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English proficiency is a necessity not a luxury in PNG


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.

English doesn't borrowConsequently 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 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.

Plain_englishBeyond 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.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

If someone said they are going to "write my mother" I'd give them a piece of paper and a pen and expect to see "my mother" written on the sheet of paper.

Ed Brumby

Phil: It's worth remembering that categorising English words into parts of speech (noun, verb, preposition) has long relied on both form and function. 'Play' can be verb or noun, depending on its function in a sentence.

Paul Oates

Yes Phil. As the Septics say "Go figure!"

Philip Fitzpatrick

The latest American trend is to drop prepositions in sentences and to turn verbs into nouns. They've been doing it for a while now but it seems to be on the increase.

They say "I'm going to write my mother" when they mean "I'm going to write to my mother".

There's a new American television program called "God Friended Me". I haven't seen it (and don't want to) but I presume they mean "God Befriended Me".

I'm sure this is all done to bug people like me.

There are publishing trends that annoy me too. Nowadays when they quote a book title it's done in lower case. That strikes me as utterly ridiculous.

Chapters now have to start on the right hand page so the left hand page often appears blank. That's stupid too.

And don't get me started on the preponderance of words like "absolutely" and "amazing" and phrases like "Oh my god!"

Like that's ridiculous too like.

Paul Oates

Evolving English

The Macquarie Dictionary is being constantly updated with new words. This is an indication of how English is constantly evolving.

New and complex expressions are always being thought up to represent our evolving culture and conceptional ideology. Expressions like: ‘Organisationally demonstrative’ and Collective Individualism’, were touted around by the social engineers over 25 years ago.

A language has to express ideas and concepts that are able to be understood by those listening. Chris points out that 1,000 years ago, we would be probably unable to understand what was being said in the original language that evolved into today’s spoken English. e.g. Prof Jared Diamond in ‘The rise and fall of the Third Chimpanzee’ pages 230-231

Old English (800 - 1066)

Drihten me raet, ne byth me names godes wan.
And he me geset on swythe good feohland.
And fedde me be waetera stathum

Middle English (1100 – 1500)

Our Lord gournerth me, and nothing shal defailen me.
In the sted of pasture he sett me ther.
He norissed me upon water of fyllyng.

King James Bible (1611)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.

Modern (1989)

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He lets me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me to still waters.

Perhaps we today could suggest an even more modern version?

Shakespeare manufactured many words and expressions to effectively convey what he wanted in his plays. Some of these words have come down to us today.

Yet the essence of the real issue is not the use of English but the spelling of the words. Leaving grammar etc. aside, I found that once I learnt it, it such a joy to speak and write Tok Pisin phonetically. Coming back to Australia, I had to relearn to spell many English words again.

Australia has a history of ‘fracturing’ how we speak which is fast disappearing due to the constant influence of the electronic media and entertainment. Author Hugh Lunn wrote a book about how many Australians used to speak. e.g. ‘I need to find a dog and bone to talk to the trouble and strife’. (I need to find a phone to talk to my wife). That way of speaking has now virtually disappeared and it quite possibly was derived from the Cockney rhyming slang of early migrants.

But the pronunciation of the old ‘cough, plough, thought, though, etc. based on their origins is a clear stumbling block to those who seek to learn English as a second or even first language.

While we can sometimes use the English to phonetically describe other accents, the meaning is still clear. Scots people can refer to ‘highland coos’ and we have a fair idea what they are talking about.

But when you listen to some North Americans, sometimes you wonder.

Sitting in an aircraft a few years ago, the air hostess offered the American sitting next to me an orange juice. “I don’t care for one”, he said.

During an Parkinson interview, a British film actor explained how he heard and American actress refer to her script by saying “I’m not well nourished by this sentence.” The Brit and the film’s Australian Director’s eyes met with a slight raising of an eyebrow.

I have occasionally suggested we consider introducing phonetic English. The Americans sometimes try in a very limited way to do this already.

Perhaps that’s where we might go if we wanted English to evolve and be increasingly used throughout the world?

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