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English language declines as education system fails


KUNDIAWA - Papua New Guinea is a country of a thousand tribes and languages. It has countless stories, myths, legends and ballads telling of the value of life from the past to the present.

But a poor literacy rate is having a drastic effect on the present and threatens to be even worse in the future.

During the days of our forefathers there was no culture of reading. However there was a culture of narrating and listening, and the great orators and wise leaders – although unable to read and write - passed on the wisdom orally from one generation to the next.

In an illiterate society, their accounts were valuable but could never be verified by the written word, which is now the norm in PNG.

Since the inception of schools and their rapid expansion in the 1960s, students have been inculcated in the literacy arts which brought about a forced immersion into English and into Western culture and civilisation.

Amazingly, most of them were taught in English from their first day in school.

The students at that time embraced English meaningfully in their hearts as a precious commodity and a valuable means of personal transformation and realisation of ambition.

Their illiterate parents and relatives understood this almost from the beginning of colonial contact and enthusiastically pushed the cause of education and the literacy that accompanied it.

It was a journey of discovery for everyone.

Most of the teachers were expatriates and command of English was of a high standard. The colonial administration ensured there were sufficient books and magazines for everyone to read.

The emphasis on English as the formal language of education supplemented the lingua franca and traditional vernacular languages and brought Papua New Guinea into the modern world with a globally useful language.

The teaching methods introduced from outside ensured that students read, wrote and spoke competently in this new tongue which transcended tribal and national boundaries.

And so English played a pivotal role in breaking down the norms and barriers between illiteracy and literacy. Students who were educated between the late 1950s and the 1980s are as fluent in English as any native speaker.

But all that is disappearing. Those students are now ageing and retired or retiring from work. The students who followed have not got their skills.

When you compare a high school or university graduate of the past with the present, there is the greatest difference in English competency.

“Current graduates from the university hunting for jobs have a poor command of English. Their English is Grade 10 stuff,” says a senior lawyer.

Command of English is declining dramatically at every educational institution in Papua New Guinea. English is no longer esteemed as a universal language and its significance is no longer emphasised in schools.

Teachers even turn a blind eye to the value of reading. They themselves read infrequently. The command of English used by teachers in the classroom is poor and they often explain things in Pidgin. Poor competency begets incompetence.

One cannot ignore one of the most common contributing factors: the lack of books and other materials to read. If there is little or nothing to read, what then is the functionality of the language?

The Education Department with its many partner agencies are not focused on purchasing books to aid poor competency in English – and, when they are, most of those books are imported and culturally foreign.

But books in schools are scarce. Rooms marked as ‘libraries’ are bare. Most remote schools have no access to hard copy books, e-books and mass media.

This combination of teacher incapability, lack of reading opportunity and growing illiteracy is signaling a dire future for PNG as country able to modernise and compete.

And that it is going backwards in this sphere is a national tragedy.


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Jimmy Awagl

PNG is in dire need of professional English teachers from English speaking countries to teach from elementary up to university.

We need to keep English as a significant language to uphold our elite students who should graduate from a recognised institution.

Literature requires a lot of resources to facilitate learning such as resource and text books on various components of genres.

When will the government, through the education department, purchase books to supplement learning.

Ill trained teachers at university level also contribute towards the downfall of English competency.

Philip Kai Morre

English is not our mother tongue and we can still make mistakes in both written and spoken language, but it is necessary for wider communication in the technological world.

Not only is English is declining in schools but other subjects are as well including maths and science. We need better knowledge of science to enable us to do away with witchcraft, sanguma and the belief in magic and myths.

When I was in Grade 10 at Kerowagi Provincial High School in 1977 our English teacher, a Briton, gave each of us an English Oxford Dictionary to study vocabulary and grammar. No student was allowed to speak tok ples or pidgin in school.

Our command of English was good. All teaching was conducted in English and explained in English and not a mixture of English and pidgin - which is what some teachers are doing now.

When I did Grades 11 and 12 at St Fidelis College, we were using the Pennsylvania syllabus because the staff were American Franciscans from the US state of Pennsylvania.

I think our learning capacity in the past was higher than today because most of the high school teachers were from English speaking countries especially Australians, British and New Zealanders.

Also the management and running of the school was academic and had discipline and commitment. Our meals were much better than now, when students go hungry they don’t study well.

