Husband and wife write children's books to help keep Pacific languages alive

A husband and wife team in New Zealand have written a series of children's books to encourage families to speak their languages at home.

Deborah Sanerivi says she started writing the books with her husband Oka to help her own family, as well as others.

“I wrote the books simply so I could learn. I couldn’t find resources that were structured in a way that helped me to say the sentences that I wanted to say to my new little girl.

“As she got older and we started to incorporate more sentences and more of the language into her life, we realised there are more families like ours that don’t necessarily have the language base to help them speak our language or their language to their children.”

PMN News reports the results were two stories called Learning Tongan Through Bathtime and Learning Samoan Through Bathtime, published by Ma'au Books, ​the company the couple founded.​

​The Sanerivi family live in Gisborne, where Deborah is a New Zealand European primary school teacher and stay-at-home mum to three children, while Oka is a Samoan-Tongan physiotherapist.

Deborah says she wanted to learn the Samoan language following a conversation with her sister.

“I had our little girl and my sister said, ‘when are you going to learn the Samoan language?’ and I said, ‘I’m not planning on it’ and she said, ‘well, Oka’s going to speak to your kids in Samoan and it’s who they are, it’s really important that you do that’.

“She actually wrote a whole bunch of name cards for me of words and posted them around the house.”

Oka Sanerivi says he wants to see Ma'au Books used as a tool to support the passing down of Pacific languages.

“For us, the picture we have is that we’ve got multiple generations huddled around our books so that there’s language going down generations and coming back up and they’re sharing stories and moments, that will be an awesome outcome.”

Other writers have also taken up the challenge to create more Pacific language books for families.

The O Le Aiga Samoa comic book series portrays a modern Samoan family who live outside Samoa, but have maintained their cultural values, beliefs and language.

O Le Aiga Samoa writer Nafanuatele Lafitaga Mafaufau says it’s important for Pacific people to share their own stories.

“We really wanted to make it something that was intentional in that it helps to unpack Samoan life, fa’a Samoa from a young person’s perspective, but also being able to tell our stories as our people, and for our children and young people to see themselves in these stories.”

Nafanuatele hopes the comic book series inspires other Pacific storytellers to curate their own tales.

“We would love for more people to have access to not only this story, but other stories like this and we hope that through creating O Le Aiga Samoa comic series that it inspires so many other Pacific artists, other Pacific story writers to be able to create stories that are their own and all in their own languages, as well as in English.”

Comic book illustrator Michel Mulipola is behind the artwork featured in O Le Aiga Samoa.

It's the realisation of a long-cherished vision of creating a Samoan-themed comic book.

“I had been thinking about some kind of idea involving comics and the Samoan language for a while, but never really knew how to approach it.

“The collaboration between Nafanuatele and I just seemed like a natural fit and so her knowledge and her experience with the Samoan language would help fill in a lot of those gaps that I had in terms of trying to bring a Samoan language comic to fruition.”

Mulipola says there is “great synergy” between him and Nafanuatele in terms of being able to teach and learn from each other.

“Not only have I been learning while creating the comic, learning a lot of the fa’a Samoa stuff and the Samoan language, I get to also teach Nafanuatele a little bit about the comic book art form and how that works because a lot of people don’t really truly understand it beyond its surface elements.”