What languages do you need to work at the UN?

Some years ago I was advising a very talented Papua New Guinean student who had studied in Japan and wanted to work at the United Nations headquarters in New York. She had worked hard to become fluent in Japanese and assumed this would help her application. She was dismayed to learn that it didn’t, and that she would have to learn yet another language to apply to be a United Nations public servant.

What then are the official languages of the United Nations, and why isn’t Japanese, the language of such a rich and powerful country, not one of them? To answer this question we need to look at the history of the UN and the circumstances that led to its creation. It was started as a group of allied countries working together to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II. When the UN was officially organised, the languages of the three enemy nations were, of course, not thought to be important. Instead, the national languages of the major allied countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China) were chosen, together with Spanish, the dominant language in the Americas. In this way English, French, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish became the five official languages of the major UN bodies after World War II. Two decades later, as the number of independent Arab countries increased, and oil wealth increased the influence these countries have in the world, they asked that Arabic be added to this list. The UN agreed to this, but on the condition that Arabic-speaking countries themselves pay for setting up the new interpreting and translation services required.

Any of these six languages can be used to give speeches or submit documents, and it is expected that any diplomat at the UN will be able to understand and use at least one of these languages. During deliberations, highly trained interpreters give simultaneous interpretations between these languages, which the delegates can listen to on headsets next to each seat. Persons such as visiting heads of state, who cannot use these languages must provide their own interpreters into one of the six official languages. All important documents are translated into these six languages. The day-to-day working languages are, however, English and French, so routine matters and public signage at UN headquarters are normally in these two languages only.

People working as permanent public servants at the UN must know two of the six official languages well enough to conduct official work in them. In actual fact, at least one of the two languages they know is almost always English or French. Many UN bureaucrats speak English, French, and one other official language of the UN General Assembly. The secretaries-general of the UN have always had a working knowledge of at least English and French. This is the case for the current United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres from Portugal, who easily switches between French, English, and his native Portuguese.

There are always UN positions in various parts of the world that hire on a contract basis and do not have this requirement. Someone working for a UN agency in Port Moresby can usually be hired knowing only English, and someone working on a UN development project in Angola might be required to know Portuguese, for example. But permanently hired UN public servants, especially those at the New York or Geneva headquarters, must meet these bilingual requirements inattentive least two of the six official UN languages.

The Papua New Guinean student I was counselling was going to have to do quite a bit of language study if she was going to be successful in her goal of obtaining a UN position. Her Japanese didn’t count, and her English fluency fit only one half of the language requirements.

Even though Papua New Guineans tend to learn languages quickly, there are almost no places in the country where they can formally learn a foreign language, especially one of the official UN languages other than English. This means that while a certain number of UN public service positions are set aside for each nationality, the PNG quota is not met because very few Papua New Guineans have the opportunity to learn French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.

This is not the case in many other developing countries with educational challenges similar to those in PNG. Students in those countries can learn foreign languages in high school or university and prepare themselves to become international bureaucrats.  Educational planners in those countries realise that to work in an international bureaucracy, persons must have qualifications of an international standard, and that one of those is the ability to be bilingual in international languages, not only English. Until the Papua New Guinean education system meets this challenge in the same way that schools and universities in other developing countries do, Papua New Guineans will not be able to participate as fully on the world stage as they should. Papua New Guineans will continue to miss out and others will take the places set aside for them in the UN bureaucracy.

Should I write “colour” or “color”?

English spelling can be very confusing and it is often difficult to remember just how to spell words. What can make it even more confusing is that sometimes we see certain words spelled one way in some books or websites and in another way elsewhere. How are we supposed to know, for example, if we should write “colour” or “color”? To answer this question, we need to look at both the history of the English language and the many nations that use it, and at some ways that the social and political ecology of English is different from many other languages.

Most languages are closely identified with one group of people and place. Engan, for example, is the language of the Engan people, centred in Enga Province, and Chinese is the language of the Chinese people, centred in China itself. English, however, has become a language that is no longer “owned” by one group of people. English has its origins in England, of course, but today the largest group of native English speakers is in the United States, where only a minority of people are descendants of English immigrants. The largest number of speakers is in India, most of whom speak it as a second, not home, language, and almost none of whom are of English descent. English has become a world language, used daily more by people for whom, as for Indians and Papua New Guineans, it is not their first language than for people such as Americans and Australians for whom it their native language.

There are other languages such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese, that have also spread around the world because of colonialism. But unlike English, these still tend to be closely identified with the country where the language originated. More importantly, they have international academies that regulate the accepted grammar, spelling, and vocabulary of the languages.

