By Dr Sakul Kundra
The decade from 2022-2032 is proclaimed as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations General Assembly. The mission of the resolution is to promote, revitalize, preserve and reinvigorate native languages. According to UNESCO there are approximately 3,000 languages that may disappear by the end of the century, and out of 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world the indigenous languages come to 6,700 that are under threat.
Many scholars feel that the European languages were imposed on indigenous populations, while others argue that strategies of assimilation acted as a type of ethnocide or linguistic genocide. As per UN, all of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Languages are under constant threat that need urgent attention. There are many indigenous languages in the Pacific Islands, like approximately 138 in Vanuatu, 76 in the Solomon Islands, 28 in New Caledonia and 832 living languages in Papua New Guinea (Tamata, 2019). Languages are a pivotal means to connect to their cultural roots and heritage, and if these languages are declining, that raises eyebrows.
In Oceania, the youngest constitution of Fiji (2013) has recognised the languages of indigenous people or the iTaukei; Rotuman Language; Language of descendants of the indentured labourers from British India; languages of descendants of the settlers and immigrants to Fiji. The provisions are made in legal and constitutional governments to safeguard the indigenous language in many other Oceania nations’ constitutions. This op-ed elucidates the theme of a historical discourse on the threat to Indigenous languages of Oceania and focuses on the most spoken languages of Fiji.
Conquest from the top: Colonial Era
Colonization exacerbated the long-term process of erasing Indigenous culture, tradition, and language. The period underwent a drastic transformation in identity and traditional practices. The suppression of dominant language by the colonizers was the rule of the day. In Oceania, there was a decline of indigenous languages, i.e. in Fiji most spoken languages are I-Taukei and Fiji-Hindi/Fiji Baat, followed by Rotuman.
Many may question the criteria to categorize these languages as indigenous, but this article focuses on the discourse of decline and revival strategies. With the enforcement of colonial language over the Pacific nations, the native languages witnessed a slow decline. Europeans saw the native languages as primitive and were also unable to present their mission to propagate their religion. Their motive to expand in the Pacific Islands was 3Gs Gold (exploring fortunes), God (propagating religion) and Glory (expanding politically). Under this mission, they wanted their language to become the means of communication.
Gradually, under their political-imperial motives, colonizers changed the names of sites and landmarks and attempted to rewrite history to reflect the ‘civilizing mission’ of Europeans as a motive behind conquering Oceania. The new narratives of history did not give much space to indigenous people’s achievements and accomplishments in context. They attempt to mould the culture and heritage of indigenous people and supersede the native language. Their mission of systematic marginalization of native local languages and imposing superstructures and institutions was a well-drafted objective. The colonizers shared a vision that indigenous languages created a hurdle in their mission to achieve ‘modernity’ under their ‘civilizing mission’. Thus they made strategies to eliminate indigenous languages.
Due to the country’s diversity of cultures and languages, Fiji has worked to preserve and safeguard its indigenous languages. Warning of extinction of indigenous iTaukei and Fiji Hindi language is stated by renowned Professor Subramani, he stated “Simply because there is no writing in the language. I’m concerned that the indigenous iTaukei language is not being enriched by writing. And when the language is not enriched by writing, it is not recorded in writing. Then there’s a gradual demise of the language”. In recent times, there has been an awareness to safeguard the indigenous languages and the emergence of the renaissance movement to rediscover the indigenous culture and language (Nabobo-Baba, 2013). The revival and transmitting of the indigenous language by concrete measures are necessary to safeguard the treasure of language, oral tradition, dances, ceremonies, literature, histories, and knowledge for future generations.
Fiji-Hindi language came along with the indentured labourers from India to Fiji as a purported Girmit era from 1879-1916, with approximate 60,000 labourers. The language usage is declining overall, but this decline is researched at the university level by Prashneel Gounder and Preetika Prasad (2017). Among the reasons for decline are array of barriers like young children being taught English language from birth and employment sector demanding English over any other language. Other similar factors can be social causes, where people moving to urban areas are immersed in learning English. Many scholars have debated the “where,how and in what forums it [Fiji Hindi or Fiji Baat] should be spoken, sung, read or taught” (Delaibatiki, Fiji Sun, 12 Feb 2020).
This op-ed evaluates the reasons for the decline without going into past divisive and factual debates. The gradual decline of indigenous languages is a danger to losing the mother tongue, traditional values, and identity and cultural roots. Many students are learning English in English medium schools, where speaking in English is preferred over another language except for their mother tongue language classes. The number of students studying in their own mother tongue is declining.
Learning English is associated with being associated with high class and having a distinction among their peers, which is the popular belief. The lack of indigenous institutions that promote all studies in the mother tongue has become another deciding factor. This perennial question needs to be further brainstormed to make way for future pathways. Similarly, the Rotuman language needs to be protected in Fiji and Rotuma, UNs Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has put the Rotuman language as an endangered language. In a nutshell, there is a long way forward to take initiatives to protect these languages.
In Fiji, the protection and preservation of Indigenous languages like iTaukei, and other languages, Fiji-Hindi, Rotuman and similar languages is the need of the hour. The objective is to safeguard the lingua franca of all communities that are facing a challenge from the colonial language. Many efforts are made to revive these languages and many people are becoming aware of safeguarding the language, culture, tradition and heritage. Social media have used languages besides English, to express their views in indigenous languages.
Progressive means of propagating the indigenous language are telecasting programs in indigenous languages; airing the radio in the native language; use of the internet and its diverse forms to spread the language; use of audio-visual technologies; advocating for teaching indigenous languages in the primary and secondary language; printing newspapers, magazines, official documents and other reference material in indigenous languages; supporting the music, film and television programs in indigenous languages. The responsibility should be shared among all stakeholders like parents, community, society and policymakers.
Author: Dr Sakul Kundra is an assistant professor in history and Acting Head of School, School of Arts and Humanities, College of Humanities and Education, at Fiji National University.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are his own and not of The Australia Today or his employer. Email [email protected]