Adam Rich and Dr. Michael Bush, Center for Language Studies
The title, Building a knowledge base in Fijian, suggests a very lofty research project for one lone undergraduate student. Several scholars have studied Fijian since the arrival of Christianity to the islands in the mid-nineteenth century. Just seven years ago, the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah began teaching missionaries in the Fijian language. The program at the MTC is the longest continuous program for the teaching of Fijian outside of Fiji. This project was not meant to be the sole ‘building’ of Fijian language knowledge, but to research and assess current methods of Fijian teaching and propose changes for the future.
Goals of the Project
The main work of this project was to develop a course in Fijian to be taught at BYU, teach the course, determine its effectiveness and plan thereby further changes in Fijian teaching philosophy. The course would be developed without a trip to Fiji, and the materials would be selected mainly from those already in use in Primary and Secondary schools in Fiji, with some reference material taken from those texts used at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji (USP) to teach Fijian to advanced speakers. Other secondary goals were also completed.
Preparing for the course
Advanced Fijian is taught actively to Fijian speakers at USP. The only other beginning level course in the world was taught at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, by Dr. Albert Shütz. Dr. Shütz was also involved in writing the text used by the Peace Corps to teach volunteers. I had the privilege of corresponding with Dr. Paul Geraghty, professor of linguistics at USP and highly respected scholar of the language, who was much help. Dr. Shütz’ detailed linguistic study of Fijian structures, The Fijian Language, was also an invaluable resource.
To my surprise, there are a fair number of children’s books that are written in Fijian. There are several varieties of Fijian, but the one spoken most widely, Standard Fijian, or Vosa Vakaviti Raraba (VVR – ‘popular Fijian’), is the language of many of the books. Dr. Geraghty suggested that his book, Lonely Planet Fijian Phrasebook, be used as a textbook for the course. The Fijian Phrasebook was written for tourists but the grammar and structures it teaches are more true to actual spoken Fijian than those of other more popular and more detailed grammar books. “Missionary Fijian” and Standard Fijian
At the MTC, teachers have access to the Book of Mormon in Fijian, and the Fijian Bible. No other materials printed in Fijian are used. This presents a major problem in the teaching of the language. Not only does it not expose students to function-specific language, but also it exposes them to incorrect language. The language of the Bible, which was the interlanguage of the missionaries who translated it, is now called Vosa Volai Makawa (VVM – ‘old written language’).
In the course taught at BYU, fall semester 2003, we attempted to teach only VVR, and for that reason did not use the Bible or The Book of Mormon as resources. Instead, we used children’s books. They use more function-specific language and are written mostly in VVR.
There are many challenges to teaching Fijian grammar principles. While reading Ai Vola i Momani (‘The Book of Mormon’), a popular way for missionaries to learn Fijian, one would notice many grammatical structures that are not seen in VVR. One Example of this is the VVM translation of the English ‘from’ – ‘mai vei’. In VVR, however, one would hear the same morpheme ‘vei’ translating both ‘to’ and ‘from’. When asked about ‘mai vei’ most natives said that they would understand it if said to them, but they would never use it themselves.1
Another challenge of teaching Fijian grammar is teaching the Fijian tense system. Most early grammars would teach the morphemes ‘e’ and ‘sa’ as being present tense markers – coming before verbs to denote action or state in the present. Neither morpheme actually denotes the present tense. ‘E’ is a third person pronoun, and ‘sa’ is an aspect marker. It denotes an action or state that is newly emerging – something that wasn’t before, but is now (in contrast to ‘se’ which marks an action or state that was before, is now, and will continue to an undetermined time in the future. ‘Se’ as an aspect marker is exclusively VVR – it is never seen in the Bible). Many students of Fijian have been led astray by these grammars.
The MTC has been using language lessons to teach sentence forms to missionaries, but those lessons included several ideas adopted from more faulty grammar books. To remedy the situation, I began editing the MTC Fijian language lessons to include things that I learned through this study. There remains less than ten hours of editing to be completed.
The Fijian Dictionary, last revised in 1968, takes many of its entries from dictionaries written much earlier, and many of the entries are too specific to be used by students of the language. No one has set out to write a modern Fijian to English dictionary. The Fijian government commissioned The Fijian Dictionary Project – a project to develop a monolinguistic Fijian dictionary, but its completion date is still unknown. As part of this project, I set out to catalogue the words found in Fijian children’s books and basic everyday conversation. The dictionary currently holds 1500 entries, 950 of which have definitions written. The writing of a new Fijian to English dictionary was not originally part of this project, but its need is evident.
The study of language for the purpose of teaching it to others is a worthwhile endeavor. While there have been many linguists in the past who have contributed greatly to our knowledge of Fijian and our philosophies of how to teach it, there is much that can still be done. Hopefully, the language lessons at the MTC will help missionaries to learn correct grammar quickly. The dictionary will also be a project that will continue to grow – hopefully to the point where it can be used by students and missionaries.