English has nothing like this. There is no national language institute in any country that regulates the language and no international body that controls how the language is used. The closest that English has to any kind of regulating authority are important dictionaries, such as the Oxford University Dictionary, Websters Dictionary, or the Macquarie Dictionary, but these are nationally based and are produced by private companies. Unlike the international or national language academies of languages such as Spanish, French, and Indonesian, these dictionaries have absolutely no legal authority and, in fact, are often in competition with one another.

One main reason that English is like this is because it became a world language because of the colonial expansion of two separate powerful countries, Great Britain and the United States. Each views itself as a cultural centre and sees the English language as something belonging to it.

This separation began in the 1700s, when the United States became independent from Great Britain after a bitter revolutionary war. The new country wanted to show its independence by getting rid of as much as possible that connected them with their former colonial master. One American scholar, Noah Webster, thought this would be a good time to tidy up English spelling, which has many illogical spellings. In a dictionary of what he called “the American language”, he wrote some words without unnecessary letters, such as the “u” in “colour” and wrote other words according to how they were pronounced, such as “center” instead of “centre”.

His dictionary and the textbooks based on it were used throughout the United States for many years and the spellings they introduced became the commonly used standard in the United States. Eventually these American spellings became the more accepted spellings not only in the United States and its colonies (such as the Philippines), but in those countries where American influence is especially strong such as Latin America and East Asia.

In the British Empire (today the Commonwealth of Nations), the British spellings of the former British colonial masters remained the norm. This is why today in the Pacific, Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji usually use British spellings (“colour”, “centre”, and “tyre”) while the northern Pacific countries (such as Micronesia and the Philippines) use American spellings (“color”, “center”, and “tire”).

Because Papua New Guinea was colonised by Australia, which in turn had been colonised by Great Britain, British spellings were set down as “correct” by the Department of Education in the colonial era. Today there are PNG dictionaries that use British spellings, so most publications in the country, such as this newspaper, use these spellings as well. But the same time, PNG receives many books and much internet content from the United States and East Asia, usually with American spellings. Most notably, most computers come equipped with spellcheck programs using American, not British or Australian, spellings. Each individual ends up choosing which spelling to use, with most Papua New Guineans following the British/Australian spellings they learned at school.

It is important to remember that while some teachers in Britain say American spellings and vocabulary are “wrong”, just as their American counterparts say British spellings and vocabulary are “foreign”, in reality neither system is more or less correct than the other. Each is the product of divergent histories of the English language and the people that use it. The fact that the English language today belongs to no one people and to no one nation is its greatest strength. The diversity of spellings reflects this.

Why does PNG have so many languages?

It has become a cliché to say that Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country on earth. With its more than 830 different languages, PNG has many more different languages than countries with far greater populations. PNG is not unique in its linguistic diversity. All of its Melanesian neighbours have large numbers of languages spoken by small groups of people. Like PNG, no Melanesian country has one local language that is spoken as a home language by a majority of its citizens. This is perhaps the greatest cultural difference between Melanesia and Polynesia, such as Samoa, Tonga, and before colonialism Hawai’i and Aotearoa (New Zealand). In each of those Polynesian countries, only one language is spoken. Why is there this vast difference?

A number of scholars have observed that tropical areas with great biodiversity also tend to have a lot of linguistic diversity. This is the case in Melanesia, the Amazon, and central Africa, where there is both great biological and linguistic diversity. There is much less biological diversity in the monolingual countries of Polynesia. But just because there is a correlation does not prove that there is cause and effect. These two types of diversity might just be two unrelated phenomena happening in the same place caused by the kind of geographic barriers we find in rugged tropical continental regions.

One important factor is the time that humans have lived in Melanesia. Melanesia was one of the first areas outside Africa to be settled by modern humans. Because people have lived in this one area for such a long time, their languages have had a long time to become different. Humans have been living in Melanesia for 40,000 to 60,000 years, whereas some areas of Polynesia have not even been settled for 2,000 years, not long enough for languages there to separate into small language communities like they have in Melanesia.

Could it also be that there are psychological or social differences between Melanesia and Polynesia? The late Professor George Grace of the University of Hawai’i thought so. He noted that in Polynesia, there were large kingdoms covering entire island groups, with a strong national identity focussed on a king. In such societies, people would grow up identifying with a large political and cultural unit. With this kind of social environment, there would be travel between different islands and there would be a tendency to try to speak the same way as the king and his advisors. Linguistic and other diversity would not be valued or encouraged.

In Melanesia, on the other hand, pre-colonial political units were small, usually no more than a couple villages or “haus lain”. Grace noted that Melanesian people traditionally preferred to emphasise differences rather than commonalities. We see this today in the comment that neighbouring villages “change the language”, even when the differences are small and do not really make it difficult to communicate. In such a social environment, especially one with natural mountain, river, and swamp barriers between groups of people, language differentiation would progress at a rapid rate, and people would not feel a need to try to speak like anyone outside their village.

