The first area of the Samoa Apia Mission to which I was assigned was Salelologa in Savaii, which constitutes the warf and town area of the big island. Savaii is the most traditional of all the Samoan islands. There the Faasamoa, or Samoan way, reigns supreme.
My trainer, Elder Seumalii, was a kiwi from Aukland, New Zealand. He was Samoan by blood but had to learn most of the language during the time of his mission. Like most Samoans, however, he was kind, generous, and filled with laughter. Seumalii taught me much of the Samoan language and culture. He showed tremendous patience when I struggled with both.
The Samoan language is related to Tongan, Hawaiian, Tahitian, etc. When Westerners hear it spoken, they often comment on the large quantity of vowels. Every Samoan word must end in a vowel; additionally, every consonant is separated by a vowel. Thus, to the Western ear, Samoan is very musical.
Grammatically, Samoan is not a complex language. It has no genders, no to be verbs, and no conjugation of verbs. At first I struggled with its simplicity; I felt that a language needed all of the aforementioned elements to be effective. I was wrong. Samoan is very effective within its own realms of communication. Where it struggles is in describing modern technology.
In some respects Samoan is superior to English. For example, in English we have the words we, you, and they. If I were to say, "We went to the store," you don't know for certain who we are save that there were at least two of us. But in Samoan, we, you, and they pose no such ambiguities. We has dual and plural forms which are further subdivided into inclusive and exclusive forms. You has singular, dual, and plural forms; while they has dual and plural forms. Thus in Samoan it's very clear who we, you, and they are.
Most of the difficulties in Samoan come through cultural interaction. The Samoan social hierarchy is very strong in many parts of the islands, and one must know one's place and act accordingly. As a missionary I found myself thrust onto the very top of the hierarchy alongside other ministers of religion. If I had been Samoan, I would have been expected to know much of the higher registers of linguistic discourse, but because I am white the expectation wasn't there.
However, I never felt that I could or should let my "whiteness" trump the need for learning the intricacies of the higher registers of language. Samoan chiefs are the guardians of the Samoan cultural language to which I am referring. They use it daily in governing the villages. Much of this language is metaphors; obscure allusions to important events in ancient history, myths, and legends; and even references to everyday material culture.
For example, if I told you that coconut trees don't lean for no reason at all but lean because of the wind, you might congratulate me on making such an astute observation. But to the Samoan chief, this type of saying means that there is a logical explanation for everything that happens.
Or if I explained to you that even though it rains a lot, the sea is still salty, again you may praise my understanding of nature, but the Samoan chief hears my undoubtedly inadequate thanks for his generosity.
The chiefs thrive on this sort of language, and it is generally organized into a strict order of speeches which are made for various circumstances. If I entered into a house for the first time, I would be greeted with a speech to which I would respond with a speech. Then I would give a speech to introduce myself and ask if I could share a message about Jesus Christ. After sharing said message, I would give a speech in which I would announce my departure and give any due thanks. The chief would respond in a speech accepting my thanks. Lastly, I would give a very small speech and finally make my exit.
There are speeches for funerals, speeches for marriages, speeches for great occasions, and speeches of thanks. Speeches for entering a house, speeches for leaving, and speeches for not entering the house at all when invited to. Speech-making is the official past time of Samoan chiefs and it is a lot of fun to watch and listen.
But for the new missionary with little grasp on even the common, everyday language, speech-making was terrifying. Fortunately, the Samoans oohed and ahhed over my rudimentary speeches thus bolstering my confidence to continue making them. In time, while I could never match a chief, I became quite proficient in the formalities of much of the Samoan language, speech-making and all.