Our local teachers are equally educated but there is no motivation, encouragement and support from school management and authorities. They complain about resources, books, funding to support teaching aids and other logistics.

The principals and boards of management are running the show leaving teachers helpless. When they complain they make them victims.

Jimmy Awagl

There are two fundamental components of English taught in PNG schools: Language and Literature.

Language involves the syntax of English, while Literature basically deals with writing, reading and speaking in a more practical sense.

Poor implementation of syntax results in poor application of English usage.

Resources and materials to facilitate English in schools decline drastically as the government of PNG is distracted by corruption.

Literature receives little support. No novels and books to boost reading or to enhance comprehension and competency in English.

If English is a language of business and civilisation then it should start at the earlier stage before being encountered in a formal setting.

Every Grade 12 result is always poor in Language and Literature. English has become a national tragedy.

Baka Bina

Jimmy, I still believe the SRA kit should be compulsory in lower primary school.

It develops independent learning even at a young age. It can be a full library where books are in short supply. It can be a good assistant English teacher where the local PNG teacher has bad spoken and written English to begin with.

With proper teaching and guidance from Grade 3, when it should be introduced, to Grade 6 the SRA kit can be a reinforcement tool for learning skills taught by the teacher.

The points raised by Raymond Sigimet about syntax and grammar, including sentence structures and tenses, can be partially solved with and by diligent use of the kit.

The last time I saw a kit being sold it was priced at K400.

Having said that though, the problem will only get worse as our teachers' colleges are graduating rural teachers who can't write a good sentence in the present, past and future tenses.

I had one teen with a Grade 12 certificate staying with me who always going to 'wenting' to the store tomorrow to pick our scones for breakfast. His English was so bad, yet he got a 2.8 GPA and he wanted to get into university.

Our attempt to reteach him English was a shameful event for him and it took a good three years and a lot of forced reading to get him some correct grammar skills which were passable.

We can only hope we get good teachers in the rural areas otherwise students in urban areas are going to walk over their rural counterparts thereby creating further a divide between the urban population and the kanakas long peles with the spiral effect of those long peles migrating to town to see if they can better their lot.

We are moving into the new academic year with the same problems as yesteryear.

Jimmy Awagl

English is a tragedy in PNG institutions. So a graduate walks out with poor knowledge after graduation. Only a few students value English as a treasure and walk out with flying colors.

The national government, education department and schools collectively work towards the decline of English competency.

Philip Kai Morre

In order to improve our written and spoken English we need to bring back English teachers from overseas especially Australians, New Zealanders and British.

When I started school at preparatory level, that first teacher was an Australian. Straight from the village, I learned how to communicate in English, I also learned about Latin and Greek which made it easy to explain the meaning of complicated words because most of them originated from Latin.

Chris Overland

In relation to some of the first PNG parliamentarians being illiterate but highly effective, I believe that the late Andrew Andagali Wabirria ( I apologise to his wantoks if this spelling is not correct) falls into that category.

My recollection is that Mr Wabirria, as Member for Koroba, was a pretty shrewd and capable man who liked to disguise the true extent of both his understanding of issues and intellectual abilities by feigning ignorance or claiming he was a "bus kanaka tasol".

Although illiterate, he was a genuine "bikman" and had the skill set to match. His grasp of English was rather better than he let on and I believe this served him well as those who unwisely assumed he was a "bus kanaka tasol" frequently came to regret doing so.

How he would have gone in our now much more complicated world I do not know, but he was not over matched in the political world of the 1970's.

Jimmy Awagl

The English language taught in the classroom context has dropped drastically in quality and it needs better skills and more motivation to drive it forward.

PNG cannot help itself until the resources needed are established at the foundational level to boost English competency in our schools.

Philip Fitzpatrick

He was a dinky-di bigman Keith.

Okuk used to refer to him as the Minister for Phones.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Around about 1972 when Iambakey Okuk was recruiting members to join the Somare team, he talked Kaibelt Diria from Minj to join up and bring some other MPs with him.

As a reward Kaibelt Diria was made Minister of Communications (Posts and Telegraphs).

Although a powerful highlander Kaibelt was illiterate and couldn't speak English.

This didn't deter him however. At one stage he went to an important communications conference in Tokyo.

For the sake of politics the government appointed an illiterate man as Minister for Communications.

