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Samoan language taught at Chinese university

Chinese keen to learn the Samoan language can now do so at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (B.F.S.U) in China.

This is thanks to a Samoan scholar, Setope So'oa'emalelagi, who has become the University's Lecturer for Samoan Language and Samoan Society and Culture.

Setope So'oa'emalelagi is a National University of Samoa (N.U.S) English Lecturer for the English and Foreign Languages Department. 

He started teaching Samoan in China after he took leave of absence in 2019 for two years from N.U.S to travel to China with three considerations in mind, first to upgrade his academic credentials, second to write, research and publish articles on the Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I) and third continue teaching.

He calls China his second home as he had once lived and worked many years ago in Guangzhou City, South China, where he picked up Mandarin. Mr. So'oa'emalelagi also speaks Japanese and enjoys learning other languages. 

"On March 1 2020 at precisely 7.00pm Beijing standard time the very first ‘utterances’ of Samoan Language 101 Course were delivered to China’s Beijing Foreign Studies University," he told the Samoa Observer.

The class was delivered using an E- Class internet platform set up to enable classes to be taught under the COVID-19 epidemic.

Mr. So'oa'emalelagi was stranded in New Zealand whilst visiting family and had to switch to online teaching.  All of the Samoan courses are taught in English.

"I’ve published several articles that are available online relating to the B.R.I and China's education programs particularly the Confucius Institute which was set up in December 2018 at N.U.S. 

"On the strength of my publications and familiarity with China's education programs for teaching Pacific Languages, I was invited to teach the first Samoan Language and Samoan Culture Course at B.F.S.U.. The credit for this honor lies entirely with those scholars and teachers and especially Professor Zhou Dujuan of B.F.S.U who is an expert in Sociology and facilitator for Samoan Language Courses in China."

Fifty one students enrolled in two Pacific courses, Samoan Language 101 for beginners and Samoan Society and Culture. He explained that it is quite a remarkable number given that most of them haven't heard of Samoa before.

"Those who had cited Moana the movie and movies featuring Seiuli Dwayne Johnson aka the ‘Rock’ – and a smaller number being sociology and anthropology majors who are professed fans of Margret Mead's defining work Coming of Age," he said. 

"Yet interestingly enough, not only are the students adventurous but they represent a generation of students who also come from South Korea, Myanmar, and Indonesia. All are focused on acquiring Samoan language and cultural knowledge as a means to enrich their linguistic skills, international relations, and academic fieldwork.

"Why Samoan? I would say that the quintessential answer from students is multi-faceted and varied but with the common thread that they can use their language skills to complement other fields of study. In short, the Samoan skills they learn are ‘transmissible’ Furthermore students make no secret of wanting to experience learning a language which didn’t quite fit the traditional mold of euro-centric based languages like English, French and Spanish and Samoan sounded exotic."

He described Beijing Foreign Languages University (BFSU) as the cream de le cream of Foreign Languages Universities in China and like Samoa, it’s called the cradle of diplomacy whereas Samoa is the cradle of the Pacific.

"Many of China's elite civil service particularly in regions of academia, diplomacy, and finance are alma mater from B.F.S.U. The wife of the former Chinese Ambassador to Samoa, Madame Tong Xin was a lecturer in Diplomacy at B.F.S.U," he said.

"Samoa on the other hand is quite rightly proud of its language particularly Samoan myths and legends, music and the highest forms of oratory. The National University of Samoa is a repository of Samoa’s finest academics and students some of whom support the supposition that Samoan Language should one day take precedence in academic instruction in Samoa."

"Noted scholars and teachers such as the late Prof Fanaafi Aiono Tagaloa Pita, Prof Sina Vaai , Dr Louise Matai’a, Prof Malama Meleisea, Lafaiitele, Prof Asofou Leapai So’o , Torise Ne’emia and the Oloa o Manu Samoan History and Culture Faculty and many others were central to preserving Samoan Language and culture. 

"But let’s not forget the custodians or master practitioners of Samoan Language – Tulafale ma Alii of Samoa – Matai o Samoa. Hence my job has been made unequivocally easier because scattered out there in libraries and Government Ministries in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia including Tutuila and Hawaii - are Samoan Language Resources which are being gathered as we speak by the Samoan Ministry of Education Sports and Culture so that on one database, teachers can digitally extract material resources for Samoan Language classes."

Mr. So'oa'emalelagi stated that as far as he knows B.F.S.U Samoan Language Course is the first accredited Pacific language course to be taught at any learning institution in China. 

"Indeed this in effect would be the first time in world history where Samoan language has been taught in a non-Western university and it’s started in China. 

