National language debate in Fiji

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The National Language Debate in Fiji concerns the status of the country's three official languages - English, Fijian, and Hindustani (the name used in the constitution for Fiji Hindi). From colonial times, the sole official language was English, but the 1997 Constitution gave equal status, for the first time, to Fijian and Hindustani, alongside English.

Compulsory subject?[edit]

There is considerable debate as to whether Fijian, and possibly also Hindi, should be compulsory school subjects. In May and June 2005, a number of prominent Fiji Islanders called for the status of Fijian to be upgraded; the present Education Minister, Ro Teimumu Kepa endorsed calls for it to be made compulsory, as did Great Council of Chiefs Chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini. Similar calls came from Misiwini Qereqeretabua, the Director of the Institute of Fijian Language and Culture, and from Apolonia Tamata, a linguistics lecturer at Suva's University of the South Pacific, who both said that recognition of the Fijian language is essential to the nation's basic identity, as a unifying factor in Fiji's multicultural society.

Fiji Labour Party (FLP) leader Mahendra Chaudhry also endorsed the call for Fijian to be made a national language and a compulsory school subject, provided that the same status be given to Hindi - a position echoed by Krishna Vilas of the National Reconciliation Committee.

Academic and former Education Minister Taufa Vakatale said that she supported making Hindi available in all schools, but considered that Fijian should get priority. "If the Indians in the country lost their language, there is a whole continent of people in India who would still have the language," she said. "In the whole world only 330,000 people know how to speak in Fijian and if it is lost, there is nowhere it can be revived from, that is why the Fijian language is very important to preserve."

A investigation by the Rewa Provincial Council, made public on 23 November 2005, revealed that 26 percent of indigenous children in the first and second grades of nine Rewa schools could not speak their own language. The council was exploring ways to redress this area of concern.

Vice-President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi added his own voice on 9 January 2006 to the campaign to make Fijian a compulsory subject. Addressing the 72nd annual meeting of the Fijian Teachers Association in Suva, Madraiwiwi said that it was dangerous to assume that Fijian children would automatically learn their own language. His parents' generation had emphasized prioritizing English on the assumption that Fijian could be learned later, but this had resulted in a generation knowing little Fijian, and unless the language was made compulsory at all levels of primary education, it would be lost to the next generation, he said.

Why Fijian?[edit]

Kamlesh Arya, President of the Arya Pratindhi Sabha organization, said on 29 June 2005 that language was the window by which people could appreciate and absorb tradition, and that making both Fijian and Hindustani compulsory school subjects would promote social and cultural understanding between the two races. His organization taught Fijian to Indo-Fijian students in primary schools at its own expense, he said. Given the geographical and numerical limitations of the Fijian language, it needed to be given special attention on its own merit.

Parliamentarian Gaffar Ahmed of the FLP spoke out on 4 August 2005 in favour of establishing Fijian as the national language. "To achieve national unity, multi-cultural and multi-racial harmony, we should have one common language which must be taught at all schools," he told the House of Representatives. He said that his own inability to speak Fijian was his greatest handicap as a Fijian citizen.