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Taking ownership of your language

Taking ownership of your language

  • 21 Jul 2019
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Growing up in the Cook Islands, Janet Akai experienced the best of both worlds. 

The Cook Islands Development Agency New Zealand (CIDANZ) Business Improvement Manager’s parents came from different islands, so Janet was raised between Aitutaki, Atiu and Rarotonga. 

“I got the very best of Aitutaki’s blue lagoons, freshly home-baked bread buttered with the smoothest butter on Atiu, and the glam of Rarotonga,” Janet says. 

This is all changed when Janet’s father passed away, and a year later, her family moved to New Zealand, where adjusting to new cultures and people was difficult. 

Janet’s ability to speak English was helpful in her new home, she adds. 

“My mother grew up during that era where speaking Māori in school was punishable, and she did not want me to go through the same experiences. 

“I stopped speaking Māori entirely by the age of five, but could still understand it.” 

However, Janet has never lost touch with her Cook Islands heritage and in 2013, she began volunteering at CIDANZ. 

The South Auckland-based organisation works alongside Cook Islands and Pacific families to help them harness an enterprising spirit to lift them and their communities out of a deficiency mind-set, as well as to provide a measure of financial sustainability to realise their dreams. 

For the past four years, Janet has led the facilitation of Cook Islands Language Week – ‘Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani, working alongside the Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP). 

She has been instrumental in planning this year’s Language Week which starts on August 4-10. 

For the team at CIDANZ, Cook Islands Language Week means deepening the community’s ownership of their language, growing within them the knowledge that the continued preservation and nourishment of the Cook Islands language must first start within each of us, Janet says. 

“It takes strength and courage to do this within our diverse communities across New Zealand, and also to teach young people that being Kiwi does not mean having to put aside of part of who they are to blend in. 

“Their language makes them stronger, equipping them with stronger tools to navigate New Zealand society as a Cook Islands young person.” 

Each year CIDANZ has led the Cook Islands Language Week, it has focused on different communities and demographics to understand how they feel about the language. 

“In 2016 we focused on our Auckland young people who said they love, and would like to learn our language, but between family, school, sports, church, and friends, learning the language took a backseat.” 

In 2017, CIDANZ focused on Hamilton women/mothers, where it discovered by creating an environment which encouraged people to speak the Cook Islands language, relearning it was possible. 

The following year, the focus shifted to Christchurch fathers/men and through them, CIDANZ has learnt that although mothers were the caretakers of the language, young people still looked to their fathers or father figures for that guidance. 

“This year we’ve come full circle and instead of focusing on those of our community who needed to ‘step-up’ and take the torch, we searched for a community rich and thriving in the Cook Islands culture, which brought us to Tokoroa.

“Through the Tokoroa community we came to understand we needed to bring the focus back to all our Cook Islands people living in New Zealand who are now the third or fourth generation migrants,” she adds. 

By shining a light on each area which affects our young people, our women and our men, CIDANZ was able to broaden the concepts of language use and importantly the ownership of language. 

As a country, Aotearoa New Zealand can only do so much to encourage its diverse communities and young people to embrace their cultures, Janet says. 

“Language week is important, but we must teach our young people and always remember that it is our individual responsibility to learn and embrace our language and culture - it is not the responsibility of Parliament, organisations, our parents or teachers, it is ours.” 

Language Week does not just have to be celebrated for one week per year, Janet says. 

“As soon as each of us takes ownership of learning, speaking, teaching, and encouraging the use of our language, then encouraging others to do the same would be easy.”