I’m good at languages — so why can’t I speak Sāmoan?


I’ve loved languages since Year 9, when I started learning French and Japanese at Baradene College, in Remuera.

The only other language on offer at the time was German — there was no te reo Māori, and definitely no Sāmoan on the menu. (To put that in context, it was the ‘90s and I was one of a handful of non-Pākehā girls in my year.)

I came top of my class for French. But after graduating, I was quickly brought down to earth the following year when I took a sabbatical in France and couldn’t, for the life of me, understand a word anyone said.

It was my first time in a full-immersion environment, and my brain was exploding.

After a few weeks, though, things slowly started making sense.

Before I knew it, I was conversing, thinking, and even dreaming in French.

Back in New Zealand, I began a law and arts degree at the University of Auckland, and resumed my language studies.

In my first year, I received the Senior Prize for French — an award normally reserved for students in their final year.

By comparison, I was a pretty average Japanese student. But I had realistic expectations — I knew I wouldn’t fully grasp the language until I’d had a chance to live there.

Some years later, while working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I had the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese when I was seconded to the New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei.

The job required a professional standard of Mandarin, which meant two years of intensive training. To give you an idea of Mandarin’s level of difficulty, it takes only six months to get to the same standard in French.

I studied at the International Chinese Language Programme, which was renowned for its ability to train Chinese speakers.

Many of my classmates were from Ivy League schools in the US. Quite a few identified as “ABCs” — American-Born Chinese — who’d already learned to speak Mandarin from their parents but couldn’t read or write it.

The experience was one of the most intense and rewarding things I’ve ever done.

At the end of two years, I was able to speak, read, and write one of the world’s most difficult languages.

Of course, you don’t master the language within two years.

Your reward for all that time and effort is a solid basis on which to keep building your Mandarin skills … for the rest of your life.

Still, having spoken Mandarin now for more than a decade, I’m sometimes complimented by native speakers who say I speak without an accent.

The same goes for French, which I’ve spoken for more than a quarter of a century.

You might say that I have a bit of an affinity with languages.

I’ve proved, at least to myself, that I have the ability to learn languages, and I understand what it takes to learn a difficult one to an advanced level.

So why can’t I speak Sāmoan?

Why do I struggle so much with the language that is a part of my heritage, and central to my identity? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times. Continue reading

  • Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i is an international civil servant and former diplomat.
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