Why don’t so many people speak Hiri Motu these days?

People in multilingual societies such as Melanesia choose to use or learn a language for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because a language is a family language. Sometimes it shows their identity. Sometimes a language is necessary for trading or customary exchanges. Sometimes speaking a language helps them make money or show off their status (this is certainly the reason most people use English). As long as any of these reasons exist, that language will be widely spoken and learned. But when those reasons disappear, people gradually stop using the language and young people don’t feel a need to learn it. This seems to be happening with Hiri Motu today.

Before we look at this shift in language use, we should be sure we know what we mean when we say “Hiri Motu”. The names associated with “Motu” and “Hiri” can be confusing.

Just about everyone in PNG knows about the Motu people, who long before colonial contact settled in what eventually became Port Moresby. They had contact with many other people, the most well-known being with people to the west whom they visited in the famous Hiri trade circuits. On these voyages they spoke a simplified version of the language of their trading partners, mixing in some of their own Motu words. This was a contact language used by Motu men and it was spoken in the Hiri voyages, but it was not the language we call Hiri Motu today.

Hiri Motu origins date to the time when English colonists and missionaries first met the Motu people and tried to learn their language. The Motu people used a simplified grammar and vocabulary with them, much as some people do when they speak with little children. At first the adult missionaries did not know they were not learning true Motu. But their children grew up with Motu village children and learned normal Motu as a second home language from their friends. It was only when these missionary children pointed out to their parents how they were speaking a kind of baby talk that the adults realised what was going on and that they had not been learning the true language of the area.

When the colonial government set up a police force, they brought in Pacific islanders from other colonies at first. These men often married Motu women and had Motu friends, who also used this simplified Motu with them. This eventually became the language they used amongst themselves and that was learned by Papuans from other areas joining the police force. Knowing what became known as “Police Motu” became important if a man wanted a prestigious and relatively well-paid job. As colonial rule spread throughout Papua, this simplified Motu spread with it. Colonial rule brought peace and increased mobility, so this Police Motu was learned and used by many outside the police force when speaking with Papuans from other areas. There were several different varieties of the language. Those furthest from Port Moresby spoke without many of the complicated forms used by Motuans themselves, while those closer to Port Moresby used more Motuan forms and expressions. Motuans themselves, of course, continued to speak “true” Motu amongst themselves, but they had to learn to switch to Police Motu when speaking with other Papuans.

Eventually, the use of Police Motu became an important part of a new Papuan identity, distinguishing Papuans from Tok Pisin-speaking people from the former German Territory of New Guinea to the north. Even after World War II, when the two colonies were united and more people moved between the two areas, New Guineans and expatriates moving to Papua found they needed to learn some Police Motu to communicate in markets or with their workmates or neighbours. I myself remember how when I first went to Port Moresby in 1979, people in the market would speak to me in Police Motu, and many people could still not use Tok Pisin comfortably.

As Independence came closer, many Papuans were worried about being dominated by the more numerous New Guineans, and some wanted a separate Papuan country. To counter these separatist feelings and create a feeling of inclusion in the new nation, Police Motu was included alongside Tok Pisin and English in all national radio broadcasts, the House of Assembly, and public announcements. But because a name like “Police Motu” sounded too colonial to many people, in the Constitution the language was renamed “Hiri Motu”, even though this language had nothing to do with the Hiri trade voyages themselves.

Since Independence, large numbers of Tok Pisin-speaking people have moved into Port Moresby, eventually making it a Tok Pisin-speaking city. Today, no one would address me in the market in Hiri Motu, because the assumption is that I am much more likely to know English or Tok Pisin. Papuan children in Port Moresby grow up mixing with Tok Pisin-speaking children so that for them, Tok Pisin, not Hiri Motu, has become the normal language to use when speaking with people from other areas. In the years after Independence, a national identity has become stronger for most people than regional identities, so the ability to use Tok Pisin, a language spoken throughout almost all areas of the country, has become more important to their self-identity than Hiri Motu, which reflects only a regional identity. In national institutions such as the police or the Defence Force, English and Tok Pisin are languages used informally and for training purposes, so there are no longer prestigious institutions where it is necessary to use Hiri Motu.

