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Alofa ki te tamā manu: Language, culture, identity, and wellbeing - Caring for gagana Tokelau and lea faka-Tonga in secondary education in Aotearoa New Zealand

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posted on 08.11.2021, 20:39 by Juliet Kennedy

This applied thesis explores why continued access to Pacific language education is of importance in mainstream secondary education in Aotearoa. With a specific focus on gagana Tokelau and lea faka-Tonga, this research examines how mainstream secondary schools can provide continued access to language education in schools where immersion or bilingual education is not currently available. The impetus driving this research comes from my professional experience as a secondary school language teacher. Students I teach want to learn and/or maintain their heritage Pacific languages as part of their education but are often not able to within the curriculum. This is despite several current policies which explicitly promote the use of Pacific languages and cultures within the education system (Ministry of Education, 2019; 2020a). Furthermore, current interdisciplinary research informing educational policy and practice indicates that students thrive in their education, and experience a positive sense of wellbeing when they are strong in their own cultural identities (Franken et al, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 2017; Paris & Alim, 2017). In contrast, negotiation of strong cultural identities is challenging in the face of increasing language shift, such as is present in Tokelauan and Tongan communities in Aotearoa (Hunkin, 2012; McCaffery & McFall, 2010; Parsons, 2020).

To address these issues, I locate my study by drawing on cross-disciplinary, international, and local literature, exploring the fields of critical education, Indigenous education, and applied critical sociolinguistics. My research questions are underpinned by three theoretical frameworks: (1) social justice (Freire, 1973; Phipps, 2019); (2) sociolinguistic (Norton, 2013) and Pacific (Anae, 2016; Mila-Schaaf, 2011; Tupuola, 2004; Vaai & Nabobo-Baba, 2017) theories of identity; and (3) edgewalking (Krebs, 1999). These theories support the investigation of the research questions, which explore (1) connections between language, culture, identity, and wellbeing; (2) how secondary school experiences of Pacific language education connect with future imagined identities; and (3) reported experiences and beliefs about challenges related to school-based continued access to Pacific language education. The research questions apply a critical strengths-based approach which allows for a positive focus on current efforts and initiatives in communities as a platform for further development, whilst not ignoring struggle (Blackledge & Creese, 2010; Heller et al, 2018; Mila, 2014).

The theoretically driven methodological approach looks to relational vā-inspired and critical ethnographic methodologies to support and place the caring and nurturing of relationships and community driven outcomes at the centre of the project (Airini et al, 2010; Anae, 2016; Ponton, 2018). Working together with communities, I am guided by two Tokelauan values: tautua (to serve) and alofa ki te tamā manu (nurturing those in need). In this way, the thesis is about the critical act of partnering ‘doing’ or ‘praxis’ (Freire, 1973; Phipps, 2019) with research. Multiple participant perspectives (community members, students, teachers, and school leaders) and a bricolage of methods (talanoa-inspired interviews and focus group discussions, participant observations, fieldnotes, ongoing service in communities) capture the voices of different stakeholders to contribute a community-centred, complex data set.

Findings illustrate how Tokelauan and Tongan community members, and secondary students connect language and culture with (1) confidence and self-esteem, (2) Indigenous understandings of identity and wellbeing, and (3) authentic cultural identity with wellbeing. In addition, data show how multilingualism is the norm in Pacific identities and how the (de)valuing of multilingualism in education can enhance or hinder identity and wellbeing. Exploration of future imagined identities indicates how access to Pacific language education in secondary school supports increased cultural, social, and material capital; language maintenance; and valuing of language. Furthermore, access to language education provides a safe space to critically explore issues of language, culture, and identities and enables community and school partnerships to support sustainable speech communities. Analysing challenges experienced in relation to provision of Pacific language education, specifically gagana Tokelau and lea faka-Tonga highlight the many local and systemic-level issues within communities, the education system, and wider society that need to be addressed if equity and social justice in language education is to prevail.

Theoretical insights, and analysis of affordances and challenges from the findings provide suggestions for potential ways forward in both educational practice and policy. Moreover, the research process documents my own journey in attempting to decolonise approaches to language education in my practice as a teacher. Working together with communities, and guided by two Tokelauan values: tautua (to serve) and alofa ki te tamā manu (nurturing those in need), I hope this project can further support community efforts by adding to the growing body of research (Bland, forthcoming; May, 2020; Milne, 2017; Si‘ilata et al, 2019) calling for a systemic approach to nurturing Pacific languages in Aotearoa through education.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Seals, Corinne; Crabbe, David