Very Papua New Guinea.

It seems to have gone downhill from there.

I worked with Kaibelt in the NBC. He was a bloody good minister. Wise, cool headed and well equipped with political skills - KJ

Chris Overland

I have recently read Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way”, which provides a very readable and amusing account of the development of the English language.

It is fair to say that the emergence of English as the foremost international language of business, science and culture is one of history’s more improbable occurrences. After all, English as we now understand it did not really exist until around 1500 and was, at that time, spoken only by a quite small number of people living on an utterly unimportant island off the coast of Europe.

Through a series of unlikely events that small island emerged as the greatest imperial power in history. At the zenith of its power (around 1913), the British Empire encompassed about 23% of the world’s population and about quarter of the world’s land mass.

The official language of the British Empire was, of course, English.

English features sometimes dodgy spelling, inconsistent grammar, occasionally baffling pronunciation and a distinct tendency to appropriate bits and pieces of other languages in an apparently random manner. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it is now by far the largest, most flexible and adaptable language spoken anywhere in the world.

Australia was an important albeit very isolated part of the British Empire and for a long time conceived of itself as an entirely British country. Indeed, the words “British Passport” did not disappear from passports issued in Australia until 1967.

Consequently English, or at least the Australian variant of it, became the official language of the Territories of Papua and New Guinea.

So, in a sense, PNG gained access to the world’s most important language by a fortuitous historical accident.

The Australian colonial administration knew that English could provide educated Papua New Guineans with access to a vast treasure trove of knowledge accumulated over many centuries and so set out to ensure that PNG’s people could gain at least a working knowledge of the language.

As Jimmy Awagl has related in his article, a whole generation of Papua New Guineans, including virtually all of its most important political, business, religious and cultural leaders, were fluent in English. It enabled them to manage and cope with the country’s rapid transition into the modern world.

It therefore is rather depressing to think that perhaps the greatest legacy of the colonial era is effectively being denied to a large proportion of the population.

While I am a big fan of Neo-Melanesian Pidgin and was delighted to read that it is now being offered for study at an Australian University, there is no pretending that it does not have quite severe limitations when it comes to, for example, science and technology.

By limiting the literacy of many Papua New Guineans to Pidgin alone, they are essentially being excluded from access to the vast repository of knowledge that has been accumulated by and within the English speaking world. In turn, this limits their ability to achieve their potential as human beings.

Jimmy is therefore entirely right to say that the PNG government’s failure to nurture the growth of English literacy across the country is a national tragedy.

Beyond the human costs involved, it places an unwanted handbrake on PNG’s development in virtually every sphere and so greatly retards the country’s ability to reach its full socio-economic potential.

We can only hope that those with the power to do so recognize the wisdom of making a much more concerted effort to remedy the situation.

Paul Oates

Murray Bladwell worked hard organise a Rotary container of books to go to PNG schools but on their use we have received almost no feedback at all.

Can someone please follow this up and provide some feedback, apart from Francis Nii's thanks, that the effort has been of practical value? Some photos of their use would be nice, if poss.

Written feedback from the school children who are using these books would also help some perhaps to consider sending a second consignment.

Raymond Sigimet

Jimmy, I expressed similar sentiments in an article, 'It's a jungle. Teaching English to rural students', published by PNG Attitude.

As you have pointed out, the literacy level of students is problematic at this time, especially in rural schools.

It is a real challenge for teachers (I am referring to those in secondary schools) to turn things around because of the length of time it takes for a child to be educated from elementary school and up.

Lack of reading comprehension skills, understanding English syntactic structure, understanding verb tenses and poor vocabulary are, I believe, the main problem areas concerning students literacy levels in English.

Furthermore, the grades that appear on secondary school students' certificates do not necessarily reflect an honest assessment of students literacy levels.

The cut-off marks to select primary students progressing to lower secondary, and also for Grade 10 students progressing to upper secondary, are sometimes lowered below the cut-off point to meet the shortfall and obtain the required selection quota for each school.

As you have stated, and I agree, libraries, reading books and a reading culture are the missing links and should be promoted, starting from early childhood learning and up.

School administrators should plan accordingly. Do they need to have all classroom space fully occupied by students so as to increase their Tuition Free Fee fund allocation? Or should they reserve space for a school library? I'd go for the second option if I were an administrator.

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