Some linguists think that in the distant past, the linguistic situation in Melanesia was the norm, rather than the exception, everywhere in the world. They think that in the past all humans lived in small social groups like Melanesians, speaking a large number of distinct languages. With the development of cities and the growth of large political units in Europe and Asia, certain languages became prestigious and either through war, conquest, or just cultural strength, these languages came to be spoken by large numbers of people, and other languages became extinct. Even where political units did not emphasise large regions, there were often waves of massive migration, such as with the speakers of the Bantu languages who spread throughout from central to most areas of eastern and southern Africa.

If this theory is correct, the linguistic diversity of Melanesia reflects an earlier time in human development. Melanesia has retained its diversity because of a lack of nations or empires that brought many groups under the control of one language group. Geographic barriers and rising water levels after the first migrations into the region meant that language families from other areas could not have spread into Melanesia until the arrival of European colonists.

Whatever the cause, Melanesia has ended up with a multitude of languages unmatched anywhere else in the world. One quarter of all languages are spoken by the relatively small number of people living in this region. Let us hope that the people and governments of our region will prove to be good stewards of this rich cultural treasure.

How can local dictionaries help you?

When Australian or Japanese school children learn each other’s language, they almost always have a dictionary next to them. When they want to say something in the foreign language that they don’t know, they just look it up in the dictionary. In the same way, when they read or hear a word in the foreign language, they can use the dictionary to tell them what the word means in their own language.

In the classroom, having bilingual dictionaries like this speeds up the lessons, as the teacher does not have to try and explain each word as it is introduced or slow up the class for a student who is a bit behind the others. Students simply look up words that they don’t know without interrupting the flow of the lesson. Papua New Guinean students learning English do not usually have this luxury. There are often dictionaries in the classroom, but these are monolingual dictionaries made for native speakers of English, with all the explanations written in English. This might help by providing an explanation when a student comes across an unknown English word, but when the student is thinking in his or her own language and searching for an English word (“how do I say ‘mambu bilong nek bilong kakaruk’ in English?”), a monolingual dictionary isn’t going to be much help.

This reliance on monolingual dictionaries is a legacy of Australian colonial rule. In Australia, English is the native language of almost all schoolchildren, so a dictionary with all explanations in English makes sense for them. This practice was brought to PNG by teachers in the colonial period by Australian teachers, most of whom did not have any experience in any language other than their own. Habits that these teachers brought have remained unchanged in the four decades since independence. This is despite the fact that bilingual dictionaries in English and Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and many local languages do exist. With these dictionaries, students thinking in their own language but writing in English could look up the word or phrase they need and see, for example, that “mambu bilong nek bilong kakaruk” is “gullet” in English. But to do this, students need to be shown how to use such a dictionary, and most of their teachers themselves have had no experience using one.

More importantly, schools need to actually have the dictionaries. While at least one publisher of school textbooks does make a Tok Pisin dictionary available in its textbook catalogues, dictionaries in other languages are often printed in small lots by overseas university presses or by SIL, a non-commercial organisation. They are not available through normal distributors and are often not reprinted when the first printing is sold out.

To make matters worse, the PNG government does not invest in printing or reprinting these dictionaries like the Indonesian government does in neighbouring West Papua. But with a bit of online detective work, if a dictionary is available in your language, you can usually track it down. Luckily, some of these, such as the many dictionaries published by Pacific Linguistics at Australian National University, are now available as PDF e-books that can be downloaded for free.

Bilingual dictionaries have another use as well; besides helping to learn English, they are valuable tools for improving your knowledge of your own language. In today’s world, few people grow up in a haus boi or next to Grandmother listening to eloquent songs and stories told with complicated vocabulary. As a result, many people have limited ability in their own language, using English or Tok Pisin much of the time and mixing these languages with their own when their limited mother-tongue vocabulary runs out.

Bilingual dictionaries can help by giving true local language equivalents for the difficult English or Tok Pisin words that you use when you stumble in your own language. Older dictionaries are especially useful as they often contain classical words that have gone out of use or are not used today with the same kind of precision that speakers had a couple generations ago.

In some cases these dictionaries can even bring “sleeping”languages back to life. This was the case with the Myaamia language, once used by the Myaamia tribe in the central United States. Because of forced migrations and government oppression, by the twentieth century these Native Americans had stopped using their own language in favour of English. Once the last old speakers died, there was no one to teach the language to younger people, and it was described as “extinct”. But one young man, Daryl Baldwin, came across old dictionaries and grammatical descriptions made by French missionaries who had come to his people three centuries earlier. Using these materials, he taught himself the language of his ancestors, and used it with his children when they were born. This was the beginning of a movement towards linguistic revival among his people. Today there is once again a small group of Myaamia children for whom the Myaamia language is their mother tongue.

