Harvard Lauds Samoan Language Center

The author with Dr. James Skouge and Mautumua Porotesano of Pacific Voices with Le Fetuao students at their technology camp PHOTO COURTESY ALICE SILBANUZ

The author with Dr. James Skouge and Mautumua Porotesano of Pacific Voices with Le Fetuao students at their technology camp

A recent Gallup poll reported that one in four American adults are basically conversationally proficient in another language. We live in an increasingly global world, in which speaking only one language does not suffice.

I recall visiting an international school in Brussels, Belgium, in the 1980s as a guest of the European Community, and I came away incredibly impressed with young teenagers sitting at a table and conversing in four languages — French, German, Spanish and English. I recall thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if that were to happen in Hawaii, with students speaking in Hawaiian and various Asian and Pacific Island languages?

Rebecca Calahan, associate professor of bilingual/bicultural education and cultural studies in education at University of Texas, says, “The time has come to rethink the emphasis on monolingualism in the U.S.” In a paper she wrote on this subject, she notes: “Bilinguals show higher test scores, better problem-solving skills, sharper mental perceptions and access to richer social networks.”

Moreover, she argues, “Bilingual children are able to draw support from mentors in their home-language communities and from the dominant culture,” and as they grow older, are more likely to finish high school, go to college and are better prepared to interview successfully in the job market.

Studies indicate that bilingualism prepares one for “greater intellectual focus” as well as an additional health benefit of helping to delay “dementia symptoms.”

Hawaii, with its multiethnic communities, can be a shining example to the rest of the nation of what linguistic experts such as Calahan have been advocating: “Today’s potential bilinguals will contribute more as adults if they successfully maintain their home language.”

The key to all of this is the education system. The latest in a long line of excellent language schools in Hawaii is Le Fetuao (“morning star”) Samoan Language Center, which received a prestigious award from Harvard University’s Bright Ideas program for its innovative approach to preserving and perpetuating Samoan language and culture among Samoan children and their families. I know that when All-American quarterback Marcus Mariota closed his highly celebrated Heisman acceptance speech in

New York by uttering “Fa’afetai lava” (thank you very much), many throughout the nation were impressed with his affinity for his Samoan culture and heritage.

Bright Ideas is an initiative of the broader Innovations in American Government Awards program administered through Harvard’s Ash Center. It is linked to Government Innovators Network, which serves as an online platform for practitioners and policymakers to share innovative public-policy solutions. In honoring Le Fetuao, Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Harvard program, stresses that “often seemingly intractable problems can be creatively and capably tackled by small groups of dedicated civic-minded individuals … with an emphasis on efficiency and adaptability.”

Thanks to a modest three-year grant awarded by Administration for Native Americans (ANA) in 2013, Le Fetuao became the first ANA-funded program in the U.S. dedicated to the Samoan language. One of its goals is to develop a Hawaii-based Samoan-language curriculum platform that can be shared with other U.S. states and territories.

The driving force behind Le Fetuao is hard-working executive director and founder Elisapeta Tu’upo-Alaimaleata, a former teacher in American Samoa and research assistant at University of Hawaii, whose inspiration to start a community-based educational-service program stemmed from her four children, who were born and raised in Hawaii. Her goal was to provide an opportunity for Samoan children to learn their ancestral language and culture through an interactive hands-on approach. Her vision has blossomed into free weekly instruction for 100 children, from preschool to high school age, Saturdays at Island Family Christian Church annex in Salt Lake. “We soon discovered that because our students, like in a regular classroom setting in school, were taking their homework home, and some of the parents were unable to help them because their inability to speak the language. Thus, it only made sense that we try to direct our efforts toward teaching the parents also,” says Tu’upo-Alaimaleata. She found a natural ally in John Mayer, who offers classes in Samoan language at UH. Mayer’s assistance was critically important to Le Fetuao in launching free classroom instruction in the Samoan language to adults. Mayer, whose Samoan name is Fepulea’i Lasei, feels that “providing language instruction to the entire family helps us to make learning the language a priority.”

These two individuals have made it possible for a strong partnership to be established with the UH Samoan Language and Culture Program, local businesses and churches.

From its inception in 2008 to the present, many talented people in the community have come forward to contribute their talents and services to the 501(c) nonprofit organization because they believe passionately in its mission. Aitulagi Peto and Vaega’au Falaniko volunteered to help create a solid preschool program. Sauileoge Ueligitone, a retired artist and educator, teaches tattoo and siapo designs, which are so integral to the Samoan culture. And like Tu’upo-Alaimaleata, Alice Malepeai Silbanuz’s commitment to construct a substantive social media platform to heighten awareness about Le Fetuao through Facebook and its website lefetuao.com is fueled by her 9-year-old daughter Trinity’s desire to absorb and learn as much as she can about her heritage language and customs.

I had a wonderful Saturday morning there recently at the closing ceremony of Le Fetuao’s technology camp, in which each student shared their digital storytelling projects with the audience. Held every year during DOE spring break, it enables the students to utilize the latest tools in technology, such as iPads, MacBooks, audio and musical equipment, and apps to facilitate learning the Samoan language. My impression was that these tech skills are invaluable and obviously transferable to other academic subjects. Retired UH educator James Skouge, with years of experience of working with American Samoa’s educational system, along with his colleague Mautumua Porotesano, have been extremely helpful in teaching technology to the students. His organization, Pacific Voices, has been a major sponsorship partner of the tech camp.

With a steadily growing wait list and a reputation for excellence starting to emerge, the next major challenge for the 8-year-old language school is to secure a permanent home. It clearly has started to outgrow its present facility. Tu’upo-Alaimaleata and her dedicated staff and volunteers hope to solicit private and/or public partners to enable them to fulfill the admonition of an ancient Samoan proverb:

Ia soso’o le fau ma le fau — “like the braiding of bark fiber, we come together” — for the good of Le Fetuao Samoan Language Center.