02 August 2023

Mary Soonaoso Tiumalu and her team are leading the strategy to revive and maintain Pacific languages in Aotearoa.

“People often forget that New Zealand is part of the Pacific,” says Mary Soonaoso Tiumalu.

"We're all part of this vast moana, this amazing region, a truly unique part of the world.

“We all can draw collective strength from that.”

Mary is the Language Strategy and Development Manager at Te Manatū mō ngā Iwi ō te Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa Ministry for Pacific Peoples.

She is passionate about her culture and heritage, and about the power and benefits that come from connecting with your language.

And those benefits are much bigger than simply building self-esteem and a sense of identity, Mary says.

“From cognitive and educational benefits, to employment and earning benefits, you're just a better, more participating citizen when you know your language and are grounded in your identity.

“The research clearly shows that it improves your overall wellbeing, and that's good for everyone.”

Mary leads a team of five responsible for the Leo Moana o Aotearoa project, the first national project of its kind to investigate the use and attitudes towards nine Pacific languages.

It's a big piece of research work, and runs alongside the Pacific Languages Strategy 2022–2032, which takes a long-term approach to coordinating support for Pacific languages across government, communities, and other key stakeholders.

The strategy has three key objectives:

  • recognise the value of Pacific languages in Aotearoa
  • strengthen pathways and resources for learning, and learning in, Pacific languages
  • create environments for Pacific languages to be used more often and in more spaces.

Communities are the leaders and owners of their languages and have been leading language efforts since before the strategy. However, the strategy signals the government’s commitment to supporting community-led initiatives to raise the value of Pacific languages in Aotearoa.

The Ministry for Pacific Peoples works closely with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to bring meaning to the strategy.

"When Pacific languages are heard, spoken and celebrated, Pacific communities thrive. When our Pacific communities thrive, Aotearoa is a better place for all of us," says Mary.

But that positive attitude hasn't always been the case coming from our government.

As she puts it: “Our Pacific communities came here for the milk and honey, but soon discovered the Dawn Raids”.

Mary has worked at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples since 2016, first as a Regional Advisor, then as a Policy Advisor, Senior Policy Advisor, Private Secretary for the former Minister for Pacific Peoples and now Manager.

In 2022 she was named Young Leader of the Year at the Spirit of Service Awards, which recognise public servants and initiatives that exemplify the spirit of service and demonstrate an outstanding commitment to New Zealand.

In her citation she was praised as “a selfless leader who works to create real and long-lasting change for Pacific communities in Aotearoa New Zealand”.

“Her spirit of service is underpinned by the values of Alofa (compassion for others), Fa’aaloalo (building trust and respect), and Tauata’i (exemplary leadership).”

Mary is full of hope for the revitalisation and maintenance of the Pacific languages.

“What I've seen is so many young people who have the desire to learn. They enjoy participating in the cultural performances and activities, but what is sometimes missing is the understanding of the language component that comes with participating in those cultural activities.

“When both language and culture are harnessed, that young person is stronger, more resilient, and confident.”

It's also our young people who can carry on the great work of her team, Mary says.

“We need a lot more young people in the public sector. It can be challenging, it can be hard to get things across the line, but you can make a difference and you can build a career.

“There are so many young people with strong heads on their shoulders, great innovative solutions and a spirit of service to contribute and make a difference. It's these people who will transform and shape the sector for the better.”

Spirit of Service Awards 2023


This year's Te Hāpai Hapori | Spirit of Service Awards takes place on 16 August at Te Papa.

Check out our awards pages for more information about the awards and finalists.

Find out more