Language Learning in the Cook Islands: "Using the Teachable Moment" Apii Te Uki Ou

By Goodwin, Maureen | Practically Primary, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Language Learning in the Cook Islands: "Using the Teachable Moment" Apii Te Uki Ou


Goodwin, Maureen, Practically Primary


The Cook Islands nation comprises of fifteen islands spread out over more than two million square kilometres of the South Pacific Ocean. The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook who first sighted uninhabited Manuae in 1773. In 1965 the Cook Islands were granted Self rule in Free Association with New Zealand. This mean Cook Islanders have Dual Citizenship, and carry New Zealand passports.

Prior to the arrival of the Missionaries in 1821, the Cook Islands had no written language. Cook Islanders were an oral people, as were other Pacific Islanders. Communication was oral/verbal, via facial or body gestures and by signs, e.g. the use of flowers to show love and hospitality.

English, as in some other Pacific Islands nations is the Official Language of the Cook Islands. But, the indigenous languages are the first languages of the people. The people of Pukapuka and Nassau speak a Western Polynesian Language closely related to Samoa, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Other islands speak a Maori Language (in its various dialects), which is linked to New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. The people of Palmerston speak their own unique Palmerston Island English. It sounds like the Yorkshire Dialect in England, with its own unusual use of words, e.g. a pod on Palmerston is a coconut and you peel them. Elsewhere, you husk a coconut.

The Missionaries of the London Missionary Society had an enormous impact on Cook Islands life, spiritually, economically, politically and linguistically. These Missionaries not only learnt the language of the people, but they wrote it down. The Bible, Te Biblia Tapu, was translated into Maori, and Hymns were either written in Maori or translated into Maori. Cook Islanders had access to a whole new world, that of Christianity, and it was via their own written languages.

Literacy in the people's own languages was encouraged, and communication and instruction in school was in the people's own languages. This scenario changed with Universal Education for all in 1888, and it meant that people now had to learn at school in English. This was the scenario until the 1950s. Many older people in the Cook Islands and other places throughout the Pacific remember being punished and humiliated as children for speaking their own languages in the school playground.

However, visionary people such as Sir Apirana Ngata, the New Zealand Minister of Island Affairs, and one of New Zealand's great Maori Leaders recognised the need for the English Language for Trade and Diplomacy. But, equally important, was the need for people to retain their own language and culture. He saw the need for people to walk tall in two worlds, Te Ao Maori, e, Te Ao Pakeha. (The world of the Maori and the world of the Foreigner) His message to us:

"Grow and branch forth for the days of your world; Your hands to the tools of the strangers For the welfare of your body, Your heart to the treasure of Your ancestors as adornments for your head, Your spirit with your God who made all things."

In the 1950s the Director of Education, Hugh Hickling tried to introduce a learning model from the Philippines. All children were to learn in their own language first. Today we call this Transitional Bilingualism. It is still the model being used in the Cook Islands. However, with the impact of English language use, especially on the island of Rarotonga, this has been modified.

The desired outcome for all Cook Islanders is that they are to be Bilingual. All children are to be taught in their own First Languages. In order to achieve this, two scenarios were proposed in the 1997 Language Report.

Scenario A for the Outer Islands schools, and some Rarotonga schools, states all children are to receive instruction in Maori (own dialects) first, and English is to be introduced first orally, and once Literacy in Maori is secure then English Literacy learning can begin, but with gradually increasing time spent on this.

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