When Kari sang
How civilisation came to Papua New Guinea

To preserve our languages & culture we must be bold


THE threat of the world's languages fading away and dying is an age-old reality. It is not unique to the 21st century.

This fate will befall hundreds of Papua New Guinea’s languages. History tells us of the deliberate methods crafted to destroy many indigenous languages and cultures – leading to the domination of nations. Perhaps the conditions and attitudes of those times could not prevent that.

Today, however, we have the assistance of institutions like the Wycliffe Global Alliance (founded in 1942 and with a footprint in 60 countries), whose desire is to see the Bible translated for every language group that needs it.

One of its partner organisation, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) – has been situated at Ukarumpa near Kainantu in Eastern Highlands Province since 1956.

As of November 2012, translations of the Bible (66 Books), portions of it and the New Testament existed in more than 2,800 of the 6,877 languages on Earth.

In PNG, research has been conducted into nearly 400 languages and at this time there are 316 SIL members working on projects in 190 different language. Like my own Enga tokples Bible, the entire Bible has already been translated into the Orokaiva language.

I wonder how many local pastors are using this work to preach, teach and instruct the youngsters. The values, principles and nuances enshrined in the Bible are universal, irrespective of the emphasis that each culture and language group places on them.

Educated Papua New Guineans have a grandparent, an aunt or a cousin who speaks their traditional language. We can use these people as resources to reinforce important values, principles and history in traditional languages so we can preserve them.

I speak my own tokples at home and in other appropriate settings. Education and living away from the village did not diminish it or wipe it away from me. The same should be reflected in the lives of many of us who started school in our villages and towns.

The idea of tokples education in primary education and pre-schools has been given a 15-plus year chance. We have seen its results. Of course, how it has been prepared, funded and implemented in PNG is another story.

What is clear today is that, there has been a double blow to the self-esteem, confidence and thinking ability of our youngsters. The bulk of them who were educated in the Outcome-Based Education (OBE) experiment are not able to hold a coherent conversation or discussion in Pidgin, or even in English.

So the cultural and language pride we had hoped to usher in has been correctly labelled a failure. We cannot and must not afford to waste another decade in such misguided experiments.

One has to agree with Pope Benedict that, “the Internet is a gift from God”. Information is becoming available to the masses. We must make it our own business to educate ourselves - unlearn dogmas, prejudices and bigotry and begin to embrace the truly noble ideas and philosophies of respect. honesty and truth.

The diffusion of knowledge, ideas and skill-sets is happening now. We must not lament past sins and hold ourselves in bondage.

Some things need to go and must go. They need to be forgotten and left behind. Those who continue to peddle them must be exposed.

We can only do this through widely understood and communicable languages. The English language happens to be one of them. Mandarin, Hindu, Russian, French or Bahasa appear to have geographical limitations.

Globalization and business agendas will continue to play a leading role in driving people to become multi-linguists .

The schemes and tactics that have been engineered for wealth concentration and property ownership are now commonplace. They are taught in business and political science classes the world over.

We must take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves fully of such history and be bold and confident in how we exert our influence in the digital era.

Globalisation is a reality, however the plots, tactics, schemes, pacts and protocols crafted today follow the same paths as before.

Therefore, we must learn to take pride in our own strengths (small population, pristine environment, terrestrial and marine resources) to articulate and express ourselves confidently and intelligently in the global multicultural setting.

Let's embrace the English language, teach our own children our own native languages (and not in classrooms) and learn a third language like Mandarin but quit eulogising dubious ideas like OBE and its many ills.


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Bernard Singu Yegiora

Ed, there is a mad rush to learn English in China. While living there I made extra money teaching English in a Kindergarten and to young Korean teenagers.

As China grows it is paramount to learn Chinese/Hanyu so after your business conversations in English you are not blindsided when they talk among themselves in Chinese.

One must never trust a native translator.

Ed Brumby

While I agree with Chris that Mandarin/Hanyu is hardly likely to become the international lingua franca, I disagree that it is the most widely spoken language in the world.

On the one hand, while Hanyu may have the largest number of native speakers of any language, the vast majority are confined within the borders of China. English, Spanish and even Portuguese are more 'widespread'.

On the other hand, if the numbers include the use of the language as a first and second (or even third or fourth) language, I suspect that English would rank first - bearing in mind that calculations of this sort, being estimations at best, will always be inexact.

In any case, Corney quite rightly points out that language/dialectal/code selection and use are 'situational': we use the language/dialect/code best suited or appropriate to the setting we are in.

(As a (final) aside, my own experience in doing business in China may be informative. During the first five or so years, all formal and informal meetings used a mix of Hanyu and English, interpreted accordingly. Seven years later, an increasing number of meetings were conducted almost exclusively in English.)

Chris Overland

Unlike Bernard, I very much doubt that Mandarin will be the lingua franca of the future.

That said, it is indisputably the most widely spoken language in the world right now, with an estimated 1.2 billion speakers across the globe.

English is the second most widely spoken language, with about 840 million speakers.

There is then a big gap to Spanish (430 million), Hindi (380 million) and Bengali (330 million).

When researching my little contribution to this topic, I was dismayed but not surprised to discover that Pidgin, a language that I personally like and enjoy very much, does not register in the list of the world's top 100 languages.

As I understand it, about 50% of the world's population speak one or more of the top ten languages.

My guess would be that as language diversity continues to diminish, the top ten languages will simply consolidate and extend their reach, with the smaller languages being relegated to ples tok status or simply disappearing altogether.

This scenario is much more consistent with what has been happening over the past several centuries than the emergence of one dominant language.

What is certain is that whatever happens will be unplanned and subject to events yet unknown and unknowable.

Bernard Singu Yegiora

Well said Corney.

Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future. I have been advocating the introduction of foreign languages since 2012 and will continue to do so.

UPNG is the only higher education institution in the country that offers or have offered Japanese, French and Bahasa.

When I went to China most of my friends were from French speaking African nations like Ivory Coast and Senegal. I deeply regretted dropping French as my minor for History when I was at UPNG.

Robin Lillicrapp

One cannot underestimate the power and beauty of linguistic skill imparted to children at an early age. With minds like sponges, they soak up and appropriate info and practical skills with confidence and resolve enabling them to face futures certain or uncertain.

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