Bilingual dictionaries have much to offer in the educational and intellectual development of the nation. They can help students’ learning English at school and can help people of all ages become more fluent and confident in their own languages. Tok Pisin dictionaries are easily available, and bilingual dictionaries in many other PNG languages are available through overseas university presses or SIL. They should be in every school library and all educated people should have a dictionary of their own language(s) as well as English.

What are artificial languages?

If you are a science fiction fan, you may have heard fictional aliens speaking what the films want to portray as non-human languages.

One recent example was Na’vi, spoken by the characters playing aliens in the movie Avatar. The creator of the language was Paul Frommer, an American linguist hired to make a language that had no resemblance to any real language, but that would sound soft enough to help make audiences feel sympathetic towards the alien heroine and her people. The artificial language he created had an unusual grammar and 1000 words, enough for the dialogue in the movie. The movie proved to be such a success that fans asked for vocabulary lists and grammars, so he went on and developed the language more. It now has over 2000 words.

A science fiction language that is more well-known is the language of the fictional Klingons in the Star Trek series of TV shows and movies. It was also the product of a group of linguists hired to make a language so that the aliens in the series would seem more alien. With the worldwide popularity of the Star Trek series and its many fans, a number of people have taken the time to learn the language, some becoming fluent enough to use it for everyday communication between themselves. One man in the USA even used it at home, with the result that his son grew up as a native Klingon speaker.

While these and other planned languages have been made by authors and film script writers to give non-human characters a tok ples, most widely spoken planned languages have a very different purpose: as a common universal language for people everywhere. The two most widely used of these are Esperanto and Basic English.

Esperanto was invented by Dr LL Zamenhof in the late 1800s. Zamenhof’s home was in a very multilingual area of Russian Poland, where people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds lived and often clashed. Looking at the discrimination and lack of understanding between people who could not speak each other’s languages, he thought if there were a neutral and easy-to-learn language, people would communicate better and start to understand and appreciate their differences. He called this language “Esperanto”, meaning “one who hopes”.

Zamenhof spent many years developing his language. He used words from different European languages and made a grammar in which there are no irregularities. The lack of the kind of grammatical irregularity that we have in English (such as regular “he talked”, “he painted”, but irregular “he spoke” and “he ran”) makes the language easy to learn.

There is also a systematic use of suffixes and prefixes to make new words, so that learning or inventing new vocabulary does not mean memorising long lists of words and phrases as in English. For example, the word for “auxiliary language” is “helplingvo” (“help” = “helping” and “lingvo” = “language”). Parts of speech are all indicated by endings. For example, all verbs end in “-i”, while all nouns end in “-o”, so “vidi” (“see”) with an “-o” ending becomes “vision”. These regularities mean that people can learn Esperanto much faster than most natural languages.

Today perhaps as many as two million people around the world have taken the time to learn Esperanto, and many books and journals have been published in it. Members of the Esperanto movement feel that it could be a neutral language for the whole world much like Tok Pisin is a neutral and easily learned language for communication between hundreds of different language groups in PNG. 

Still, two million speakers of a language is not a large number compared with English, currently the most widely spoken language in the world. But there are many things about English that make it difficult for second language speakers to use. Seeing this, an English linguist, Charles Ogden, devised a simplified form of English in the 1920s that he called Basic English. This system uses a limited vocabulary of 850 core words plus around 1000 more “auxiliary words”.

These are expanded with regular English endings (such as “quick” + “-ly” = “quickly” and “quick” + “-er” = “quicker”). Because English nouns are easy to learn, but the English verb system is not, he drastically limited the number of verbs and developed a system of paraphrasing using verbs and simple verbs such as “be” and “do”. His system was promoted by the British prime minister Winston Churchill and was especially popular in the years right after World War II.

For us in Papua New Guinea, it is easy to see why planned international languages like Esperanto and Basic English are appealing. We have the example of Tok Pisin, which is grammatically simple and easy to learn, allowing people from hundreds of languages to communicate with each other. It would be immensely practical if everyone in the world learned one designated language besides their own to use with people from other countries or language backgrounds. While English is starting to fill that role in many ways, it is still not universally spoken and still not officially recognised as the one international language.

It is also easy for Papua New Guineans to understand why people writing movie scripts or novels feel a need for their fictional characters to have their own language. After all, we see how in the real world around us, each group of humans seems to mark their identity their own language.

These two linguistic instincts, communicating across language barriers and using our own language as a mark of identity, might be best exemplified in Melanesia, but they are instincts that are shared by people everywhere. Because of this, we can assume that we have not seen the end of artificially planned languages, either in fiction or as intended international auxiliary languages.

Is “bilum” an English word?

