Mālō e lelei! It is Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga – Tongan Language Week. Here Lillien Skudder from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work talks about her own journey learning Tongan – and her hopes for her children.
Hi my name is Lilien Skudder. I am from Tutakamotonga in Tonga. I came to New Zealand with my parents and two older sisters when I was only one month old (1970). Growing up our parents encouraged us to only speak English in our home, however they mainly spoke to us in Tongan. We could understand the language but we could not hold a long conversation. Learning English was a matter of survival for us as a family in New Zealand. I remember as a young child translating for my parents when dealing with Pākehā people. Filling in forms was another responsibility and at 16 years old I was doing
all my family members’ tax returns. We had to grow up very fast and understand how to assimilate into New Zealand society.
With the encouragement of one of my daughters I am doing Tongan language night classes on Wednesdays at the MIT Pasifika Centre this year. This is for free and is on for 10 weeks. We are into week 4 and I am learning so much and my pronunciation is so much better than it was before. What I like the most is that I am doing it with one of my daughters. We are practicing having short conversations, reading easy Tongan books and going back on the work that we did that week. My parents currently live in Tonga and when I call them I try out my Tongan language with my Tongan accent. Every now and again I catch them out and we would have a small Tongan conversation before my mum would say ‘who is this?’
My children are half Tongan and half Samoan. I had asked my parents to help me teach my children when they were toddlers but they did not agree. They still felt that English would be the best language for them. My oldest daughter put my beautiful grandsons into a Samoan Early Childhood Education centre and they attended her husband Samoan church. My grandson (4 years old) was practicing his scriptures that he would say for white Sunday in Samoan and my parents were so impress with his ability to speak Samoan. I also believed that they were a little jealous because he wasn’t speaking Tongan. I told them that it wasn’t too late to teach him and all their great grandchildren. As a Tongan grandmother I teach them simple Tongan words and it makes me so happy when they use the Tongan language every now
Tongan language is very important to me as one of my biggest regret is not learning my language while my grandmother Sikati Lahi was still alive. Our communication was so limited yet I wanted to tell her so much. I didn’t know how to ask her questions in Tongan except how was your day? I wanted her to tell me about her childhood or about how she met my grandfather and what was he like. Now that my parents are over 70 years old I don’t want their grandchildren to sit with them and not have anything to say to them because language has become the barrier of socialising as a family. I encourage all Tongans to keep our language a live and part of your identity. It is never too late to learn how to speak Tongan.
This a photo of the eldest child from five generations of Tongans (except me with the yellow flower, the eldest is my oldest sister Ella). From left Baby Blake, Rosie, Lilien, Sepi, Sikati. If I could leave my children anything it would be my Tongan language and culture because it is a part of my identity and theirs. I want them to reclaim the language and Tongan culture to honour those that had come before them.