As the native language of a small Pacific Island, Samoan faces the same challenges many other indigenous languages are up against in the modern, globalized world. But Samoan also has a handful of advantages other indigenous languages lack. Ethnic Samoans are widely spread around the world, especially in New Zealand and Australia, and in these places they manage to maintain strong community groups – especially through church networks. This gives the opportunity for Samoan to thrive both within and outside Samoa, as youngsters and the elderly alike have the chance to use their mother tongue on a regular basis.
The role religion and churches have played in keeping Samoan language alive cannot be understated. Even in Australia, it’s quite common for Samoan churches to hold sermons and sing hymns in Samoan. There is some irony in this, because original missionary colonists in the Pacific often made attempts to restrict or quash the use of native languages. As it happens, the religion they came to preach has become one of the most significant pillars helping to keep the Samoan languages alive and well.
However, Samoan isn’t restricted to the church or Sunday school sessions. It’s entering the 21st Century in some impressive new ways thanks to the efforts of passionate and dedicated linguists. Even Facebook is now available in Samoan, part of an initiative led by Australian linguists to help stem the disappearance of less-used indigenous languages.
Having the Samoan language recognized by dominant cultures in the countries where Samoans comprise a large minority is another challenge altogether. Discrimination against Pacific Islanders in countries like Australia and New Zealand is not uncommon. Recently, Pacific students have made a bold attempt to make their voices heard in the form of a play that shines a spotlight on the challenges and barriers to achievement they face on a daily basis. The performance, entitled Speak Your Truth, uses a combination of acting, dance and singing – a combination which is common in traditional Samoan performance art. The play has had an eye-opening effect on many who have watched it, creating a broader sense of understanding of the challenges of Pacific minorities.