“So what happens if you don’t have a word for something? To me, it’s a sign that the language is no longer fit for purpose and will eventually die.” — Sefita Hao‘uli, Tongan language advocate. (Photo: Fliss Thompson)

Sefita Hao‘uli is a Tongan language advocate, and a translator and interpreter. As Tonga Language Week kicks off today, he shares some ideas around how we can strengthen (and save) our languages, here in Aotearoa and across Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Here he is talking to Teuila Fuatai.


When I was a student in Tonga High School in the 1960s, I was taught almost entirely in English by British, Kiwi, and American teachers. To make sure that my schoolmates and I became fluent English speakers, we weren’t allowed to speak any Tongan while we were in uniform. The punishment for doing so varied from detention to doing chores after school.

Little wonder that our school has a reputation for producing the most competent English speakers in Tonga, many of whom now occupy positions of power in the kingdom.

But that privileged place given to the English language at Tonga’s top high school is part of the reason our language is now in decline in our own country. So, while I can be grateful for the very English education that gave us such a good grounding in the world’s most powerful language, I can also see where the neglect of our own language has got us.

That’s never more obvious than when I’m doing translation work — and especially when I’m trying to translate technical, scientific information from English to Tongan.

A lot of that work is generated by the government. It’s important public service information that needs to be understood by our Pacific communities. So, when a government department needs something translated, an agency links them to people like me, who are skilled in the main languages spoken by Pacific people in Aotearoa.

Our skill may be in translation, but we’re certainly not experts in the topics that we’re given.

During Covid, for example, we had a lot of work translating public health messages — and we had challenges with even the most basic of those.

For instance, there’s no established word or term in Tongan for immunity and the immune system, so we had to find a way to explain the concept of immunity without the equivalent Tongan vocabulary — and that’s difficult because we’re not medical professionals.

It’s a problem that our own medical professionals were grappling with as well. And it’s the same for other Pacific languages. We haven’t got the breadth of vocabulary to describe things as we do in English.

It’s an obvious issue when you compare the number of words in our languages.

It’s estimated that there are more than a million unique English words, including many archaic words that are no longer in use. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, around 170,000 words are in current use. Most English speakers actively use, on average, between 20,000 and 30,000 words, although we may recognise around 40,000 words.

In Tongan, there are around 35,000 words. That’s my calculation based on the number of entries in the 1959 edition of the Churchward Tongan dictionary and on a guesstimate of new words added since its publication.

So, in the most technical sense, our vocabulary isn’t as expansive. There are so many things we don’t have words for in Tongan because we simply haven’t developed them — yet we know of them in English.

I think that’s due to a combination of things, including the dominance of the English language. And probably the biggest factor has been our failure to appreciate the true cost of this omission.

One of the things that English has been particularly good at is taking words from other languages. As many as 80 percent of English words originated somewhere else — and more than half came from Latin and French. The English were willing to borrow and absorb. When they saw a word that they needed, they took it and made it their own. They even took Polynesian words, like tapu (taboo) and tatau (tattoo).

The problem is that this hasn’t been a two-way street. Instead of deliberately adding to our own Tongan, and Pacific, vocabularies, we’ve effectively let the English language take over. In Tonga, it’s become the language of instruction in our schools, in commerce, and is the de-facto language of our government.


So what happens if you don’t have a word for something? To me, it’s a sign that the language is no longer fit for purpose and will eventually die.

As a translator, I’ve had many instances where I simply haven’t had the Tongan to explain what I need to. The lack of Tongan words makes it difficult to bring across the knowledge that’s contained in the other much more fully-resourced language of English. And if it’s something I’ve come across for the first time, I can’t just say: “Well, we can’t go any further.”

As translators (and I know quite a few because we’re a small fraternity), we just have to make it up. We dig into our Tongan toolkit to try to find a phrase, or better still, a one-word equivalent that illustrates the thing we’re trying to translate. Or we adapt a word from another language, usually English.

