This week is Samoan Language Week so I had a look in Google to find out about themed weeks. I learned that the correct term is not “themed week” but “awareness week” and that, in addition to several language awareness weeks, New Zealand also enjoys “Teach a Kid to Sew Week” and “Grandparents’ Week”, among others.
Internationally, there are some excellent awareness weeks. There is a world-wide one called “Money Week”, which I have made a mental note not to miss out on in future. There is also something called “Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week”, designed to raise the profile of Idiopathic Hypersomnia – a goal which it has apparently failed to achieve if this author’s own awareness is anything to go by. The US celebrates “National Dairy Goat Awareness Week” in June (“local observances during that week include demonstrations of goat milking and hoof trimming, and goat obstacle courses”). The UK celebrates “National Map Reading Week” in October - but I still haven’t managed to figure out where the actual observances take place. I also found mention of something called “Fix a Leak Week” (but you didn’t hear that from me).
Some of these weeks are indubitably better than others, and Samoan Language Week, known in Samoan as “Le Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa” is, without question, the best awareness week of them all. Primary and secondary schools are involved, as are tertiary institutions and universities, public libraries, churches, social clubs and community groups throughout the country. Best of all, the focus is on the glorious Samoan language, known for its singular sonorousness and its infungible centrality to the splendid culture of Samoa and its industrious diaspora.
It turns out that Samoan Language Week started in 2007 (in New Zealand; the Australians caught on in 2010). It was first promoted by Radio Niu FM along with a number of other Pacific language weeks leading up to Māori Language Week (which dates from 1975, in case you were wondering). Since then it has been promoted in schools by the Association for the Teaching of Samoa in Aotearoa, FAGASA Inc. (Fa’alapotopotoga mo le A’oa’oina o le Gagana Samoa i Aotearoa (FAGASA)); since 2009, FAGASA and the New Zealand Human Rights Commission have partnered with other organisations to extend the week to the wider New Zealand community.
So who speaks Samoan? Well, Samoans, obviously, and most of them live (in descending order of population) in Samoa, the United States, New Zealand, American Samoa and Australia. The language is not endangered – it is flourishing – and does not therefore require the kind of promotion that Idiopathic Hypersomnia and obstacle course-navigating goats do. So why the awareness week? Well, according to the Human Rights Commission website, the goals of the week include:
• Speak your language: use the language, at home, at work, everywhere; • Celebrate the Samoan language and culture in New Zealand and globally; • Promote the teaching and learning of the Samoan language; • Raise awareness of the Samoan language as one of the most widely spoken languages in New Zealand; • Promote the use of the Samoan language in every environment respecting each other’s situation; • Promote initiatives to maintain and grow the recognition, learning and use of the Samoan language in the home, in education, at work, in government, in the media, in sport, in the arts, in the church and in the community.
These all seem like worthy goals to me. As someone who grew up in a rigidly monolingual environment, I am particularly drawn to the goal defined as “Raise awareness of the Samoan language as one of the most widely spoken languages in New Zealand.” After all, the Samoan language may be one of New Zealand’s noblest benedictions, but it is sometimes overlooked in favour of more widely-spoken languages whose ascendency on the global stage overshadows it and its sister and cousin tongues. Perhaps that, then, is why this awareness week is called for. The phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ can certainly be made apply to languages as well: just as language is one of the greatest human riches, so the speaking of many languages is necessarily a multiplication of that wealth. Samoan is not a community language in South America, Eurasia or Africa; in New Zealand it is, and we should esteem it for that.