Uike Lea Faka-Tonga – Tongan Language Week 2013

Uike Lea Faka-Tonga – Tongan Language Week 2013

Theme: Fakakoloa ‘o Aotearoa ‘aki ‘etau lea mo e hiva faka-Tonga. Enriching Aotearoa with our language and Tongan music.

In this final blogpost for Tongan language week we have another guest contribution from the Tongan community. It is written by Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai  who was a former Pacific Cultures curator at Te Papa (2004-2008). She is currently a freelance curator, writer and arts advisor living in Auckland with her husband Kenneth and daughters Meleseini and Akesiumeimoana. We have chosen to use Kolokesa’s blog as the final one for the week as it reminds us where the future of Tongan and other Pacific Islands languages lies…in how we make language accessible and relevant for our children.

In thinking about this year’s theme for Tongan language week I reflect on how Kenneth and I have enriched our girls with our Tongan language and music. Before we had our eldest daughter Meleseini in 2008 we decided that Tongan would be her first language. This meant that we only conversed with her in Tongan and Tongan was the only language spoken at home. She was also very fortunate to grow up with grandparents who always spoke Tongan to her too.

Pic 1- White Sunday
Kenneth Tuai, Akesiumeimoana Tuai and Meleseini Tuai just before attending White Sunday at Ellerslie Tongan Methodist Church, Sunday May 5, 2013.

By the time Meleseini was 3 years old she was fluent in Tongan but understood and spoke very little English. We knew the benefits of being bilingual and our next big decision was to put her into an English language pre-school. We understood that to be bilingual she needed to be exposed to both English and Tongan. In order to support both languages we had a rule that English was to be spoken only at school and Tongan would be spoken at home. Meleseini picked up English quite fast and teachers at her pre-school were surprised after a couple of months at school when she greeted them in English and then turned and conversed with her dad in fluent Tongan. Up until then they hadn’t picked up on the fact that Meleseini’s first language was Tongan.

When Meleseini’s sister Akesiumeimoana was born in 2011 she came into an environment where Tongan was well established as the only language spoken at home. Meleseini is nearly 5 ½ years old and is fluent in both Tongan and English. Akesiumeimoana is nearly 2 years old and is just starting to formulate sentences in Tongan as well as picking up English. Her big sister is a big influence in her learning development.

Tongan music has been another important influence in Meleseini and Akesiumeimoana’s learning and development. They are also exposed to the Tongan language through music and are learning to appreciate the various genres of Tongan music. This has included Tongan lullabies from their grandmothers, Tongan classical music from her maternal grandfather and my favourite classical Tongan music CD by Afokoula singers from ‘Atenisi University that I always play in the car. They first learned their Tongan alphabet through song and one of the first Tongan songs that Meleseini learnt to sing was one composed by our late Queen Sālote called ‘Hala kuo Papa’ or ‘Over-trodden Path’.

Pic 2 - White Sunday
Meleseini Tuai, along with other Sunday school children, getting ready to recite their hymn verses during the White Sunday service, Sunday May 5, 2013.

Meleseini has also had the added advantage of being exposed to Tongan language and Tongan music through regularly attending Sunday school at the Ellerslie Tongan Methodist Church Moia Mei He ‘Eiki. Here she is taught in the Tongan language, learns songs and bible verses in Tongan and takes part in the annual White Sunday that is dedicated to children called Fakamē or ‘In the style of May’ because it is held in the month of May.


  1. This is wonderful testimony to the continuity of the Tongan language as it is being fostered and cherished by family’s such as Kesa’s and Kenneth’s in New Zealand.

    1. Author

      Malo aupito Ron, thank you for your comment and for supporting Tongan language week.

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