The development of modern Papua is closely linked with the language once known as Police Motu and today called Hiri Motu. At one time a knowledge of Hiri Motu was necessary for paid employment and an important part of a new post-contact regional identity. But this is no longer the case. As the reasons for using Hiri Motu have become fewer and the number of people knowing English and Tok Pisin increases, fewer adults use the language on a daily basis and fewer young people learn the language as they grow up. Today it is much less often heard on the streets of Port Moresby and other urban areas in Papua and almost never heard in National Parliament debates. Unless new reasons, purposes, or identities are found for Hiri Motu, we can expect that its use will continue to decline.

What do linguists say about your language?

Our language is an important part of our identity, so it is natural for us to want to learn more about it and to see what linguists have discovered about how it operates. While many PNG languages have still not been documented or described in detail, many of them have, with dictionaries that list words in the language, grammar books that describe the rules of the language, and articles that explain how the speakers of the language use it in different situations. For a great many languages, linguists have been able to show which other languages in and out of PNG are related languages with a common ancestral language, and how a particular language or group of languages has migrated from one area to another. But how can an ordinary educated person find out about all this information? Luckily, the internet has made the search much easier than it was just a few years ago.

The first thing to do is to find out what name linguists use for your language, Sometimes local people use a different name than the one normally used in linguistic literature, or they just use a phrase like tok ples to describe their language. A good place to find the linguists’ name for your language is by going to http://www.silpng.org, where you can find excellent language maps for each PNG province by clicking the “language resources” tab. Each map has a list of the languages for that particular province. Next to each name is a three letter code. This is the ISO international code for that language. This code can be useful when looking for information in databases or lists.

This site also has links to good SIL articles, either online or in their archives, on PNG language-related topics in general and about individual languages. Another good SIL resource is Ethnologue, a book that tries to provide information about every language in the world. An online version of the book is located at http://www.ethnologue.org. While much of the information here repeats what is given on the SIL PNG website, it has the advantage of having a feedback tab where you can correct or add to information about your own language.

You can click on the “Language Resources” link in Ethnologue to go to a list of materials in and about your language in the OLAC (Open Language Archives Community) database. Some of these are online, while others are not. Sometimes older articles about languages in northern Papua New Guinea are in German, since even after German colonial rule ended in 1914, German missionaries would still write descriptions of languages in their own language. But even if you cannot read German, the examples used in the articles can give you an idea about how your language was spoken a hundred years ago.

Another online resource is the website of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea (www.langlxmelanesia.com), which has online versions of all the articles of the LSPNG journal, now called Language & Linguistics in Melanesia and originally called Kivung. These articles date back to 1968 and provide a wealth of information about individual languages and general language issues in Melanesia. Unfortunately, there is not yet an index for the articles, so going through them takes quite a bit of time.

Online Google searches, using the “official” name for your language together with its ISO code, can also lead to books or articles in a number of places, often overseas. Overseas researchers are usually happy to share findings or resources with speakers of the languages they are describing, so an email or letter to the institution or university is worth a try.

Besides these online resources, the libraries of the country’s major universities are good places to look for out-of-print materials. The Divine Word University library, for example, has a number of manuscripts written by missionary priests describing the languages they were learning for their work. Similarly, the UniTech library in Lae has a series of books written by one of its lecturers describing the various mathematics and counting systems used in most Papua New Guinean languages. Older works like these capture knowledge that was once common but is now sadly becoming rare in societies undergoing westernisation.

You might also be able to learn about your language by speaking with a linguist in person. The Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea hosts an international conference every year, usually around the Independence Day holidays in mid-September. These conferences feature presentations by linguists from PNG, Australia, and Europe about language use in general, the role of English in PNG schools, and aspects of specific PNG languages. The conference is open to the public and there is ample time for people to meet with professional linguists for informal discussions. There is always a time set aside for PNG university student presentations and proceedings from each conference are available on the LSPNG website.

