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Mother tongue at the crossroads

I Simon - Smile of the centuryBOMAI D WITNE

Entries in the Crocodile Prize
Kina Securities Award for Poetry &
SP Brewery Award for Illustration

Na Bari ka di’ke, na mana akaim ka
Na Yuri ka’di’ke’e, na ape ain’n ka
Na kua ka di’ke, sule’e ka
Na ka wo dika, paire, paikle elungwei, name elnguwo elmei?
Na sule binan bol di mo’o?
Na ka wo ta di’krka  ermo’o?

Erwer, erm, takmar, ok’oke
Na nina ya, mana akaim ye pam ba’a
Ka wo kuri kuri er om yo’o
Er aule ome’e?
Doki wo, ta dikri yo, er’omu wo, wena wena omu wo’o

Na Wana Tine ya, Balai kua ka dipre’wo
Na apra Bomailyn kua ka dumu’wo
Na apra oke ama yel eramu wo’o
Na nina-mana ka wo ra eromu’wo
Er’aule ome’e?
Na nomane si’i wo’o

I speak Bari, the language from my mother’s village
I speak Yuri, the language from my father’s village
I speak bird’s language (foreign language), I went to school
I don’t speak my mother tongue well, why is that?
Was I over educated?
Maybe, I didn’t speak my mother tongue?

Yesterday, today, tomorrow and into the future
My father and mother’s villages remain
Mother tongue slowly fading
Where is it going?
Looking for it, not speaking it, its fading, fading at a faster rate

My sons Tine and Balai speak bird’s language
My daughter Bomailyn speaks bird’s language
My infant daughter will follow
My parents’ mother tongues are going
Where is it going?
I am contemplating.

Illustration: Smile of the century by Mathias Simon (Grade 10, Ku High School, Simbu, Province). A proud ambai in Simbu traditional regalia is showing off her successful taming of the Moveave crocodile to Kundiawa, 2015


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Michael Dom

Thanks for the discussion and encouragement Ed, much appreciated.

Well done on this poem, Bomai.

Peter Kranz

If you are inclined to think that language is a neutral description of the world and our place in it (after all a chair is a chair in any language, isn't it?) then read this article. I believe it should be freely available to be read at most PNG Unis.

Yeah it's academic and not easy, but basically it's saying that our languages influence the way we see the world around us. Different language, different perception, and maybe even different logic.


Bomai D Witne

Thank you, everyone for those insightful comments which I wish to share with my colleagues here at the University of Goroka.

I want to map out how a people's institution such as the University of Goroka can contribute to addressing pressing issues surrounding mother tongues through its different programs.

I also realise my own shortfall on the topic from your comments. Wakai wo.

Ed Brumby

Michael: I agree absolutely that there is and should be a place for ples tok in schools.

Even back in my days at the Passam Primary School in the late 1960s we invited local villagers to spend a couple of hours each week telling stories, and teaching songs and teaching local handicrafts, all in ples tok.

And this was fairly common practice in many primary schools.

As you’ve suggested, even if bilingual education programs cannot be incorporated in the national curricula, there are many opportunities for schools to use and foster an appreciation of ples tok – formally and informally.

Italian, Greek and, more recently, Chinese immigrants to Australia responded to their own ples tok challenges by establishing their own language learning and appreciation ‘schools’ which have operated after school hours and on weekends for more than half a century.

My Greek and Italian school friends absolutely hated having to attend these classes.

But they now revel in their linguistic and cultural fluency – and send their own children to Greek or Italian ‘school’.

As good parents, they have exercised their responsibility to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage, within a dominant Anglo-Saxon environment.

There’s no reason why PNGean parents cannot and should not do likewise.

As for your own situation, surely it’s not to late to learn Bari?

Paul Oates

Lest someone think that language 'imperialism' for want of a more definitive term, is dead, I tried unsuccessfully to have Tok Pisin (PNG is after all our closest neighbour), included in the Australian and Queensland language curriculum.

I was told by the then Director General of Education that I could contact the local high school and take the matter up with them. Yeah right!

French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, etc are on are considered desirable. Nothing about PNG. But I'll keep trying.

The essence of this debate is one of perspective and initiative.

'There are those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder 'what happened'?

Michael Dom

While I agree with the statement that the core responsibility for imparting ples tok resides with parents, I'd have to disagree in part with Ed Brumby on my basic premise that today's educational system, which is founded on an introduced language poses cultural insecurities to our younger generations.

(I was a victim.)

To be blunt: not speaking your native language is considered tantamount to being less native.

So if I am a non-Bari speaking Bari-man, then what am I? A bird speaker?