“The hausmeri gave her misis a bilum when she was going finish, something that brought tears to her eyes.” There would be few English-speakers in PNG who wouldn’t understand this sentence and the feelings of loss and connection it expresses. At the same time there would be very few English-speakers in Sydney, London, or New York who would have a clue about who gave what to whom and why they were crying. They might even ask themselves if it was something bad (a life-threatening disease?) or something wonderful (a fortune?). So if people in Sydney, London, or New York cannot understand a word we use every day in PNG, we might ask ourselves if it is actually an English word. And if English is used as the language of education so that Papua New Guineans can communicate with the world, should we even be using words like this?


These words and many more expressions come from Tok Pisin but are used in everyday English in PNG. Some of these words express things that are unique to PNG, such as “bilum”, “kundu”, and “meri blouse”. Others express ideas or concepts that are central to the PNG way of life, such as “wantok”, “wantok system”, or “tok ples”. Sometimes a local word is used here when there is a perfectly good English word available to show just how intimate this thing or concept is to our lives in PNG; how many times have you said “balus” instead of “airplane” or “bubu” instead of “grandmother”? Another thing that is done in PNG is for English words to jump grammatical boundaries. We see this when the preposition “after”, for example, becomes a verb (“That creepy guy keeps aftering me and just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer!”).

Linguistic creativity like this is an important part of Melanesian culture and the localisation of English with words and phrases such as this are signs of the willingness of Papua New Guineans to accept English as part of their everyday lives. They cannot just be dismissed as examples of incomplete learning by second language learners, as many of these terms are used not only by highly competent Papua New Guinean speakers of English but also by expatriate residents in the country who have English as their first language. So just what is going on? Is it really English?

To answer these questions, we have to look at the role of centralisation and authority in both the English language and in Melanesian culture. Many world languages have academies or government institutions that regulate the language. They make lists of words that are correct or incorrect, pass laws about spelling rules, and coin “official” new words for people to use. These rules are made by a central authority, who expect that schools, publishers, and the public in all countries using that language will follow their edicts. French, Spanish, and Portuguese are all international languages with this kind of central authority.

English is not. There are no national government or international agencies who regulate language use. While some private companies, such as Oxford University Press or Macmillan Dictionary Publishers may print dictionaries and other reference books that many people accept as definitive authorities, users are free to follow one or the other (or, indeed, none at all). This individual autonomy fits perfectly into Melanesian culture, which until colonial intervention never had large centralised political or social units and which still places much stress on localised identity, including language.

In PNG there is a strong cultural desire to emphasise a local identity. This desire shows itself in the use of English as well; few people feel a need to use English like an Australian, Brit, or American. Indeed, persons who do might be thought to be showing off or trying to pretend to be someone they are not. In the same way, expatriate residents use local expressions as a way of integrating themselves linguistically and showing that they, too, are part of the local scene.

So are these words and expressions really English? If we realise that English is a language that is adapted to different cultures and societies, we have to say that there is also something we can call PNG English with expressions such as these. This is why words such as “bilum” are usually included in the English dictionaries specifically made for PNG schools.

Is it incorrect to use them? Here we have to think about our audience, as we should always use language in a way that lets our audience understand us easily. Just as we would not use English to speak to uneducated people in a remote area, we should not use PNG English expressions with people elsewhere who cannot be expected to know them. Writing about giving “bilums” to someone “going finish” would be perfectly acceptable in an article in The National newspaper of PNG, but it would not be correct in an article for an international audience.

In a novel by a PNG author about PNG, talking about “bilums” might be a good way to give local flavour, but somewhere in the story there should be an explanation or subtle description of what a bilum looks like and what it is used for, so that a foreign audience is brought into the PNG world.We must always show our audience respect by using language in a way that they can understand.This means that it is important for good users of English in PNG to recognise what words are specifically local and how to express these local ideas (“bilum”, “wantok system”, “bubu”) in international English to international audiences (“string bag”, “nepotism”, and “grandparents”). By understanding the boundaries between different forms of a language, we are able to overcome those boundaries and become even more creative in our use of the English language.

How can I make a dictionary for my own language?

All of us probably remember dictionaries from when we were at school. They had a long list of English words and explained them in English. This is a monolingual dictionary. Another type is a bilingual dictionary, where the explanations are given in another language. This type is especially useful when we are learning another language. For example, a Tok Pisin-English dictionary gives Tok Pisin explanations of English words and English translations or explanations for Tok Pisin words, so it is helpful for foreigners learning Tok Pisin or Papua New Guineans learning English.Bilingual dictionaries are also useful tools for documenting a language that might otherwise not be documented, especially when a language is in danger of disappearing or when difficult terminology, such as plant and animal names or terminology related to customary practises, is no longer being learned by young people. By putting these important words in a dictionary, they are preserved for future generations and can be retrieved long after a community has forgotten all about them.At present, many Papua New Guinean languages are in danger of disappearing as young people prefer to use Tok Pisin or English. Even if a language is not actually disappearing, many times only a simple form of the language is used today, with older and more complex ways of speaking disappearing. Some time ago, I received a letter from a young Tolai reader, for example, who was worried about this phenomenon in his Kuanua language. He said that while his grandparents taught him how to speak Kuanua using complicated vocabulary and eloquent oratory, most of the young people his age speak in a simple way, taking many words from Tok Pisin and English. He worries about this and about how his very rich language will be passed on in an impoverished form to future generations.


