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Loving the language in Tongan and Samoan

From their home in Russell Street a young Gisborne couple had an idea how to to teach their children Pacific languages.

Last month they self-published their first two picture books in what will be a series. Already through online sales they have sold more than 70 books in less than a month. Their books are titled ‘Learning Samoan through Bathtime', and ‘Learning Tongan through Bathtime'.

Oka and Deborah Sanerivi, both 33, believe language is fundamental to building a strong cultural identity. So when Deborah had their first child four years ago she decided to learn the basics of Samoan, Oka's first language.

Oka's father is Samoan and his mother is Tongan. He was born in Wellington. Deborah grew up in Wairoa and is of English and Scottish heritage. They wanted to make sure that their children grew up surrounded by all three languages and cultures.

“We had a conversation about Debs learning the Samoan language.

“We wanted to make sure our children are surrounded with as much of the culture and heritage as possible,” he said.

A primary school teacher, Deborah had the structure and the idea of what she wanted to say to her children at bath time. She wrote the words in English, Oka translated them into Samoan, and then they asked friends to translate the story into Tongan.

They engaged Chad Robertson to illustrate the books.

“We were put in touch with Chad Robertson after an encouraging conversation with author David Riley at a book authors' convention.”

As far as her own grasp of the languages goes, “I've got the basics,” says Deborah.

There are some words the children only know in Samoan.

Oka shares an example of Deborah's parents not being sure what Aniva, 4, wanted when she first asked for an inu — drink, in Samoan.

So the language is filtering up through the generations, as well as down through them.

Oka says their book business is more like a social enterprise. They wanted to make it easier for parents to speak with their children in Pacific languages by providing them with these books as learning resources.

“(In Gisborne) there is a large Tongan community, a growing Fijian one and a steady Samoan community.”

Oka said his nieces and nephews were impressed when they heard Deborah giving an instruction to the children in Samoan, telling him, “Auntie Debs can speak Samoan”.

Deborah says Oka's family have created a safe space for her to learn their languages so it can be passed down to their children.

The children are also involved in the selling process.

Their eldest daughter Aniva, 4, wraps up the books, and they make a family trip to the Post Shop to send them off around New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

A recent order even included a handwritten note from Aniva.

The couple moved from Hamilton to Gisborne three-and-a-half years ago to be closer to family and the coast.

Deborah is a stay-at-home mum to their three children these days, while Oka is head of the Physiotherapy department at the hospital. He has a special interest in paediatrics.

Their combined cultures extend further than the books they have published.

Banana trees border the back of their section, taro are planted on another fenceline and the colour of hibiscus flowers brightens the yard.

Oka and a friend built a fale (Samoan house) in the backyard, using phoenix palm fronds harvested from Wainui and OK'd by Gisborne District Council.

Getting funding to complete the book project was “surprisingly hard”, said Oka. It took almost three years of not quite meeting the criteria in each grant application before they were finally funded through the Ministry for Pacific Peoples Languages Innovation Fund (LIF).

“We want it to be a series of books and the language structure to increase in complexity,” said Oka.

“We'd love for the books to be in early childcare centre and libraries,” said Deborah.

TRILINGUAL: Deborah and Oka Sanerivi want to make sure their three children Manaia, 11 months, Aniva, 4, and Lagimalie, 3, learn the languages of Tonga and Samoa. They see their self-published books as an easy way for parents to integrate different languages into everyday routines — like bath time. To buy a book log on to www.maau.co.nz Picture by Paul Rickard