Dr 'Ana Taufe'ulungaki, the Minister of Education, said that under the new policy Tongan will be the only language to be used in all kindergarten schools, and in primary schools from Classes 1-3. An exception will be for children whose mother tongue is not Tongan. The English language will be introduced into the schools in Class 4 as a subject.
From Classes 4-6 the Tongan will remain to be the dominant language, but its use in classes will gradually decrease as the use of the English language increases.
The policy determines the language use as a percentage of teaching time, based on a week of 880 minutes of teaching time. Under the new language policy, the percentage of Tongan and English to be used in classes are: Class 4, 80% Tongan, 20% English; Class 5, 70% Tongan, 30% English; Class 6, 60% Tongan, 40% English.
By the time the students enter high schools, from Form 1-7, language use will be 50% Tongan and 50% English.
The Tongan language will be a compulsory subject, starting from Class 1 at primary level to Form 7 at high school. English will be a compulsory subject from Class 3 to Form 6. Students who may want to step up to another level in their study of the two languages will be able to do so from Form 3 to 7.
'Ana said that the prime objective of the new policy is that when students leave high school at age 18 they should be able to speak, listen, write, and read in both Tongan and English.
There have been various attempts to set a language policy for Tonga. 'Ana recalled an attempt in 1999 to implement a bilingual language policy, and there was also another attempt at the turn of the century, "then it became very confusing because there were no supporting text books, and it was not in line with the school curriculum".
The New Zealand government funded the Tonga Education Support program (TES) in 2004, and two of its components were to draw up a new syllabus for primary schools, and a language policy.
'Ana said that a Cabinet sub-committee was to approve projects that were completed under TES before they could be implemented.
At the time while she was with the Ministry of Education. 'Ana played a leading role in the drafting of the language policy, which was approved the Cabinet sub-committee in 2008.
In 2007 'Ana left the Ministry of Education to become the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, Suva Fiji. She returned to the Ministry in 2009 and then left again in 2010 to become the Director of Pacific Studies at the USP Tonga Campus, until last year when she was appointed as Tonga's new Minister of Education.
It has been a long journey for 'Ana to eventually implement a policy that has meant so much for her, and at a time when researchers and linguists have given the warning signals that the Tongan language is in the danger of decline.
"We might even have to adopt the approach that was taken by the Maori to save their language, by politicizing the issue," said 'Ana, who admired how the Maoris successfully brought back the Maori language to popular usage.
Following the implementation of the language policy, 'Ana said that the next step for Tonga is to establish a Language Commission. An amendment to the Education Act has been drafted to go through the law making process, which will legally enforce clauses in the policy.
An example of how the Tongan language is making itself irrelevant, is the law-making process itself. 'Ana said that under the constitution, that the interpretation of the Tongan version of the Tongan law is the one that has the supremacy. But the problem now is that the Tongan law is no longer drafted in Tongan first and then translated into English. It is the other way around, so even if there is a difference in the translation, the Tongan version remains to be law of Tonga.
But because of the Tongan language problems, what happens now is that while the Tongan version of the Tonga Law is considered to be the legal version, we have a situation where the English interpretation of the law is considered to be the correct one.
'Ana told of reports by researchers and discussions with Tongan people, indicating that the status of the Tongan language is lower than that of English, simply because being able to speak English makes it easier to find employment and to secure opportunities for further studies, either locally or overseas. English remains to be the language that is used by the business community and by government.
However, she was optimistic that with the language policy Tonga would eventually have a population that would be fluent in both Tongan and English.
She believed that Tonga could become a successful bilingual society, but all it needs is a commitment by the government and the people of Tonga.
Commenting on the introduction of the new policy, the President of the Tongatapu School Principals' Association, Paula Fonua, appreciated the intention of the government's new language policy.
While he did not think it would be very difficult for some of the church schools to implement the policy, "because we use the Tongan language as the teaching language at all levels, and that is common practice with most church schools, excepting for Liahona and the Ocean of Light", Paula believed that government schools would face the difficulties of implementing such a policy.
He said that the problem they were facing was not in the using of the Tongan language in the schools, but because all exam papers were in English, so the learning and the use of the English language was a problem for them.