For people who have access to written documentation and analysis of their language, seeing the often complicated descriptions of what they themselves take for granted can be enlightening. Few people appreciate just how complex the structure and richness of their own language is and how many language rules they carry in their heads without even realising it.

For people who do not yet have a written description or analysis of their language, there is often still much general information available today about the language family their language belongs to and about the linguistic environment of similar language groups in the country. By reading about these, you might just get inspired to be the one who writes the first description of your language. This would be a great legacy for generations to come.

What if my child’s teacher can’t speak English?

Education is the key to success in the modern world and English is the language of education in PNG. It is therefore not surprising for parents to be worried when they find out their children‘s teacher cannot really use English well. This happens a lot in the current situation where many elementary school teachers were hired to teach in a tok ples curriculum and now have to teach in English, without receiving any extra English training to help them do this. Many educated parents remember the high levels of English when they were at school and worry when they come across teachers who cannot converse easily in English or communicate effectively in written English.

For some parents the answer is to make financial sacrifices to send their children to a private or international school. But many of us either do not have this kind of income or live in rural areas where that is not an option. I myself was in this situation, where my daughter had a young teacher in her village school who had been poorly trained and was really not able to communicate in English. I could have gone to the headmistress and tried to get a new teacher for my daughter. But a more lasting solution was to find ways to compensate for what was missing. 

The first thing we must remember is that we parents, not the schools, have primary responsibility for our children‘s education. Complaining about the school or an individual teacher will only make them defensive. We as parents and grandparents need to make up for what is missing. Language learning is all about having exposure to the language so we need to provide as much exposure to English as possible.

In some situations one parent can decide to use English at home, while the other parent and relatives continue to use tok ples.  Of course, this must be done in a way that the children still have exposure to their own language so that they have a cultural identity and can comfortably participate in kastom when they are older.

But beyond this, developing a love for reading is probably the greatest educational gift parents can give their children. I remember a professor of mine who said if you can read for yourself, schools and universities are only necessary as places to get pieces of paper and hang out with other young people. If you can read, you don’t actually need a school to get knowledge.

To develop this love of reading, from the time they are still toddlers, children should be holding books and reading them with their parents. In this way they associate books and reading with their parents’ love and as something they want to do, not a boring chore that their teachers make them do. As they grow older, there should always be a time set aside for them when they can read for themselves and read with their parents. It is not important what they read; even comic books and junk novels teach children language. 

Reading with parents is important even as they are older because this is a way of sharing new ideas with their parents and discussing new ideas and concepts. This is true even with parents or grandparents who are illiterate or who do not speak English. Just as Grandmother uses stories to teach tok ples and tell children about their own culture, the children can read to Grandmother about current events or stories from other places. 

Books are not always cheap or easy for us to access in PNG. A practical alternative especially for people in rural areas is a smart phone or small tablet computer, which can be like having a private library of our own. These can be used to download free e-books and learning software for children. Interactive reading and storytelling software programs are an especially good way to improve children‘s English vocabulary and knowledge of the world. Today many families in English-speaking countries choose to teach their children at home rather than send them to schools. Computer software programs produced overseas for this kind of homeschooling can augment classroom situations in PNG that are not always intellectually stimulating or to teach subjects not available here. Many of these are available at little or no cost over the Internet.

With just a little bit of googling, you can often find children‘s books on the internet that are read out loud. This helps children associate sound with letters naturally and makes it easy for them to imitate native English speakers‘ intonation and stress patterns. These programs make use of children‘s love to imitate and play with sounds.

By being pro-active and providing their children with books and computer resources, parents can overcome whatever limitations their local schools and teachers have. If they start when their children are at an early age, parents can instil a deep learn of reading and learning that their children will always associate with memories of home and family. It does take effort, but the rewards can be great.

How can children learn “classical Tok Ples” at school?

A Tolai reader wrote recently to comment that while he had grown up with old people who spoke a pure and eloquent form of their language, most other young people in his community mix their own language with Tok Pisin and English and are unable to speak eloquently in public in their own language (their tok ples).