A dictionary by itself will not reverse this. After all, there are many dead languages with dictionaries. But by recording these learned words in a dictionary, people who do want to learn them in the future will have a resource they can fall back on. But how can someone with no linguistic training do this?
The first step should be to see if there is already some kind of dictionary for your language. One good place to start looking is at www.ethnologue.com. You can click on the “Language Resources” link on the ethnologue site (www.ethnologue.com) to go to a list of materials in and about your language in the OLAC (Open Language Archives Community) database. Often there is a listing for a dictionary, especially for languages with SIL teams of Bible translators. Another place to look is the www.pacling.anu.edu.au website of the Australian National University. Although many of the dictionaries they have published through the years are no longer in print, they can still be downloaded for free as pdf’s from this site and read on your computer or tablet.


If your language does not have a dictionary or if there’s a dictionary available but you feel it needs additional data, you can start to do this yourself. Even if you do not have linguistic training, you can make word lists with English or Tok Pisin explanations and translations. It is especially important to have lists related to the environment, customary beliefs and practices, and oral history in your language, as this knowledge is disappearing quickly. Linguists at The Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, will be happy to upload these onto their Language Archives website (www.jcu.edu.au/language-and-culture-research-centre/resources/language-archives) as a resource for both your wantoks and linguists around the world.


Another resource is Wiktionary, an online collaborative tool similar to Wikipedia that allows anyone to create, add to or edit a dictionary in any language. Although learning how to use Wiktionary does take a bit of time and patience, once you know how to edit and add entries, people anywhere can add to the dictionary. Several years ago, I worked with Motu-speaking colleagues at Divine Word University to see how this could work for their language. We set up a Motu Wiktionary dictionary and wrote a number of entries for people to see. You can check it out (and even add to it!) at https://incubator.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wt/meu/Main_Page or read more about the project at http://tinkering-tots.blogspot.com/p/Motu-eda-ura-wiktionary-project.html. An advantage of publishing online with Wiktionary is that the site can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone and, because you do not need to wait until you have a finished product to publish, people can comment on the dictionary as it is being written. It then becomes a true community effort, in keeping with Melanesian custom.


If you want to learn more about dictionaries, SIL PNG offers lexicography (dictionary-writing) workshops from time to time. They have also written several guides about dictionary writing and compilation as well as software to use on a laptop to make dictionary compilation and organisation easier. More importantly, they have a website for public use, www.webonary.org, where people with a minimum of linguistic and computer expertise can produce an online dictionary or smartphone dictionary app for their own language. Like Wiktionary, this is organised so that it can be a community project, with people in different places contributing at different times.Ideally, provincial and national governments would support the documentation of PNG languages and indigenous knowledge through the compilation and publication of dictionaries. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. It is, in fact, ironic that governments in the still colonised parts of Melanesia–Indonesian Papua and French New Caledonia–do much more to support local language dictionary compilation than the governments of independent Melanesian countries do. But in the absence of government support, there is still much valuable work that individuals and groups here can do on their own to preserve the words in their languages through dictionaries.

Where are PNG’s linguistic wantoks?

The first thing Papua New Guineans do when they go to a new place is “painim wantok”. Whether it is finding old friends or establishing new relationships, knowing you’re not alone is a good feeling when you’re in a new place. So when it comes to languages, just who are Papua New Guineans’ wantoks in the Pacific region? Whose languages are related to the languages you speak?

If you’re reading this, you obviously speak English. And if you’re from PNG, you probably speak Tok Pisin. And let’s hope you still speak your ancestral language (tok ples). So let’s look at those three languages and see where there might be some connections.

English is the most widespread language in the Pacific, but it isn’t universal. Besides small Spanish-speaking Rapa Nui (a territory of Chile), French is used in the French territories of French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna, and New Caledonia, and, of course, neighbouring Indonesian Papua and West Papua use Bahasa Indonesia. Some people assume that everyone speaks English, with many Papua New Guineans being surprised that even highly educated persons in neighbouring countries do not. It is important to remember that being educated and being able to speak English are not necessarily the same thing. For example, a few years ago I had to speak to a meeting of senior academics and administrators at Cenderawasih University in Jayapura. Only about half of those highly educated professors could follow my talk or ask me questions in English. The rest needed an interpreter.