This may be a dilemma encouraged and indeed fostered in schools, where there is a lack of 'appreciation/emphasis' placed on learning native languages, even if they are not a core part of curriculum.

While I do agree that inclusion of native languages in the school curriculum may be an impractical and unobtainable role, given limited resources, that should not rule out the scope for encouraging usage and fostering multilingualism.

I think that if the most language-rich nation on Earth can find a way to do this it would be a marvel.

Perhaps all it needs is a little imagination and a good dose of inspiration. For example, what about a 'culture term, where the focus is entirely 'to go native'? Speaking, poetry reading, language exchange groups etcetera.

May be I'm just railing.

But then again, may be there's someone out there who speaks my language and is a lot smarter and better placed to do something worth while about my cause.

It's bird talk.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Kops, my kids speak Aroma fluently because they are with their mum everyday. But, I have a duty to teach Bari as well.

I occasionally take a 6 pack during boring weekends and sing my Bari courtship songs. My kids come to me and say; 'yalkee para mon wa', the only Bari phrase they know.

The imperialists have won. They have destroyed the essence of the Melanesian cosmology; the indigenous languages.

Ed Brumby

I would suggest to Bomai, with the utmost respect, that the answer to his question as to where his parents’ mother tongues are going rests with him, and all other speakers of Bari and Yuri.

It is their responsibility, is it not, to ensure the viability and sustainability of these languages by ensuring that their children learn them, and value them.

These languages, after all, reflect and represent, not just their ‘culture’: they are the very source of their identity.

Children learn their mother tongues from their parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family members – not through bilingual programs at schools.

Parents who do not exercise this responsibility, and tolerate the predominance of ‘bird’s language’ are themselves contributing to the demise of their mother tongues.

Language status, viability and use are such emotive issues, as evidenced by other responses to Bomai’s excellent poem.

It is all very well to rail against linguistic imperialism, applaud the value of, and lament the ongoing extinction of indigenous languages worldwide.

In the final analysis, preservation of languages like Bari and Yuri will depend on how much the speakers of those languages want them preserved and what efforts they make in teaching the mother tongue(s) to their children – and insisting that they use it/them in the home and village.

Chris Overland

While I can understand Michael's sentiments about not excluding "ples tok' entirely, it would be a dangerous mistake to over emphasise it in the context of schooling.

English is a language worth mastering in this modern world, as are quite a few other major languages if you happen to have both the aptitude and opportunity to do so.

In Australia, out of respect for indigenous culture, some children (especially in remote communities) were educated mostly in their local language, with English playing a minor role in the process.

The result is an illiterate and largely excluded generation of young indigenous adults, who find themselves stranded between a traditional culture to which they can never return and a modern Australia into which they do not fit.

It is patently a question of balance: the children need to be multi-lingual so that they can easily move between their languages as needed.

Michael is right to say that multi-lingual people are often intellectually sharper. There is a body of evidence that supports this assertion.

It seems that learning a new language opens up new neural pathways in the brain, making it both easier and quicker to learn other new languages, especially if they are related in some way.

So, for example, mastering one of the "Romance" languages such as Spanish makes it much easier to then learn others in this grouping like Italian and French.

Our indigenous policy makers meant well but blundered badly, with the children paying the cost.

I would urge that PNG policy makers and opinion leaders like Michael strive to strike the right balance between preserving their valued languages and preparing for the future.

Michael Dom

Let's be honest, one of the serious problems with loss of language is that most kids (and their stupid parents) are brained washed from an early age to think that speaking English is 'superior' to speaking their native language.

That thought was literally hammered home with a wooden yellow one metre ruler when I was in primary school.

As an early childhood English speaker I felt deprived at not being able to communicate in Tok Pisin and Motu.

(How many of you English speakers have felt left out in the company of Francophones?)

Perhaps if the school had allowed children to speak in other languages I might have picked up something more from my friends.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the other kids used me as a sounding board to get their English right.

Some of my friends were pretty smart too, but I wonder just how much smarter we all could have been with that extra little spice of language variety.

Multi-linguists are usually quite sharp.

My friends and I all lost something - the enrichment that language variety brings, and the development of our brain capacity in so many different ways.

The drive to speak nothing but English is linear, one-way, supposedly towards advancement.

But as any good strategist (politicians and bureaucrats?) should know, sometimes moving forward is branching out - lateral growth. Like the brain works, eh laka?

I don't believe the hype that in order to speak and write good English we need to do no other language but English for our entire educational life. That's asinine.

Our native languages should be given status even in the school grounds - just because English is the language of tuition doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to speak other languages.

