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Year of indigenous languages recognised

The United Nations will officially launch the International Year of Indigenous Languages on Monday afternoon in Paris, France.

Here in Samoa, the year will be marked with the release of a Samoan language dictionary, the first monolingual dictionary for Samoan language.

Ms. Nisha, director of the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation (UNESCO) for Samoa has been supporting the Samoan Language Commission since last year on the work and is confident the dictionary will be complete by December.

A monolingual dictionary, rather than a Samoan to English dictionary will enable people to expand their vocabulary and protect their mother tongue, Ms Nisha said.

“If you want to develop the language as a medium of instruction for example, to produce literature, poetry, know what do different words in Samoan language mean, and in different contexts,”

“The idea through this initiative is to enrich the people’s knowledge and understanding of their own language, to enlarge their vocabulary. That will be a focus for the year in Samoa.”

Unlike many other indigenous languages, Samoan is not at risk of becoming endangered or extinct. But it needs constant attention to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Ms Nisha said children in particular need to learn in their mother tongue to be strong learners in any other language, like English.

“If a child is not strong in mother tongue, one language, the child will find it harder to become strong in an acquired language.”

“For the child to be more receptive to ideas and learn more, absorb more during that zero-to-six age group when the child is most absorbing and fastest growing, the medium of instruction and how much exposure the child gets becomes very important.”

For Samoan’s living abroad, Ms Nisha said she hopes the dictionary will be a useful resource for parents taking on the responsibility of teaching their children their mother tongue.

Outside of Samoa, with little or no educational resources in Samoan, parents have themselves and their diaspora community to lean on when it comes to language promotion.

“Keeping the language alive and promoting the language becomes parental business family business,” said Ms Nisha.

“We are hoping that the dictionary will be one important tool in that direction. 

“At least the parents will have a resource to themselves that they can use and as children are growing into adulthood they can continue to learn their language. 

In 2013, a Victoria University of Melbourne academic built an online database of 300,000 words in Samoan in the website sketchengine.co.uk. 

As the International Year of Indigenous Languages, Ms Nisha said she hopes people will take the opportunity to look at how language contributes to society, and in particular to the preservation of culture and tradition.

Samoans are proud of their heritage, she said, and that passion should be channelled into formally understanding the way language keeps traditional knowledge alive.

“Traditional knowledge does not exist in English, or in a foreign language, they exist in mother tongues.

“They have been passed down from generation to generation. When a language weakens, along with that a lot of history, a lot of traditional knowledge weakens. When language dies, a body of knowledge dies,” Ms Nisha said.

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