I’m especially struck at the language barrier when I go to international conferences in the Pacific. Often there are people from the French-speaking countries who cannot speak with their colleagues from English-speaking countries like PNG, and vice versa. In fact, in many cases the only people who can speak to everyone are European expatriates, even if it is supposed to be a “Pacific” conference. This is an unfortunate legacy of the colonial era that continues to make communication between ordinary Pacific Islanders difficult.

This situation is especially frustrating because even though Papua New Guineans tend to be very eager language learners, there are almost no opportunities here for people to learn French or Bahasa Indonesia. This is another colonial legacy from an Australian school system, which is notoriously poor at teaching foreign languages and where monolingualism is considered normal, rather than a handicap.This is an attitude that will have to change if PNG is ever going to take its rightful place as a leader in the entire Pacific region.

One place where not knowing French is not a problem for Papua New Guineans is Vanuatu. Vanuatu Bislama and Solomons Pijin are easily understood by Papua New Guineans, as anyone who listens to interviews on Radio Australia Tok Pisin Service will know. But don’t be offended if people giggle a bit now and then though, as happened to me when I was at someone’s home for dinner in Vanuatu and asked “Plis, kisim bret i kam”. For them “kisim” means “to give a kiss”, not “pass” or “fetch”. For that they say “kasem”. I still remember the joking about what my hosts said was my obviously bizarre bakery-oriented romantic life.

When it comes to “tok ples”, there are only a few languages that actually straddle the artificial PNG-Indonesian border. But many PNG languages are related to languages elsewhere in the Pacific, even if they are not mutually intelligible. If you have a word like “susu” for “breast” and “milk”, “rua” for “two”, “mai” for “come”, or “tama” for “father”, then there’s a good chance your language is an Austronesian language. Most of the languages in the Pacific outside the New Guinea mainland are Austronesian. In fact, we think that the rest of the Pacific to the east and south of PNG was settled by people who originated from the Bismarck Archipelago and brought Austronesian languages with them. If you speak an Austronesian language, when you meet people in other parts of the Pacific, you will be surprised at how many words will seem similar to those in your language. They are long-lost cousins.

If your language doesn’t have these words, then it probably belongs to one of the non-Austronesian language groups, which some linguists call the Papuan languages. These are spread in an arch from Timor-Leste through eastern Indonesia and Indonesian Papua, PNG and on into some of the islands in the Solomons. There are also two non-Australian languages spoken on the Australian islands in the Torres Strait. The non-Austronesian languages come from the very first languages spoken in the Pacific, but because they have been in one place for a long time, they have had many thousands of years to become more and more different from one another. It can be hard to see the relationships between these languages after so many thousands of years of separation.

Languages can bring us together or create barriers between us. Luckily, Pacific Islanders are good at using language creatively to make connections with others. As a Papua New Guinean, one way or another, it should not be difficult for you to find linguistic wantoks on one kind or another in the Pacific.

What language did Jesus speak?

Every Christmas we are surrounded by images of a baby Jesus and His parents. Many of us watch videos about the Christmas story and go to church on the 25th of December to listen to the story as it is recorded in the New Testament. But just how realistic are those videos and words?

Many of the videos are produced in the United States and have American actors giving very American voices to the adult persons in the story. For those of us who go to English-speaking church services, the nativity story is often read from the King James version of the Bible, a majestic, if difficult to understand, translation.

But Jesus was from the Middle East and came from a family whose speech and body language were very differently from what we hear and see from those American actors. And while I would not like to disappoint those of our leaders who spent much money bringing a first edition of the King James Bible to Papua New Guinea’s Parliament House, the language in that book had nothing to do with Jesus’ mother tongue.

Like modern Papua New Guineans, Joseph and Mary lived in a multilingual society that was changing rapidly. Their ancestors’ native language had been Hebrew, but by the time Jesus was born, most people did not use this language except for religious purposes. Instead, most people in the Bethlehem-Nazareth area had shifted to Aramaic as an everyday language, so we can assume that this would have been the home language that Jesus grew up with. Evidence for this comes from Aramaic words, phrases, and place names in the New Testament, such as ‘Abba (“Father”) and “Golgotha” (-tha is one way of saying “the” in Aramaic).

Greek and Latin would also have been present, but Greek was not yet an important language in that area, even though generally it had already become the common language in the eastern Mediterranean area as a whole. In the years after Jesus was on earth, stories about His life were written about or translated into Greek so that they could be understood by persons living in these other regions. But in the actual area where Jesus grew up, it was not yet a language that many people spoke, especially simple people such as Jesus’ family. At that time it was only slowly starting to be used as a language to speak to foreigners in, much as uneducated Papua New Guineans today try to use English to speak with foreigners. Latin was an even more foreign language, used only by some of the Roman military or political leaders in the area.

