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Lea Mai

Updated: May 31, 2022

Lea Mai = speak to me.


Of the three languages I can speak, English is by far the one I am most comfortable with.

I'd say my Tongan is my 2nd comfort, and Japanese is my worst ๐Ÿ˜‚ ๐Ÿ˜‚. My mother describes my Japanese as ๆ€ชใ—ใ„ (ayashii) which means suspicious. I have a good accent and right pronunciation most times, but sometimes I tend to think in English and attempt to translate that straight off into Japanese, but it won't make sense because of the different grammar structure. ๐Ÿ˜‚ Anyway, the point being, my Japanese kinda sucks, my Tongan is okay, and in my head, English is my default language setting. How did that happen?


My parents sent me to an English-speaking primary school (Tonga Side School). I also went to a high school that was supposed to be English speaking lol (Tonga High School). That's the school policy, but when I was there, teachers and students only really spoke English during assembly and English classes. The rest of the classes were delivered in 70% Tongan and 30% English from what I remember. I could be remembering wrong because it was 10 years ago since I graduated high school and it's probably different now.๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚


At school, there is a Tala 'o Tonga language course which was offered from Form 1/Year 7 to Form 5/ Year 11 I think. As a mixed kid, I had the choice to opt-out. I remember my dad telling me "You were born and raised in Tonga, and you can already speak basic Tongan. That's already enough. Go learn Japanese in school because you can't read and write in Japanese". So, me being the obedient daughter, that's what I did. Looking back now, I wish I had picked up those Tala 'o Tonga classes as well. I personally think Tongan, in particular, formal Tongan, is very melodic, mysterious and metaphorical, especially if you look at the lyrics of the songs written by Queen Salote Tupou III or Tu'imala Kaho's hiva kakala, or even listen to the speeches made in important ceremonies. That's poetry right there.


Linguists and anthropologists suggest that language is an extension and expression of culture, and fluency in the language solidifies one's identity and connections to that culture. Maybe this is why my own hafe-kasi identity is so confusing to me is because of what I perceive as my own incompetence with the languages of my father and mother.


For most of my educational upbringing in Tonga, there was a big emphasis from my parents, especially my dad, to have strong English speaking, reading, and writing skills. I suppose from his generation and the generation before his, fluency in English was like a sign of moving up in the world and a sign of access to better education. However, the effect of that mindset upon my generation is that despite growing up in Tonga, but there is a subtle connotation that the English language is superior and much preferred to the Tongan language. That's not right, isn't it? But that's the result it's had, isn't it? If Tongans don't want to speak Tongan, and would rather them learn English, who is going to carry on the language?


In Tonga, if you listen to radio AM talk shows or watch TV programs that interviews elderly Tongan people, they will always raise their concern about how the younger generation is losing the language. And that concern is rightful to an extent. Some words don't exist in the Tongan vocabulary so we have an English direct translation for it, like the Internet, social media or technology ('initaneti/mitia fakasosiale/tekinolosia). Other English words already have a Tongan word but aren't popularly or correctly used (e.g. people don't say really say mehikitanga or fa'ee 'aki anymore but auntie for everything. But we all know your father's sister and your mother's sister are not the same types of aunties ๐Ÿ˜‚ ) (Anyway watch this interview on Youtube for another example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46XTibynQ48 at 21:25 of the video).


I've noticed in my friend groups, and many acquaintances in my age bracket (i.e. 25's-30's+), most of us find it easier and quicker to communicate in English than in Tongan. When it was Tongan Language week last year, I challenged my best friends and partner that we were only going to write and speak to each other in Tongan for the whole week. No English allowed. I only managed to successfully do this with one friend (Shout out to my favourite Makave girl ๐Ÿ˜‚). The rest of my friends cracked on day 3 and my partner lasted until day 5 ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ See, most of us couldn't even go a week without speaking or writing one word in English. Depending on the context, it's not necessarily a bad thing I suppose, but my interaction with those close to me indicated an unconscious preference towards using English.


It's interesting to talk and think about this because it seems like Tongans in the diaspora are putting a lot more conscious effort into learning and speaking proper Tongan, which is really great for them (โ€˜Ofa Ki Tonga Talanoa on Insta). On the other hand, those of us who grew up in Tonga kinda take it for granted and are subconsciously losing how to speak Tongan properly. Linguists suggest that language is a living thing, that changes and evolves over time, and I suppose that's what we see with the "Tonganization" of borrowed English words to fit with the current modern times ( Example above: 'initaneti/mitia fakasosiale/tekinolosia etc.).


I guess what my generation and the generation to come need to worry about is the way in which the Tongan language evolves in a way that no one recognizes it anymore, no one speaks it properly anymore and ultimately, it's just not there anymore.


That's food for thought. What do you think? Lea mai.


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