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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 29, 2008

Samoan language school will open

By Caryn Kunz
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Those involved in the first Samoan language school in Hawai'i include, from left: Elisapeta Tuupo-Alaimaleata, Lefao So'otaga Keleise, the Rev. Nu'utele Vaeena of First Samoan Methodist Church and his wife, Sulu Vaeena. Tuupo-Alaimaleata wrote the grant, and Keleise is training others to run the school.

Photo courtesy of Samoan Methodist Church in Salt

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What: The first Samoan language school in Hawai'i

Where: The free classes will be at a First United Methodist Church residence, 3272 Ala Laulani St., Salt Lake.

Classes begin: Oct. 6

More information: Reach the Rev. Nu'utele Vaeena at 834-0411 or Elisapeta Tuupo-Alaimaleata at 232-1382.

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It all started when Elisapeta Tuupo-Alaimaleata was asked to teach Sunday School for the First Samoan Methodist Church in Salt Lake.

She noticed that many of the congregation's Hawai'i-born youths did not know how to speak their native tongue.

The observation soon became a passion to make some changes: With the support of First Samoan Methodist's the Rev. Nu'utele Vaeena, Tuupo-Alaimaleata applied for and was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Hawai'i People's Fund to start an early-age Samoan language school in Hawai'i.

"We see this as a village, where we are living in Western society, away from our home in Samoa," Tuupo-Alaimaleata said. "We find comfort coming together as a family, and that's where we see the importance of preserving and perpetuating our own identity. It's a treasure that we have to maintain and preserve for the future."

For Tuupo-Alaimaleata and Vaeena, that means starting early.

"Kids that are born here, out of our islands, are hardly exposed to the Samoan language. They are raised in our 'second language' (English) every day," Vaeena said.

The school, named Le Fetuao, will teach children from preschool to middle school-age to speak and write consistently in Samoan.

"Young Samoans here grow up dominant in English, with only a passive knowledge of Samoan," said John Mayer, associate professor of Samoan and chairman of the Department of Indo-Pacific Language and Literature at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "By the time they become adults, there is a vacuum, where they can't participate in cultural activities because the language is not there."

More than 20 students mostly from the First Samoan Methodist congregation and a few from the Salt Lake community have already registered to begin the free classes starting Oct. 6. Instruction will take place daily during public school intersessions, and every Saturday during the rest of the school year.

On Saturday, school officers will meet with the parents of enrolled students for a training workshop.

"It is very important that what we teach here needs to be followed through and practiced at home," Tuupo-Alaimaleata said. "The project will be very hands-on, very interactive and very positive. We want the parents to do the same thing at home."

The school's instructors are training under Lefao So'otaga Keleise, who taught early-childhood education in Samoan language for 41 years in American Samoa. Students will learn through songs, cultural activities and lessons. The program also hopes to implement technology-based learning through laptops with older students.

"Our approach is to make this a learning center and a safety net for youth to come in and make connections to their roots, a place where you can find yourself and have pride" in being Samoan, Tuupo-Alaimaleata said.

Eventually, the goal is to reach out to a greater islandwide audience, but space constraints will keep enrollment limited until a permanent location for the school can be found.

"We'll be using our own living room, our own dining room, and our own little hall here, which is our garage," Tuupo-Alaimaleata said.

"You've got to start from somewhere," Vaeena said.

Reach Caryn Kunz at ckunz1@honoluluadvertiser.com.