Similar language courses for Pacific nations are also in the pipeline at B.F.S.U which include Bislama Vanuatu, Cook Islands Maori, Fijian, Niuean, Tok Pisin Papua New Guinea and Tongan. He explains that these languages cover all China's eight diplomatic partner states in the Pacific.

When asked about the level of Samoan language that is being taught at the university he stated, "For the beginners 101 class we use “Gagana Samoa” by Galumalemana Afeleti Hunkin which is a grammar-based text and students are taught the Samoan alphabet, phonetics and pronunciation, everyday phrases and expressions as well as reading, writing and Samoan songs."

"After one term the 12 students can hold simple conversations about the weather, greetings, colors, and handle questions like where do you live? Please describe your ‘fale’ , how many in your family? Numbers time and dates. In all sincerity their speed of Samoan learning is impressive considering grammatically Samoan and Chinese are very different," he said.

In the Samoan Society and Culture course, 31 students are taught the history and features of the fa’a Samoa like Samoas’ cultural treasures, Ie Toga fine mats, and Kava ceremony as well as funeral rites and tatau tattoos for men and malu tattoos for women. 

He explained that students expressed interest in Samoans of Chinese descent and their arrival in Samoa as indentured laborers at the tail end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s as well as the Matai (Chieftain) system and China's diplomatic and economic relationship with Samoa through the Belt and Road Initiative and China's aid program.

"A number of difficulties exist for students and the most obvious is teaching online, students and teachers are compelled to improvise in the Covid19 environment and the general consensus is that we can’t substitute ‘face to face’ teaching and learning. We are looking forward to meeting up in the classroom. Another difficulty students have is the pronunciation of Samoan words, it’s tricky," he said.

When asked if he thinks more Chinese people will start to learn the Samoan language he said, "It would be remiss of me to suggest that Samoan language would become super popular in China however judging from the number of students now studying Pacific languages at B.F.S.U and other big cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong where Pacific Studies Research Centers exist the probability of student numbers increasing is very high."

"So yes numbers will increase as students enjoy and discover the mysteries of the meaning of the tatau and appreciate the melodic flow of the Samoan language. In the near future and with China's growing presence in the South Pacific, students learning Samoan language for purposes of culture, diplomacy, and trade and tourism, numbers will increase offering fantastic opportunities for students and teachers of Samoa and China," he said.

Mr. So'oa'emalelagi thinks that Samoans should learn Mandarin as it is "extremely beneficial especially given China's opening up and international standing."

"If you want to trade with or travel and live in China please learn Mandarin and the opportunities to learn the language is literally at your doorstep," he said.

"N.U.S offers an excellent Chinese language course and the Confucius Institute led by respected Director Dr. Tony Liang offers courses for public servants and the wider community. So if you’re tired of plantation life or fishing I highly recommend taking on the Chinese language as a new pathway in life. 

"Learning Chinese in my opinion should be given a much higher profile in Samoa and the wider Pacific. After all close to fifty students per year go to China on scholarships and the intermarrying between Chinese and Samoans is a mark that cross-cultural ties will improve our way of life."

Mr. So'oa'emalelagi states that he is extremely proud of his Chinese students and the fact that they are the first students in Chinese history to have learned Samoan at an accredited level is a testament to their pursuit of knowledge and commitment to building links with cultures different to their own.

 He confirmed that B.F.S.U has approved a Samoan Language 102 Course and a South Pacific Culture and Society Course for the second semester.

Two of his students, Zhao Luyao and Huang Shijun have both shared their experience learning the Samoan language so far and have also stated that learning the Samoan language is memorable.

"Talofa lava! O lo’u igoa o’ Zhao Luyao. Ou te fiafia e a’oa’o le Samoa. The one-semester learning of Samoan Language is really memorable for me. Learning a new language is definitely a task, but the experience of learning Samoan makes me realize that sometimes we can get familiar with a new language in a more relaxing way through impromptu conversations, pair activities and some visual aids," Mr. Zhao said.

"We have learned a lot in this semester, such as greetings, verbs, sentence structures and so on. One of the most impressive knowledge is the tense marker, the expressions which I never heard of or even imagined and its learning process is not so easy but quite interesting. Anyway, despite the influence of the severe coronavirus, I gained a lot through online class this semester. Fa’afetai tele!"

"I am really glad that I chose this course at the beginning and it turned out to be such a surprise! Though the process of Samoan language learning might be challenging for me, I experienced real fun and energy in it. It is a charming language. And I met lovely teachers and classmates here. It was really unforgettable. I promise I will keep on learning Samoan in the future," Mr. Huang said.   

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