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“Tahitian is for saying hello and goodbye”: children’s comments about an Indigenous language in suspense

Marie Salaün, Jacques Vernaudon, Mirose Paia

Tahiti is the main island of the South Pacific archipelago French Polynesia that has been linked since 1842 through various statutes to the French Republic, 16,000 kilometres away. And while they have never been a demographic minority, nor had their land taken away to the same extent as occurred in the Americas and the Pacific, Tahitians (about 80% of the island’s population of about 183,000 people) have incontestably been victims of a policy of assimilation that accelerated in the early 1960s, as the territory became the French nuclear testing ground. With much greater exposure to institutions imported from Paris (legal and educational), and more urbanized and dependent on salaried employment, Tahitians began to project their children into a French-speaking future, within which the transmission of Polynesian languages came to be seen as prejudicial to social integration. As a result, the loss of these languages has become obvious: while 52% of people 75 to 79 years old say they speak a Polynesian language in the family, this is true of only 17% of people 15 to 19 years old.

As a reaction to the often hegemonic ambition of the French culture and language, and to preserve what can be saved of the Tahitian language and culture, a policy aimed at promoting this language and culture at school was implemented in the early 1980s.

Based on empirical studies carried out among teachers, parents, and the students themselves, in particular through programs conducted by the French National Research Agency in 2008–2012, and the French ministry of culture in 2013–2014, this article examines the issues of the complementarity between school and extended family in the transmission of language and culture, with a particular focus on children’s representations of the languages they speak themselves, the languages they hear around them, and the languages that they will learn later.