Society

What Languages Are Spoken in Tuvalu?

Tuvaluan and English are the official languages of Tuvalu.

Tuvalu is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. The country is comprised of nine islands that cover a total land area of 10 square miles. Tuvalu has a population of approximately 11,000 people, and more than half of that total resides on the island of Funafuti, which is also nation’s capital. English and Tuvaluan are the two official languages of Tuvalu. Other languages such as Samoan, Kiribati, and Gilbertese are often spoken on the nation’s islands.

Official Languages of Tuvalu

English

English is often used at official functions in Tuvalu. The country was a British protectorate, and therefore was part of British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT), and as a result, English is one of the country's official languages. The language is less popular with locals, and significant efforts have been made to encourage locals to learn and use the language. English is the language taught in schools, as well as the language used to communicate with foreigners. The language is also commonly used in business settings. Most residents of Funafuti have basic knowledge of the English language.

Tuvaluan

Tuvaluan is the most common language spoken in Tuvalu. It is used alongside English in official documents and by governmental organizations. The language is closely linked to Polynesian languages such as Samoan, Hawaiian, Tongan, and Tahitian. The Tuvaluan language has borrowed considerably from the Samoan language, which was used by missionaries on the islands of Tuvalu. In addition to the 11,000 residents of Tuvalu, Tuvaluan is also spoken by a small community of 3,000 Tuvaluans who reside in New Zealand.

Minority Languages Spoken in Tuvalu

Samoan

Most residents of Tuvalu can speak Samoan, and this is attributed to the close link between Samoan and Tuvaluan. Christian missionaries led by Elekana introduced Samoan to the islands of Tuvalu in 1861. The language was often used in churches and government offices. When English was adopted as the official language in Tuvalu, the Samoan language gradually lost popularity in the country. Currently, Samoan is rarely used in Tuvalu.

Gilbertese

Gilbertese was once a common language in Tuvalu. The language was learned through interactions with residents of the neighboring Gilbert Islands. The location of colonial offices on the Gilbert Islands also led to the popularity of the language in Tuvalu. On the island of Nui, Gilbertese is still the native language spoken by the people on the island. However, the language has lost popularity on the other Tuvalu islands.

Kiribati Language

Given Tuvalu’s proximity to Kiribati, some Kiribatians visited the islands of Tuvalu and introduced their language to the country. Continued interactions and intermarriage between the people led to the spread of Kiribati language in Tuvalu. Nonetheless, the Kiribati language is a minority language spoken by few Tuvaluans.

Significance of Foreign Languages in Tuvalu

The Tuvalu islands have adopted several foreign languages as a mode of communication with outsiders. Languages such as English have opened up the islands to foreign businesses and tourists. The use of English in the education system has allowed Tuvalu residents to attain higher education in neighboring Pacific Islands. The use of foreign languages in Tuvalu has also improved trade relations with the neighboring islands.

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