ADELAIDE - I 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.
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 a much commented upon 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.
The most recent Papua New Guinea literacy rate of 56% was derived from the 2000 census 18 years ago. Education authorities admit they don’t know whether it has improved or not.
We can only hope that those with the power to do so recognise the wisdom of making a much more concerted effort to remedy the situation.