Children playing at sunset Photo by Rene Bernal

Are we in danger of losing our language?

With each new generation we seem to be speaking less and less to our children.  I'm not talking about those still in the islands but those who have moved away from Samoa.  Even the 30-something generation is more familiar with English than Fa'asamoa.  As it has already been stated "language defines culture."  Since many of us are growing up in the English culture, it is probably the reason we use the English language to speak to others because it defines our lives. 

All of us are familar with the numerous cognates of the Samoan language.  Some we might have even thought were Samoan.  Take for example the word for bear (urosa).  That sounds nothing like bear.  But, that is because our culture didn't need a word for bear.  There aren't any in Samoa.  Initially it comes from ursa the latin word for bear.  (Ursa Major)  big bear or big dipper.  This word more than likely entered our language from the early missionaries to Samoa.  They would have taken the word from the Holy Bible and then translated it.

Today however, I have heard outrageous cognates like the use of the word sali.  Am I to assume that this is Samoan for sorry?  It is true we don't have a word for sorry but, that can be traced back to our culture (I address this in another article.)  So if we are borrowing English words and Samoanizing them are we really speaking Samoan or is it an unusual dialect of English?


Two people talking during a sunset Photo by Harli Marten

Why don't we speak our language?

An afatasi I know grew up in the states.  He was raised palagi.  In an effort to know his Samoan culture he purchased a worthless little Samoan language book and went to work studying the language.  His effort was tremendous.  His results were pathetic.  Why?  Samoans don't speak Samoan to people who are trying to learn the language.  The last statement was a little over-generalized I admit.  There are a few Samoans willing to speak to a person trying to learn.  And that person is usually ones Samoan Grandma.  So, after laboring over a greeting and a few comments regarding the weather.  She rewards her student with an "Oi Talofae."  Then she speaks to the student in broken English.

I think the reason we may lose our language is first Samoans are excellent linguists.  They pick up English so well that most palagis don't realize that Samoan might not be their first language.  Truly, I can think of no other culture that speaks English so well.  I grew up in area where there were Tongan families.  The parents struggled to speak English.  As a result they spoke Tongan to the kids.  The kids went to school and spoke English but at home it was Tongan.  The same is true with the hispanics.  The parents struggle to speak English so, they speak Spanish in the home.  In both cultures the kids grow up truly bi-lingual. 

Samoans on the other hand don't stuggle with the language.  Admittedly, there are some who do, and all of us have fobbed out once or twice in our life.  But, overall Samoans speak English with little or no accent.  This I believe, results in English being spoken in the home.  In these homes, kids understand very well the meaning of "Aua" or "Soia"  and that, unfortunately,  is the extent of the Samoan language aquisition in most Samoan homes today.

Man playing with children Photo by Jude Beck

What do we do?

It may seem hard, but, the reality is, if we don't speak Samoan we will lose Fa'asamoa.  If our language defines our culture and we all speak English, than English is our culture.  Are we willing to lose the beautiful aspects of Fa'asamoa because it is a little tedious to remember to speak to our kids?  If it is just easier to speak English, is Fa'asamoa a culture of ease?  I know that it is not.  There are things about the culture that frustrate some of us.  However, there is so much beauty in it.  The only solution I see is to speak to our kids.  I know the older we get the more we will wish our children could speak.  Because in a sea of English culture a Samoan should know how to navigate that sea like they did through the Pacific seas long ago, and arrive at a beautiful destination of hard work, respect and love that our culture has come to be defined as.