(Who came up with the stupid idea anyway?)

Sure we've gone about it badly on the first attempt, but maybe we should just allow kids to speak their own langauge in school and encourage parents to impart theirs at their own choice.

Moreover, our native languages should be more celebrated - and I'm talking about something more than just another singsing gathering for the tourists to have a cheap photo opportunity of our bare chested girls and men in arse grass.

Peter Kranz

Chris - as Bertie Shaw once memorably said, "Britain and America are two countries separated by their common language."

Paul Oates

The point I make about Tok Pisin is that I like to speak it. I agree with Michael that language is a wonder tool to convey ideas and English is not necessarily the best language to do this as it is more of a technical language.

The other factor about preserving languages is I suggest axiomatic. Only if enough people are interested in speaking it will the language be preserved.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) had/has many missionaries who lived with an ethnic group in PNG and learnt their language in order to produce a Bible in it. But most languages don't stand still, perhaps Latin being an exception.

I remember one dedicated SIL missionary explaining to me in Indagen village in the Kabwum area of the Morobe Province that a local word had 3 quite diverse meanings depending on the inflection of the speaker's voice. Try learning that if you are a stranger.

PNG is in a unique situation in that many of her people traditionally speak a number of languages. I grew up in a monoculture where my ancestor's language, as Chris and I recognize, has all but died out. Even when that language was brought to Australia it was often anglicized for expediency and ease of pronunciation.

Would that we could preserve all the world's languages but exactly to what end. Who would then make the decision of which language is more deserving than the next? The ultimate acid test will always be usage. I can remember the then PIR was trying to stamp out Tok Pisin in the ranks and encourage speaking English. Our of sight of the barrack block, guess what was spoken?

Look at how Hiri (Police) Motu is dying out and being replaced by Tok Pisin as an example? Lau diba sisina oi kamanai!

Chris Overland

I guess that I am less perturbed about the rise and rise of "birds' languages" than some because I see it as a unifying factor for humanity as a whole.

Also, to be honest to myself, I happen to speak a version of one of these languages and was born into an Anglo-Celtic culture which has been changing rapidly for a very long time.

While I agree with Michael that the transmogrification of culture that seems to accompany this process is regrettable, the question is whether the result is a net gain for humanity.

In an effort to bring some comfort to Papua New Guineans confronted with this apparently inevitable change process, I would say that local cultures are often startlingly resilient, with many surviving in a modified form even after long exposure to "birds' languages" and their accompanying changes.

So, for example, the Scots and Welsh have preserved a great deal of their language and heritage despite living in close proximity to and, in some periods, being actively oppressed by the English for many centuries.

The same can be said for the Catalans and Basques in Spain and many of the minority groups that are contained within the Peoples Republic of China.

The trick seems to be to accept changes that are positive overall and cling tenaciously to the things that matter most. This will be different for every language group and culture.

As my daughter discovered on a recent visit to the USA, Australia's own distinctive dialect of English can be surprisingly incomprehensible to other people who also speak "English".

There clearly are distinctive linguistic, cultural and attitudinal differences between Australia and our American friends, which have to be learned by both sides when they work together, notwithstanding that we all speak "English".

As a final comfort, let me say that PNG has the marvellously evocative Neo-Melanesian Pidgin, which is capable of lyrically expressing ideas and sentiments that English cannot successfully duplicate.

That is truly something to cling on to.

Peter Kranz

Typo. "Na dinga man". I've never been able to translate this. I think she means it affectionately. It literally translates something like "you talking man", but I think it means "you talk too much". Which is fair.

Peter Kranz

I agree with Michael. Language is not just about words, but about culture, tradition, ideas and stories from our history. A language lost is a dreaming lost.

Think about how many things can be expressed in your tok ples which cannot be translated.

Take Xhosa for example.


A bloke called Wittgenstein has a lot to say about this.

Je ne sais pas.

Rose sometimes says to me "Na dinga man".

I've never been sable to translate this.

Michael Dom

Paul and Chris, your words make me feel that there is nothing that can be done about the loss of languages, and suggest that trying to save what we have might not be worth the effort.

Perhaps what's more important than just losing the language, as words strung together to make a coherent sentence, is the loss of their meaning, depth and distinct qualities, losing the history and unique cultural associations within a langauge which teach us different things about how we lived, and perhaps, how we might live better.

I think of the way some things are said in Tok Ples and other things are not said or forbidden; the peculiarities of expression which are best conveyed in the language in which they were born; the subtle intonations and story behind the words - it is sad to lose all this.

How dull the world becomes when we all speak the same tongue.

