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PNG’s Indigenous language crisis

| Language Magazine | via Ples Singsing

MALIBU, USA - Papua New Guinea, frequently heralded as the most linguistically diverse place in the entire world, is in the middle of a language crisis.

According to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the youngest generations in the nation are using Indigenous languages far less than ever before, instead opting for English and Tok Pisin, an English-based creole language.

PNG is home to nearly 1,000 different languages, many of which are not well documented and spoken by relatively small populations.

“Globalisation puts small languages at a disadvantage, but our understanding of the drivers and rate of language loss remains incomplete,” says the paper.

“PNG is home to more than 10% of the world’s languages and rich and varied biocultural knowledge, but the future of this diversity remains unclear.”

Not only is PNG home to around 850 Indigenous languages, but those languages also descend from a diverse group of 33 different language families.

The country officially recognizes four languages—English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu and PNG Sign Language.

Tok Pisin serves as the lingua franca of the country, while students are typically instructed in English.

Because of the predominance of the two languages, the researchers note that about one-third of the Indigenous languages spoken in PNG are endangered.

The researchers say their study is one of the first national linguistic surveys conducted that analyses the status of the smaller Indigenous languages spoken in PNG.

Secondary school students were surveyed for the study, to assess how frequently members of younger generations use their heritage languages and how well they know them (if at all).

The researchers collected data from more than 6,000 students across the country, covering speakers of 392 languages.

Once each participant completed a survey, the researchers then devised a model to predict future trends for each language based on their historical status among older generations and their usage among younger residents.

Some 58% of the students spoke an Indigenous language fluently, compared to 91% of their parents’ generation.

The researchers then developed the model, which predicted that only 26% of the next generation will speak these languages fluently, indicating a significant decline in language use that will likely lead to the loss of significant cultural information.

The traditional multilingualism in Indigenous languages in the present oldest generation has given way to bilingualism.

The largely English-based creole, Tok Pisin, is in an intermediate generation.

Monolingualism in Tok Pisin, with perhaps English from schooling, is the third generation.


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Peter Williamson

I once watched Mekere Morauta, my former boss, speaking in Tok Pisin to a bunch of local highlanders. One phrase will stick with me till the day I die - "Yumi mas prioritisim olgeta objectives bilong yumi".

Got to thinking about how you could actually say what he intended. My attempt - "Yumi mas lainim olgeta laik bilong yumi".

I am sure you good Pidgin speakers can do much better. Any suggestions?

Arthur Williams

If language is one of the markers of identity then, regrettable as it first appears, the death of so many local languages in PNG could be seen as a positive on the road to becoming a unified nation with a single PNG identity.

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