Then we wonder whether our people will understand what we’ve come up with. It’s on-the-fly work. We’re not ringing around everyone we know, saying: “Can you tell the rest of the community that the word “siene” is now the word for “genes”? Or the word “sinome” is now the word for “genome”?

What about “DNA” or the “mRNA vaccine”? What about “AI”? One of our academics has offered up “‘ilotānaki”, which is a made-up word that means knowledge that’s been gathered. I, on the other hand, think we can also get away by writing it as “AI” and pronouncing it as in English (‘ei‘ai), as an addition to our vocabulary.

These, and the current state of our alphabet, are the kinds of conversations we’re having among a few of us. But this approach is also not being purposeful about building our language and expanding our vocabulary toolkit.

And that neglect is why so many of our languages are considered vulnerable or in danger of disappearing.


We know Tongan is considered to be a minor language. And while it’s not classified as “endangered” by UNESCO, there’s a number of Pacific languages which are in that category, including Rarotongan, Niuean, Tuvaluan and Tokelauan. We also know that once you’re on the endangered list, it’s more difficult to come back. That’s what te reo Māori has been fighting to avoid. Right now, it’s classified as “vulnerable” because its survival is still considered uncertain.

In Tonga and Sāmoa, we took on English as a matter of necessity. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think we had to, so we could engage with the rest of the world. But even though we kicked the Kiwi imperialists out of Sāmoa and restricted the influence of the Brits in Tonga, we’re still operating in a way that prioritises the English language — to the detriment of our own.

For instance, in the public service in Tonga, if your English grades are good, you’re rewarded. You have a much better chance of getting a job and being paid better.

There’s no similar reward for Tongan. They don’t care how good your own language is. They assume that, because you’re Tongan, and you live in Tonga and speak Tongan, you’re competent enough in that language to work in the public service.

But that theory falls apart when you’re writing policy which ends up being written in English because public servants often don’t have the language and vocabulary to do it justice in Tongan.

And that does two things. Firstly, it kills our language because people aren’t using it in all areas of life. And secondly, our language loses its prestige because it’s not considered to be important. It’s left for things like the church and cultural rituals.

It’s important to remember that when we come up against these limitations, it’s not about the poor language skills of public servants. We simply need a bigger vocabulary base. And that applies to many things — health, education, arts, business. Right now, you run into vocabulary issues everywhere. It’s why we’re constantly deferring to English.

Just the other day, I was listening to a speech in the Tongan parliament. It kept dipping into English, and the speaker even switched mid-sentence in one part so he could say “KPI”.

Rather than doing that, we should have our own words in Tongan — and the same goes for other Pacific languages. But we have to be deliberate and systematic, so we don’t end up, as often happens in our Tongan-language media, using translations that are confusing or incorrect, which further reinforces the notion that our language is inadequate.

The issue is about prioritising our languages, and thinking about what they mean to us as Indigenous peoples — now and in the future. How do we guarantee that our languages, and the identity they carry, aren’t eroded as we move forward as people?

If you’re a nation and you want to be identified as a nation, there are three things: the land, the people, and the language. So, yes, in Tonga, we value the land. Then there’s our people. Without our people in our land, we aren’t a nation. And the next most important thing is our language. Without that, who are we?

I don’t want to see our Pacific languages languish simply because we didn’t have the foresight to focus on how we bring in new words and grow our knowledge base.

The traditionalists won’t like it because they don’t want us to change the language and add new words. Their response to this continuing incursion by English is to try to protect the Tongan language by preserving it as it is — and, in doing so, turning it into an artefact rather than a living, breathing, growing language.

To my mind, they contribute to the poverty in the language. The English language didn’t become the most powerful language in the world by doing what the traditionalists are asking for.

