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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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International Perspectives on Sign Language Interpreter Education

Jemina Napier, Editor

Part Two: Asia-Pacific

Isa Lei: Interpreter Training in Fiji

kate nelson, inise tawaketini, ruth spencer, and della goswell

Fiji is a small island nation consisting of over 300 islands scattered over 850 kilometers (528 miles) in the South Pacific Ocean. It is where Melanesia and Polynesia meet. The capital of Fiji is Suva, on the largest island of Viti Levu (see Figure 1). According to the latest government census (2007), Fiji has a population of 827,900, with 473,983 (57%) of indigenous Fijian descent and 311,591 (37%) of Indo-Fijian descent (Fiji Islands Statistics Bureau, 2007). The number of deaf people living in Fiji is not yet determined but is assumed to be approximately 2,000 (Nelson, 2007). Fiji lies to the north of New Zealand and northeast of Australia, and these two developed countries have played a large part in the story of the Deaf community and its language:

The first significant contact Fiji had with Europeans was in the early nineteenth century with the arrival of traders in sandalwood and bęche-de-mer (Geraghty, 2007). They were followed by Christian missionaries from the 1830s who were the first to document local languages. European settlers then introduced commercial agriculture to the islands, and the British colonial administration brought 60,000 Indian indentured laborers to work in sugar plantations between 1879 and 1916 (Tarte, 1982). Their descendants are the basis of the current Indo-Fijian population.

The most powerful Fijian chief in the late nineteenth century was Ratu Seru Cakobau, on the island of Bau. Bauan is still the dominant Fijian dialect today. Cakobau and other high chiefs voluntarily ceded Fiji to Great Britain in 1874. It became a British colony with English as the official language. Fiji emerged as an independent dominion in 1970, and became a republic in 1987.

As a consequence of colonization and the indentured Indian migration, Fiji now has three official languages: Fijian (Bauan), Hindustani (Fiji Hindi) and English. Most Fiji Islanders have either Fijian (Bauan or other dialects) or Fiji Hindi as their first language, however English maintains a privileged position as the language of administration and education (Mangubhal & Mugler, 2006).

The title of this chapter Isa Lei, is the name of a Fijian song often sung at farewells. It signifies sadness because someone is leaving. “Isa Lei” was sung in heartfelt a cappella harmony by the students to the two Australian kaivalagis (white foreigners) who came to deliver the intensive final stage of the interpreter training program in August 2006. It was a powerful send-off and a symbolic reminder that there is more to be done to establish and consolidate a sustainable interpreting profession in Fiji.
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