We do not know for sure how many of these languages Jesus used as a child or in His everyday life as an adult. We do know from our own experience in PNG that in multilingual societies where people speaking several languages mix together, people who speak only one language are rare. As a carpenter, we can expect Jesus would have had a professional as well as social reason to use languages other than the one He would have grown up with. But all we can say with some certainty is that whether or not He used these other languages, His first language and most commonly used everyday language would have been Aramaic.

Today only a small number of people still speak Aramaic. There are two forms of modern Aramaic, Western Aramaic spoken by small communities in Israel and Syria, and Eastern Aramaic spoken by more people in the area where Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran come close together. Worldwide perhaps a million people speak the language. If you want to hear how modern Aramaic sounds, search for “Assyrian Christmas Song” on Youtube.

Some Aramaic speakers today are Jewish, but most call themselves Assyrians and are Christian or Mandaean, a religion that venerates John the Baptist rather than Jesus. Both Mandaeans and Christians in the Middle East and in refugee communities elsewhere use forms of Aramaic in worship, even if younger persons now often use other languages at home and with each other and no longer speak Aramaic. The pace of this assimilation into other cultures and languages has quickened in recent years because intense fighting in the Syrian civil war and savage persecution under ISIS have destroyed or dispersed many of these communities, with many Aramaic speakers killed or fleeing as refugees to other countries, especially Germany and Australia. With these dispersals, surviving younger persons assimilate quickly into communities speaking other languages. There is therefore a danger that Aramaic may die out as an actively spoken language by the end of this century.

In the meantime though, Christian Assyrians will continue to greet each other this week with their traditional Christian greeting in the language of Jesus: “eedokhon breekha” (“may your feast be blessed”). The language first heard by Jesus from His mother over two thousand years ago continues to be spoken today, especially on the day honouring His birth.

Wasted English

“Why are Papua New Guineans so stupid?” When my Japanese guest asked me this question, I was stunned. After all, he had been talking about how much he was enjoying his visit to PNG and how friendly everyone was to him. He was even making plans to come back for another visit.

I was ready to kick him out of my house. Then he explained. He said that in Japan, even highly educated university professors often don’t speak English well enough to hold a simple conversation. If a foreigner tries to ask the average person on the street where the nearest bus stop is, often the only answer is giggling, hand-waving, and “no English”. But he said in PNG even the most simple seller in the market would try to speak to him in English, and while the village where he was staying didn’t have electricity or running water, nearly everyone could joke and tell stories with him in English. He said many Japanese grow up thinking speaking English with this much ease is impossible. He said he knew many people in his country who would chop off their arm if it meant they could speak English like the average educated Papua New Guinean.

I told him that this English ability didn’t come easily. People went to school for many years to learn how to use English, and unlike Japan, where all schools and universities teach in Japanese, the trade-off is that most people in PNG could not read or write easily in their own native languages.

He replied that he understood that. But his point was that after so much time and effort, most Papua New Guineans then went on to do nothing with their English except watch overseas videos. He said that in the eastern Pacific Rim, only the Philippines, Singapore, and, of course, Australia, had better levels of English in the general population. He wanted to know why PNG didn’t host off-shore call centres or send its teachers throughout Asia teaching English. He said with the Internet, there were many opportunities for people to run online services in English like people from India and the Philippines do. He said people were wasting a valuable linguistic resource, and that was stupid.

He had a point. But there are exceptions. I know some individual Papua New Guineans do make use of their English skills. Many of my village neighbours listen to the news on BBC or Radio Australia shortwave and are far better informed about world events than some of my relatives in the United States or Europe. I remember that when I was a university student in Hawaiʻi, one of my fellow students was a PNG student earning extra money editing essays for Asian students with poor English writing skills. And I know of a Papua New Guinean high school student in Japan with her family who was teaching English in the evenings and earning over K3000 a month.

These are the results of individuals’ effort and entrepreneurship. But my friend was correct in saying that as a nation, PNG was ignoring a resource that can earn money just as coffee, minerals, and palm oil can. The lack of internet infrastructure and the high cost of internet access where it does exist mean that fewer young people can afford to surf the internet and train themselves in internet app building or website development skills than in PNG’s Asian neighbours. International telephone calls in and out of PNG are among the highest in the world, so running a call centre in Port Moresby would be far more expensive than in Manila or Bangalore. The lack of government promotion of employment opportunities in Asia and the Middle East that require English skills means these go to Filipinos and Africans instead.

By improving internet and telecommunication access and lowering costs, many more Papua New Guineans could enter the global web-linked economy, one that is heavily dependent on English language skills. The relatively high speeds, easy accessibility, and low costs of internet access in neighbouring Jayapura show that this is not impossible.

I look forward to the day when Asians come to PNG to study English rather than Guam or Fiji, PNG announcers are featured on Asian English language TV channels, and .com.pg startups are listed on the POM stock exchange. I may not have liked the words my friend used, but he was right: the English language is too valuable a resource for PNG to ignore.