I think we need to use the best methods from the most powerful languages in the world and add our own innovation and ideas. English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, Japanese and Mandarin — all these languages are from countries where they’re entrenched through the school system. For example, in Japan, France and Germany, the entire curriculum is taught in their languages. It’s what we don’t have in our Pacific countries where the first language is dying.

For places like Tonga, an education system that teaches in our own languages would be a major way to guarantee the growth in our vocabulary. Our experts would need to develop words and definitions to teach across all subjects and fields — from the arts to biology and other sciences. It’s a strategic and purposeful way of officially extending our language toolkit because we’d literally need more words to teach the curriculum.

To really speed things along, we could also lean on our top academics. If you’re doing your PhD thesis, then why not publish it both in English and Tongan?

The diaspora has a huge role to play. As Pacific people, many of our most knowledgeable individuals are living away from our home islands. For example, if you’re a Tongan nuclear physicist, there’s probably only one or two like you in the world and you may not live in Tonga. But, as the foremost Tongan expert in your field, you’ll have the knowledge to build our vocabulary in that specialist subject.


“I don’t want to see our Pacific languages languish simply because we didn’t have the foresight to focus on how we bring in new words and grow our knowledge base.”

My particular interest is in health. I want to put together a Tongan anatomy chart. I believe there’s a link between not having a word for different parts of our anatomy, and the likelihood of not understanding its function in your body.

For example, for people my age, prostate cancer is a huge problem. Generally, if you’re old and male, your prostate gland plays up. But we don’t have a Tongan word for prostate. In fact, I did a little test run among 35 Tongan males. We had an anatomy chart and asked them to point to the prostate. Most of them didn’t know where it was, and many had no idea at all what it was. (I’m now using “polositeiti”.)

We did the same thing with the pancreas. Now, in diabetes, for instance, understanding what the pancreas is and how it regulates insulin is important. And we know diabetes causes havoc in our communities. But where is your pancreas? In our group of 35, we had about 15 people with diabetes. We asked everyone in Tongan whether they knew where the pancreas was, and used the word “penikiliasi”. That’s a Tongan adaptation of “pancreas”.

The only people who knew the answer were those who knew how to kill and prepare a pig. They knew because it’s an organ that you discard when you’re dressing a pig. But they had no idea of its function.

With diabetes, there are lots of words like that, which are relevant to the disease but which we don’t have established equivalents for in Tongan. That’s a problem because a lot of our people aren’t bilingual, which means they’re not getting access to all the information about a disease that affects so many of us.

I’ve been asking around our Tongan doctors whether they have anything like an anatomy chart in their language. So far, I haven’t found one. Instead, our Tongan clinicians tend to give information and advice that’s instructive. For example, if they’re talking to a patient about diabetes, they’ll say: “If I tell you to eat this and this, and go out for exercise, and you follow those things, you’ll be okay.”

That might be enough for people who have diabetes now, but think about those who don’t have the disease. If you need to explain to them what causes diabetes and they don’t know enough about the human anatomy, how on earth do you think they’ll be able to take action to prevent it? That goes for other ailments, too.

That’s why basics like an anatomy chart in our own languages would be helpful. It would make the information more accessible — and, by adding to our vocabulary, we’re also adding to our knowledge.

I also think our best shot is to address these things collectively, across Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Given the similarities of our Pacific languages, it’s worth thinking about a language anatomy chart that we could create together and all use.

For example, it could be that Maōri and Sāmoan words are identified for certain parts of the brain, and as a Tongan you adopt those words. That’s one way of getting an anatomy chart that we can all use. Rather than having three or four different charts that may never be completed.

We need to be strategic and purposeful about future-proofing our Pacific languages. The most powerful languages have shown us how it’s done. Shouldn’t we do the same?


Sefita Hao’uli is a former journalist and broadcaster who was born in Tonga and lives in Auckland. He helped to set up and run the Pacific radio station 531pi in 1993, and then Niu FM in 2002. He chairs the Tonga Business Council and this year was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the Pacific community.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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