Would people continue to try to communicate better or take it for granted that things should be understood within the context of what was said or written?

Is a one language world really worth driving towards?

Sometimes speaking the same language has nothing to do with the words coming out of our mouths.

With so many people fighting for one human race, perhaps we've forget to appreciate our differences long enough to really believe that everyone thinks and lives their lives the same way.

What nonsense!

I believe that a language is worth preserving even if no-one alive speaks it.

Language is an artifact of human existence, human aspiration, human endeavor - a result of some group of people who lived and passed on enough of themselves to a future generation.

Language is also a root of art, or why save the original Mona Lisa from destruction if we have so many replicas? Was it painted by an Swahili speaking Lithuanian?

Phil Fitzpatrick

There's a whole industry dedicated to "preserving" indigenous languages Paul and Chris, especially in Australia. In many places there are only a few descendants left.

Sometimes linguistic imperialism occurs, like in South Australia where Pitjantjatjara is taking over in adjacent tribes. That in itself is ironic because those people referred to as Pitjantjatjara by the anthropologists were a tiny desert group who only survived speaking their own language because of their extreme isolation and the fact that their land couldn't carry large numbers of cattle.

You see the same thing in PNG, especially in places like Enga, Simbu and the Wahgi Valley.

It makes you wonder about the effort and resources being put into "preserving" these languages.

This is especially pertinent in places like PNG. Having different languages is part of what results in cultural diversity and all the problems that brings, like wantokism and nepotism in government.

The strength of any nation lies in the commonality of its people, including the language they speak.

It is unfortunate for the speakers that languages are dying but it might be fortunate for PNG that this happening.

I guess it depends upon what Papua New Guineans want of their country.

On the other hand, in Hervey bay, where I live, the local Butchulla people have revived a form of their old language and it has had a positive effect in engendering pride in their culture, especially among the kids.

It's a vexed question.

My father could speak Irish and he tried to teach me but I gave up. Just like Cornish and Welsh, it's too hard.

Arnold Mundua

The pencil illustration of the smile is indeed the Smile of Century....equaling Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci or even better. A great creation of art here.

Chris Overland

I can sympathise with the sentiments expressed in this poem yet I also agree with Paul Oates' comments.

My great, great grand parents came from Penzance in Cornwall. Their "ples tok" was Cornish, not English.

When they came to Australia in 1853, they were obliged to abandon their "ples tok" because the Australian dialect of English was the established lingua franca in their new home.

Only echoes of Cornish remain in Australia, mostly in place names and some surnames like Pengilly, Trevorrow, Angove, Tremayne and Curnow (the latter being sometimes spelled "Kernot").

In Cornwall, thanks to a few very determined language revivalists there are perhaps 3000 fluent or semi-fluent speakers left today, with a few hundred claiming it as their first language.

I hardly know a word of Cornish, although my mother's maiden name (Curnow) means "Cornwall".

Bomai's lament must resonate with many people across the world, where various "bird's languages" are remorselessly extinguishing our collective linguistic heritage.

On balance, this is probably a good thing but there inevitably remains sadness at the loss of linguistic diversity and the cultures that once sustained it.

Paul Oates

Contemplating this scenario from a few generations further along the road, I can truly say that in essence, the importance of any language must be gauged by the number of people who want to speak it.

Many of my ancestors (i.e. great grandparents) spoke a Celtic language as well as accented English that has all but died out. Having heard this language now spoken and to contemplate trying to learn it from a native speaker is not high on my priorities given that almost no one I know now speaks this language.

When I came to PNG I set out to learn Neo Melanesian as well as I could, given that this was the chosen common language of most of the people I worked with. I now use Tok Pisin infrequently but still desire to think and speak it given the wonderful potential of this language to express certain concepts and ideas that if conveyed in English fail miserably.

The test of whether a language will continue or be lost is whether enough people want to use it regularly. One of the strengths of English is its ability to adopt words from other languages. One of English's weakness is in its spelling given that phonetics has not yet been adopted (as is the case in Melanesian and many other languages).

What is really important is that the more everyone can communicate with each other, the less potential there will be for misunderstandings to occur.

In a written language, it is also important that the reader clearly understands what they are reading. This aspect surely must be associated with the amount the language is used.

When the internet recently became unavailable, I had to refer to a reference book for some technical information. Fortunately I had access to some relevant reference books however many young people today would be bereft without their mobile phones and the internet.

Tingting blo ol lapun ilus pinis yia!

Mathias Kin

Truly our mother and father tongues are disappearing. These days our children do not speak these languages. This is a very sad reality we PNGians must live with.

Bomai I like that drawing! Really cool!

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