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New Zealand census data indicates Samoan language use has declined rapidly in the last 20 years, particularly among the New Zealand-born Samoan population. The aims of this qualitative and family-based study were to identify factors which might impact these declines with five South Auckland families through group and individual talanoaga, participant observations, speech recordings and 24-hour recall sheets of language use. These were carried out over a one-year period exploring the valuing and, more particularly, use of the Samoan language in Samoan families, including whether there was a relationship between the two. Research suggests that the ultimate survival of a language depends on the intergenerational transmission of language within the family. The Samoan family was chosen as the vehicle for this study given its central place in the fa’asamoa, as the place where values, beliefs and practices are nurtured and where activity and decision-making changes occur. Youth are a second focus in this study because they are the carriers of Samoan language, yet data shows that they are experiencing the most language shift. This study was situated in the global context of language shift and maintenance, and so responses were grouped according to domains of language use. A bricolage approach was employed to connect the multiple ways of knowing and knowledge construction of the fa’asamoa.
The findings highlighted that Samoan was highly valued in these families as the heart of fa’asamoa and connected with spirituality, identity, culture and communication. This high valuing, however, did not transfer to the use of the language, particularly among the youth. Instead, language shift was evident in most families, with the exception of those which made deliberate efforts to use and enrich the Samoan language. The complexity of intermarriage in Samoan families was also an influencing factor, which is likely to continue to impact the future of the Samoan language. For the youth, Samoan language use was confined to the private domains of the home and church. However, and significant within these two previously safe domains, was that Samoan language use was changing largely through the use of digital technology and the internet, even by grandparents and elders. At the same time youth asked questions such as ‘do you need to speak Samoan to be Samoan?’ The lack of quality time as a family, and the changing family compositions, schooling and geographical environments, were also factors that influenced Samoan language. The study conclusions were that intentional efforts such as having a language champion, Samoan-only language rules in the home, and quality family time together, are needed. However, more importantly, the impact of the use of digital technology and the internet and other new media on Samoan language use and sustainability is a new and changing area which is likely to continue to have a considerable impact on Samoan language use. It is argued that sustaining the Samoan language, and other minority language groups in New Zealand, will require family, community and State partnerships to ensure that the Samoan language continues to be valued and used in New Zealand.