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Australian university introduces first ever course in Tok Pisin


CANBERRA - An online undergraduate course in Tok Pisin has been introduced by the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific this year.

Tok Pisin is an official language of Papua New Guinea and is the most commonly and widely used language in the country with about four million native speakers.

The College says that by learning Tok Pisin, students will gain a deeper understanding of the rich cultures, histories and societies of the people of PNG and surrounding areas of the Pacific.

In this introductory course, students gain a practical command of beginner spoken Tok Pisin and an elementary capacity to read various types of texts in Tok Pisin with the help of a dictionary.

By the end of the course, students should have an active vocabulary of approximately 1,000 of the most frequently used and useful words in Tok Pisin.

They will have also covered the main features of Tok Pisin grammar and will have a command of pronunciation.

Upon successful completion of the one semester course, students will have the knowledge and skills to recognise and pronounce all Tok Pisin vowels and consonants with appropriate intonation and produce basic phrase and sentence structures to allow short conversations and the reading, writing, and translation of short basic texts.

They will also be able to communicate in speaking and writing Tok Pisin, using simple phrases and sentences to greet, give and understand instructions, and ask questions and provide answers about personal things and what they encounter in everyday life.

They’ll also understand the culture and everyday life of PNG including work, travel, and family relationships.

All in all, a great initiative and a well thought-through introductory program.


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Garry Roche

A second (or third, or fourth) language helps to expand the mind. Pidgin can bring a different way of thinking. In English I would say "My past is behind me and my future is before me". However in Pidgin my past is "taim bipo" and my future is something that will "kamap bihain" !

Michael Dom

At the outset the course title may need adjusting, since I believe the more correct term for the language is now Tokpisin.

There is no separation of the terms since we do not consider in our simple vocabulary (pidgin) that it is the literal "talk of birds", the term pidgin is added to make one word: Tokpisin.

"Pidgin derives from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word business, and all attestations from the first half of the nineteenth century given in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary mean 'business; an action, occupation, or affair' (the earliest being from 1807)" - Wikipedia

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not quite sure either Ed.

I just have this feeling that by codifying something you rob it of spontaneity and dynamism and can impede its development.

Perhaps I am wrong. Codification of English certainly hasn't been detrimental. One of the key weapons of creative writers is bucking the codification.

It might have something to do with my experience in Central Australia in the mid to late 1970s when I was recording sacred sites and the stories attached to them.

The stories were living things that were still evolving on a daily basis. My recording merely captured them at a point in time and yet those recordings, lodged with the South Australian Museum and the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra may now be the 'official' version.

I'm a disorganised person and organisation in any form tends to scare me.

Ed Brumby

I am not sure why Phil is concerned about the risk that Tok Pisin will be ‘academically codified’.

I would have thought that codification (or standardisation) is necessary to establish the base or standard dialect to be used in formal, including government/official publications – to ensure readability and comprehensibility by all speakers of the language, regardless of their idiolects or preferred dialects.

Come to think of it, aren’t all literate languages codified/standardised in one way or another?

And the standardization of English hasn’t prevented the development of a multitude of dialects. Nor is the standard form immutable – as the ongoing evolution of 'standard' English attests.

Ross Wilkinson

And, of course, for those who have worked in the field know that the terms Chris refers to are relative. For example, in a census division where villages are within a small radius, the nearest villages are "klostu" and the ones an hour or so away are "longwe."

However, in a larger census division where the villages are at least an hour's walk away then this is said to be "klostu" whilst the villages three or more hours away are "longwe."

And the descriptors that Chris demonstrates with are the people's way of describing variations to the standard distance/time concepts.

Joe Herman

Gutpela tok bekim Paul, Phil na Chris. What PNG needs most is to develop "people to people" relationship with our Aussie friends.

I wonder if ANU would consider "study abroad" program that would allow ANU students to spend 3-12 months at places like UPNG, DWU, etc.

Our young Aussie friends would learn more than Tok Pisin language.

Chris Overland

Joe Herman asks a very pertinent question to which I think there is no easy answer.

I am aware that the Pidgin I learnt was that of 'taim bilong kiap' and so is necessarily an archaic version of the language.

The language has evolved to reflect local pronunciations and usages, rather like English has across the world.

To use English as an analogy, it is more accurate to talk about the various dialects of English spoken across the world rather than regard it as one specific language.

A speaker of Jamaican English would be barely comprehensible to a speaker of the English spoken in Glasgow, let alone that spoken in Buckingham Palace.

English as a written language is considerably more codified than the spoken language although colloquialisms still find their way into it.

Bearing all this in mind, whatever version of Pidgin is taught by ANU, I would assume that the focus will be on understanding the basic grammar, such as where to put your bilongs (blo) and longs (lo), and developing a rudimentary grasp of pronunciation.

I wonder if it will cover the subtleties of things like how long it may take to go from one place to another?

I vividly remember as a very junior kiap asking local people how long it would take the patrol to travel to its destination and being baffled by expressions like 'i long wei liklik', 'ino long wei', 'em i klostu', 'em i long wei liklik' and 'em i long wei tumas'.

I soon worked out that time, as I had come to understand it, made not a lot of sense in traditional PNG society.

Basically, it took however long it took to go from one place to another. After all, who knew what diversions and interruptions to the journey might occur on the way?

Quite how this approach to time is going to be conveyed to an eager, clock driven student at ANU I do not know.

Anyway, the main thing is that the marvellously expressive lingua franca of our nearest neighbour is being taught at our most prestigious university. That has got to be a good thing.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a very good question Joe.

Tok Pisin is a lot more dynamic than English and is evolving at a great rate. There are also several versions of it. Port Moresby Tok Pisin is not the same as Rural Tok Pisin and Highland Tok Pisin is not the same as Island Tok Pisin.

And while it's good that somewhere like the ANU is taking the language seriously there is now the risk that it will be academically codified.

Paul Oates

Gutpla askim Joe. Sapos yu gat $3,000 na traim bai yu ken toksave wantaim mi bihain?

Joe Herman

Wanem kain tok pisin ol bai skulim? Taim bilong kiap or tok pisin bilong tude?


In terms of the $3,000 price tag will all go to HECS for domestic undergraduates so nothing to pay up front until they start working.

Also, ANU used to offer Tok Pisin through a course code about Melanesian pidgin languages, but hasn’t had a structured minor before.

A reminder to Eloise that PNG Attitude's Comment policy is for commenters to provide their full names. An exception has been made here - KJ

Paul Oates

At first glance, the online course has a one-off fee advertised on the website that seems not only steep but bloody vertical. $3,000 for domestic fee paying students. Who are they expecting to apply?

Departmental DFAT staff who can claim reimbursement from the Department?

Or maybe only those who eligible to pay HECS fees in the 'never, never'.

Strewth! Maybe our fraternity has missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime?

Certainly not for the hoi polloi, Paul, although 3 grand for a semester unit is not unusual these days - KJ

Ed Brumby

I wonder, Keith, how a one semester, online Tok Pisin course will provide participants with a 'deeper understanding of the rich cultures, histories and societies of the people of PNG and surrounding areas of the Pacific'. Sounds like marketing spin to me.

As you'd be more aware than most, Ed, course prospectuses often set themselves very high goals. Then the mob has to try to kick them - KJ

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