The Tuvaluan Language: A Beginner’s Perspective

What started as a genuinely-hearted journey to find more about “sinking islands” turned into an entirely new passion. While I am still a beginner in Tuvaluan and have been for the past month, I have been capable of communicating with simple sentences and even quite able to understand a handful of songs!

In honor of Tuvaluan Independence Day, I thought I should answer a few questions:

  • Why Tuvaluan?
  • What should I get to learn it?

First off, a bit about my background. Earlier this year I had a Benny-Lewis style Fijian mission on location in Fiji (which I deemed a modest success). Prior to that my only deep interests in Oceania were with the creoles of Melanesia in addition to some knowledge of Kiribati and Palauan.

You’ve probably noticed that within these is a lot of representation of the Pacific but no Polynesian Languages (except for Tuvaluan) listed thus far (okay, I had a phase with Tongan about a year ago but didn’t get too far with it).

Truth be told, the languages of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia are, together with languages like Malay, Indonesian, various languages of the Philippines and even Malagasy, classed under the “Austronesian Language Family”, or the languages of the isles of the south. Much like the Indo-European Languages can be classed into several families (e.g. Germanic, Celtic, Slavic), so too can the Austronesian Languages. As with human family members, language family members share characteristics amongst themselves and are also affected by “friendships” with other members outside the group. (An example would include Bantu and French loan words in Malagasy as well as English loan words in languages like Fijian or Kiribati).

Now what does this have to do with Tuvalu?

The language has acted a bit like a sponge, in a sense, being influenced by other languages both close to it (such as Samoan due to influence from Christian preachers from Samoan), Kiribati (due to cultural exchange between Tuvaluans and the Gilbertese-speakers) and English (due to being a former British colony. And Tuvalu has a central location:

tuvalu yay

What this has to do with language learning is the fact that Tuvaluan meshes a lot of characteristics in it that make it a befitting “gateway” to any of the other Polynesian Languages. (My understanding is that it would be similar to, let’s say, Slovak among the Slavic Languages—that due to its central location, it is the Slavic Language that represents most of the qualities of the family as a whole).

Tuvalu is a small country of around 11,000 inhabitants and the third smallest by population. You’re probably curious as to why such an investment would be a wise idea to begin with.

The fact is, due to a lot of music production and expatriate communities in New Zealand and elsewhere, not also to mention their “global” outlook within the Pacific, Tuvaluan music and culture has extended well beyond its borders, although on a small scale.

Or IS it so small? I once told a friend of mine (and Facebook) that my knowledge of Tuvaluan had caused me to “understand things like Pokémon Games and Disney Movies on a deeper level”

And the thing is, I wasn’t joking. Pokémon Sun and Moon takes place in Alola (a Hawaii-inspired region) and featured snippets of Hawaiian place names that I could understand via Tuvaluan cognates. Moana also featured Tokelauan songs—which is very close to Tuvaluan.

True to any small language that I’ve learned so far, the Tuvaluan community does offer “insider privileges” and respect to those who learn the language to any degree. In fact, the word for foreigners in Tuvaluan is “fakaalofa” which actually refers to “people who need love” (also a greeting in Niuean, but I digress).

Also a lot of the materials are very clearly written, although rare. For one, this grammar page is extremely thorough: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

In addition to that, Geoffrey and Jenny Jackson’s Tuvaluan Dictionary is available at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. It also features a lot of sample sentences that are actually more useful than meets the eye. The dictionary is extremely good, and if it has one flaw, it is the fact that profanity isn’t covered (it is written by missionaries, so fair enough). But even “You Swear Dot Com” doesn’t even feature Tuvaluan profanity so as of now a definitive guide doesn’t exist anywhere (as far as I know).  I have heard that the Jacksons also wrote a textbook but it wasn’t stocked at the USP bookstore (there are excerpts on it on Google Books and it is VERY good…what I can see of it, that is.)

Glosbe also features cross-translated sentences in Tuvaluan from its translation memory—these are godsends from anyone learning rare languages anywhere.

Lastly, check out and subscribe to the MusicTuvalu channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOvs1-AGk-idOZhScjEu3qQ As well as the Memrise Courses that are incomplete but very well done regardless.

Speaking of which, I’m going to record myself speaking some Tuvaluan right now!

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