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What Language Is Spoken on Easter Island?

Easter Island, which forms part of Polynesia, is a renowned tourist destination, famous for its ancient culture and monumental sculptures. It is located in the Pacific Ocean and belongs to Chile. The major attraction of this remote location lies in its traditions and its unique insulation, which has influenced its development being separate from that of the continent. In addition to allowing them to preserve their customs, geographical remoteness has also led to the language of the island, called Rapa Nui, developing on its own.

This particular language belongs to the same family as many Micronesian and Melanesian languages, which are spread mainly throughout Southeast Asia. Certain words are similar to Malay and a few can be traced to the original languages of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Siamese, although it is very difficult for speakers of these languages to understand Rapa Nui.

As the island made contact with other cultures, particularly during the twentieth century, Rapa Nui became greatly transformed by foreign contact.  Loanwords from English, French, Spanish, and Tahitian arose, a process that continues today. This new social, economic, and political situation, which facilitated the gradual use of Spanish rather than Rapa Nui in community spaces, caused many children to be educated as native speakers of Spanish, sometimes motivated by their own parents, a situation that has given way to the fact that at present only about 800 speakers of the language remain.

The revival process of the language began in 1975, when the Chilean Ministry of Education decreed for the first time that it would be taught formally and, as of 1976, included Rapa Nui as a subject in the first cycle of education provided on the island. Furthermore, in 2004, during the First Conference on the Rapa Nui Language, the Rapa Nui Language Academy was created.

The language is currently used in daily communication by a large part of the population, especially in the family, although all island residents speak Spanish when in public. Young people have been reversing the formerly obsolete status of the language, as they have seen the need to learn Rapa Nui on their own in order to better interact within their own social patterns. An example of this tendency is the young singer from Easter Island, Enrique Icka, who, through music, attempts to deliver a message to his people, telling stories about his and others’ experiences and trying to raise awareness about important issues for the island.