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.