ancestral languages. Sisi Muti, who teaches Tongan language at Pacific Heritage Academy in Salt Lake City, said she sees this frequently in her students’ families.

“They moved to America to learn English, not to perpetuate Tongan,” Muti said in a telephone conversation. “That’s why they’re here — they want their kids to learn English well.”

But Muti believes that learning a heritage language can be a valuable experience for Polynesian children, grounding them in their culture of origin and giving them a sense of identity.

“Losing the language is the beginning of losing a culture,” she said. “Even here in America, it is important that they know their identity and know who they are.”

Muti said educating immigrant parents on the link between language and identity development is critical to preserving Polynesian languages in Utah’s Pacific Islander communities.

Di Paolo agreed, noting a long-standing history of misinformation about the harms and benefits of learning two languages as a child.

“Educators have misinformed parents about bilingualism, saying that learning two languages in early childhood actually harms children. It absolutely does not,” Di Paolo said. “It improves a positive sense of identity and it improves cognitive development.”

Di Paolo said families who continue to use their language of national origin in the home stand a much better chance of retaining their language beyond the three-generation average, but may still face other challenges.

“That supports it in the home, but it isn’t probably, in the long run, the only support that the language will need,” she said. “It is incumbent on some other part of society to create some other situation where language can be used.”

These “other situations” are known as domains: sociocultural settings in which languages can be used. Along with home and school, possible domains include work, church and government settings. In a viable domain, the use of any given language is not suppressed; in an optimal domain, it is facilitated and encouraged.

“Keeping the heritage language alive means that there have to be places for people to use the language and have pride as they’re using the language,” Di Paolo said. “The more domains that are possible for the language to be used, the more likely it is that Samoan will persist.”

While not immigrants, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand have seen great success in revitalizing their ancestral language, Te Reo Maori, in part due to its recent reintroduction into school and government settings throughout that country. Curleen Pfeiffer, a Utah educator and member of the Navajo Nation, believes the Maori people’s techniques for language preservation may have transpacific significance here in Utah.

To date, Pfeiffer has led four groups of Native Utahns across the ocean to study language preservation in New Zealand. The trips started as general cultural exchanges, but took on a new focus after Pfeiffer was touched by the value the Maori place on their language.

“The importance of language started really hitting me, and I turned my purposes totally around to language specifically,” Pfeiffer said in an interview at the American Indian Resource Center. “I really wanted to help the tribes of Utah see and understand for themselves how language is vitally important for our culture to remain alive.”

Pfeiffer brings Native students, educators and tribal leaders to New Zealand to study Te Ataarangi, a Maori teaching method that claims to have helped more than 50,000 people learn Te Reo. Pfeiffer has adapted Te Ataarangi to teach Dine, the Navajo language, and hopes to emulate the Maoris’ success in her own linguistic community.

Pfeiffer also hopes the students who visit New Zealand with her will understand the cultural significance of their own languages and be inspired to advocate for their preservation.

“Language is the bottom line,” Pfeiffer said. “Just like reading is the bottom line for education, language is the bottom line for culture. And if we want to keep our culture, we’ve got to do something. We can’t just sit back and let it fade away.”

%d bloggers like this: