Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Family Key to Survival of Samoan Language

New Zealand's Minister of Education Hekia Parata says that the best institution for preserving the Samoan language is the family, not the government.

Sure, I'll be the first to admit that it excites me to see state schools offering Samoan as a class. But, really, can a few hours each week produce fluency and provide real context for what's being studied?

Not by a long shot. That's why I'd trade (almost) all the book learning in the world for a few more years in Samoa to really explore the language and its use in the most mundane settings to the deepest, most esoteric chiefly discourse.

A Second Immersion into Samoan

In my recent post on being immersed in the Samoan language as a missionary I didn't say anything about another important component of my language acquisition: book study.

I'm fairly bookish by nature, so studying from grammars or reading Samoan language materials came naturally.

When we entered the Missionary Training Center, each of us eight missionaries assigned to Samoa received the following language materials:

Samoan for Missionaries, which apparently was a Brigham Young University Master's thesis written by Scott C. Dunn, presumably a former missionary to Samoa (you have to wait a while for the book to load).

G. B. Milner's Samoan Dictionary, an excellent and compact work that I tried to carry with me as much as possible for quick reference.

And the scriptures, or Standard Works, as Mormons call them, including the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. (The former for sale here; the latter, as newly revised translations, here.)

When I had been in Samoa for a while, I purchased the Reverend George Pratt's dictionary and grammar (1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions online; I had the 4th), a copy of Gospel Principles in Samoan, and Allardice's Simplified Dictionary of Modern Samoan.

All these works I studied carefully, comparing grammar rules with actual Samoan usage in print and what I heard from day to day until, by the grace of God, I could follow, and contribute to, what was being said all around me.

If you're trying to learn Samoan, don't forget to combine the written and spoken word. That way you'll know what to say and why it's said that way.

Samoa in 1949

Here's a neat vignette of what Samoa was like back in 1949. It's only downside is that it's shown through the eyes and interpretation of their colonizers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

50 Years of Samoan Independence

Not only is this week International Samoan Language Week, but the independent nation of Samoa will be celebrating 50 years of independence from New Zealand on June 1st.

At least three world powers have had major influence in Samoan politics since Western contact in the 18th century, and it hasn't always been nice for the Samoans.

Early on in the Samoans' modern political history Americans, the English, and Germans have all vied for, and obtained, control over parts of the archipelago.

The 1899 Tripartite Convention partitioned the islands between Germany and the United States. Then, in 1914, at the outset of World War I, New Zealand troops responded to a request from the British government to occupy German Samoa. New Zealand kept control in one form or another until 1962, when it granted Samoa its independence.

The United States still administers American Samoa as an unincorporated territory.

Samoan Tsunami Recovery

Samoans everywhere, but especially in the islands, are not likely to forget the date of September 29th. That's because in the early morning of that date, 2009, a powerful earthquake sent a devastating tsunami to the south shores of the islands of ʻUpolu and Tutuila in Samoa and American Samoa, respectively, laying waste to almost everything in its path.

Governments, churches, and other non-profit organizations immediately responded by sending aid and long-term assistance to help both Samoas rebuild.

I haven't been back to the Samoan islands since finishing my mission in 2003, so I haven't seen any of the destruction or recovery first hand. So it's nice to read that things are getting back to normal.

Does anyone know of any continuing need for tsunami recovery assistance in Samoa?

Samoan Eats: The Real Deal

After a little searching around, I found a series of YouTube videos that teach how to make all kinds of Samoan food. Below is the video on how to cook three different kinds of kopai, thus fulfilling my outstanding promise to give more detailed instructions.

The video creator also blogs her recipes and bits about Samoan history.

Samoan Treats

As you celebrate with me this year's Samoan Language Week (May 27 - June 2), you will occasionally need to replenish your energy stores. Preferably with Samoan food, of course.

No doubt there are plenty of recipes online for many Samoan foods, but if you're looking for something sweet, look no further than the following posts:

Koko Rice, a delicious repast that goes especially well with well-buttered white bread.

Kopai Koko: Take One!, where I give very basic instructions for making dumplings in chocolate sauce. (This post used to be the number one link when you googled kopai. I was once famous.)

Banana Napalm, in which I give the harrowing account of personal injury incurred whilst preparing suafaʻi.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Language Mistakes = Laughter + Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Samoan as a language and culture is its many proverbs and sayings. They are most useful in oratory, but as a pālagi, or foreigner, I like to use them to teu le vā (if you don't know what that means, see my previous post) in a way that usually produces laughter.

Once I used a Samoan saying in a very funny way. I had found the following saying in my dictionary, which had been derived from Schultz's work on Samoan proverbial expressions.
E toa e [sic] le loto, ʻae pā le noʻo. The will is strong but the hips are broken (i.e., the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak).
It seemed innocuous enough, so I busted it out about 18 months into my mission. The only problem was that noʻo doesn't mean hips, it means bowels. And  doesn't mean broken, it means burst or exploded.

I was serving in American Samoa and had come down with something nasty that killed my appetite--a big problem when you're a missionary in Samoa. We stopped by one family's place and they had prepared the customary meal for us. I only ate a token amount.

The woman who retrieved my tray of food commented on how little I'd eaten. I tried smoothing over the insult with an apology, which translated as, "In truth the desire to eat a lot was there, but as the saying of old men goes, 'The will is strong, but the hips are broken.'"

My Samoan missionary companion burst into laughter. I was startled and asked him why. That made him laugh even harder because he realized that I'd made my mistake in complete innocence.

He asked me where I had heard that saying. I told him that I'd found it in my dictionary. He asked me if I knew what it meant. I answered in the affirmative, telling him what its figurative application was supposed to be.

He assured me that in that sense of it I wasn't wrong. It was the literal meaning that I hadn't understood. He asked me if I understood the word . Yes, I said. He asked if hips, as in hip bones, burst. I had to admit they don't. He then asked me if I knew what was located near the hips which could burst.

It took me a second to think his question through. Then, in a burst of inspiration, it dawned on me what I had said: "The will is strong, but my bowels have burst."

The thing about Samoans is that they have a splendid sense of humor; fortunately, one that can even accommodate a little inadvertent potty humor from an unsuspecting foreigner.

Subsequent to my slip up, my companion and I would retell the story to fits of laughter. Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Borge was both funny and wise.

So if you're learning a new language--and I hope it's Samoan--don't be afraid of making mistakes. They'll often be riotously funny, and by so doing, you'll likely get the help you need to not make it again, and you will have drawn closer to the people you're with.

In the News

So far, I haven't seen much made of Samoan Language Week in the news. A Google News search also reveals very little.

Is this because not much is being done? Or is what's being done not being covered?

Or is Samoan language week mostly happening on Facebook (here and here) and this blog?

Everybody go out and do something Samoan. Even if you just step outside and shout tālofa, hello, at the top of your lungs.

ʻO le Vāfealoaʻi

The theme for this year's Samoan Language Week is ʻO le Vāfealoaʻi--Strong and Respectful Relationships.

If you can read Samoan, hop over to my Samoan language blog, where I explain the concept of vāfealoaʻi.

For the rest of you, let me briefly explain in English. First, vāfealoaʻi is really a combination of the words , meaning an opening or space, and fealoaʻi, which is the reciprocal form of the root alo, or the front of one's body.

In other words, vāfealoaʻi refers to the space between two people who are facing each other, and just as we speak of close or distant relationships, the  or space between two people can be of variable physical and metaphorical distances.

One often hears in Samoan the phrase ʻia teu le vā, meaning, literally, take care of the space. A Samoan knows at any given time the exact dimensions of the  between him and the man or woman, boy or girl, facing him, and takes care that he doesn't neglect or go beyond the scope of it. He speaks in respectful terms and shows great hospitality to his elders, people of rank, and strangers, and speaks in more familiar terms with those he is familiar.

Every relationship is a vāfealoaʻi that needs cultivation. I've learned a lot from the Samoans in the past 11 years that has strengthened my relationships to my parents, siblings, wife and son, friends and strangers, and God.

In what ways can you cultivate strong and respectful relationships this week?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

There's a saying in Samoan, ʻo le ala i le pule le tautua--the way to authority is service. Samoans serve their family, their village, and their nation in any way necessary as a means to increase family, and, therefore, individual, influence or authority. Tautua never goes unnoticed, it brings honor and prestige to oneself and one's family. The greatest tautua one can give is the tautua toto, literally blood service--the kind that often ends in death.

Samoans are disproportionately represented in the United States military, serving to maintain the freedoms we enjoy. For instance, more American Samoans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq on a per capita basis than residents from any other state or territory in the union.

So if you know a Samoan serving in the military, thank him or her for his or her tautua toto. And don't forget on this Memorial Day that freedom never was free.


The first little bit of any full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent at one of the 15 missionary training centers (MTC) located throughout the world.

I spent two months at the MTC in the Provo, Utah, in part to receive language training in Samoan with seven fellow missionaries. Afterwards, we were shipped out to Samoa, where we spent the next 22-23 months immersed in Samoan language and culture . . . and food.

When we arrived at the islands, we were paired off with more seasoned missionaries and assigned to labor in different areas in Samoa and American Samoa. Every once in a while our assigned areas or companions or both would change.

Of the 18 companions I had on the mission, 14, or 78%, were Samoan (one of whom was New Zealand born and raised), accounting for 70% of my two years. Seventy-one percent of my time on the islands I spent in Samoa versus American Samoa, with 81% of my time in Samoa spent on ʻUpolu versus Savaiʻi.

In all, I served in 24 ecclesiastical units or congregations, including 18 wards and 6 branches. One ward was an English language ward, but the other 23 units were all Samoan language units.

What this amounted to was a lot of Samoan language, day in and day out, in my on-duty time and in my spare time. Though I experienced language frustrations and culture shock at times, I can't think of a better way to learn a language than total immersion.

I will always be grateful to my Samoan companions who taught me their language and culture. And I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my American companions who also taught me a lot about the language--often it was extremely helpful to hear a grammar concept explained in plain English by one who had felt what I was feeling as a second language learner.

Today I don't have the luxury of total immersion in Samoan, though living and going to school in Hawaii these past three years certainly have helped my language development. I'll explain more in future posts.

My Samoan Language Journey

My own journey in the Samoan language began as a freshman in college at a BYU football game back in 2000, LaVell Edwards's final season, for those who care.

As the game progressed, I kept hearing the announcer saying things like, "Setema Gali on the tackle," pronouncing the g in Gali as an n. I could see the spelling for Gali on the jumbotron, and, confused at the illogical pronunciation, asked my rabid-BYU-football-fan-of-a-roommate why. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I dunno. It must be a Samoan thing." To which I replied, "Well, that's dumb!"

Weeks later, I received my call to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Samoan islands, speaking, of course, Samoan, where I would learn that a g is pronounced as ng, and get to meet some of the said Gali's uncles.

I soon repented of calling Samoan orthography and phonology dumb (the announcer, bless his ignorant white heart, was mispronouncing Gali's name). They make much more sense than their English counterparts, since words in Samoan, with very few exceptions, are pronounced just as they're written.

So help stamp out mispronunciation of Samoan names and join the approximately 370,000 Samoan speakers worldwide in celebrating International Samoan Language Week or Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa, if for no other reason than Samoan is probably the fastest growing language in American football.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

International Samoan Language Week

Samoan Language Week.jpg

It's been a quick 11 years since I began studying Samoan. It's good to see the language getting international recognition.

More to follow.