Sadly, this is something that we see in many communities all over the country. It is normal for multilingual people to change between languages. This is called code-switching. But increasingly, young people do this not to be linguistically adept, but because they do not know words in their own language or because they know that when they speak their own language, they do not sound as clever or eloquent as when they speak in Tok Pisin.

In the past, young people would learn to speak their own language in a refined way by listening and imitating older people in public meetings, the haus boi, evening storytelling, or secret societies. Today these are much less important than in the past and the only older people many young people have extended contact with are their teachers at school.

Those teachers are often not from the same language group and even if they are, schools are conducted in English and teachers will rarely be heard speaking the children’s language at school.
In such a situation one might think that schools have no role in encouraging tok ples fluency. But a project undertaken in New Ireland last year by Cláudio da Silva, a masters student in social education from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, shows how this can be done within the current school curriculum.


In this project a theme was chosen that was related to the local culture. He chose the relationship between birds and clans in the culture of the Nalik-speaking people. Working with community leaders and clan elders, he identified important stories, tok ples vocabulary, and local concepts related to clans and birds. These were explored with grade 6 and 7 students, who were told that they would have to write a book together about these ideas.


These concepts and ideas were examined in an inter-disciplinary way. For example, students did science research to learn about the scientific description of the birds, developed art skills by learning how to draw birds, learned about English descriptive writing to write the book, and investigated about the local laws related to marriage and clan membership to explain why their bird-clan affiliations were important.


All of these activities supported skills in different school subjects in the national school curriculum.
To give their skills a local context, the students were given homework to do with older people in their families and community. For example, they had to write the local names of the birds that represent the different clans in their society. Most knew the Tok Pisin name and they were learning the English and scientific names at school, but some did not know the local name.

They also had to ask about the tok ples names for the different parts of clan ceremonies and for the concepts underlying these activities, such as “reciprocity”, “kinship”, and “social network” and how and when it was appropriate to talk about them. A clan leader (maimai) helped teach the classes, often speaking in tok ples or explaining the differences in meaning between various words in the local language.


Because the children knew that their writing would be collected in a book that would be published, they paid much more attention to detail and accuracy than is often the case in school assignments. Some were very knowledgeable about language and custom, while a couple did not even know what clan they belonged to. But by the end they had produced a book together in very good English that explained their clan system, important birds in their culture, and important tok ples cultural concepts. In writing this book they learned to be more accurate in both English and tok ples, and gained a better understanding about how to use adult, learned words in both languages.


Of course, this is not the only way communities can use schools to promote fluency in tok ples. One way is with speech contests, which can have a tok ples section together with the English speeches.
Another is to engage older students in community education, explaining in their own language what they learn in school to older adults who may not know English or be literate.


These activities need good cooperation between schools and community leaders, with teachers who are flexible enough to use new methods to follow the curriculum. But in schools where all the books students read are from other places, there surely must be a place for students to read and write their own stories and share with others about their rich cultures and languages.

Which Papua New Guinea language is becoming extinct through emigration?


This month we are looking at Unserdeutsch, a language that is nearly extinct in this country because of emigration to Australia.


My own engagement with Unserdeutsch started when I was studying at the University of Queensland and teaching German at a high school on the Gold Coast. A new student, Yvonne Lündin, came to enrol and wanted to take German. She was a Melanesian girl with a Swedish name and spoke German with a perfect accent, but really strange grammar. I asked her where she had studied German and she answered that she had never studied it. She just spoke it at home in Rabaul. That’s when I started to learn just how much PNG can be the land of the unexpected.


It turns out that she was part of the Vunapope mixed-race community and that the language she spoke was a creolised German as different from standard German as Tok Pisin is from standard English. No one had documented the language so this became both the topic of my masters thesis and my own personal introduction into the complex web of language diversity in Melanesia. The roots of this community and its language go back to the late 1800s when missionaries at the newly established Vunapope Catholic Mission near what was then called Herbertshöhe (today Kokopo) set up a boarding school for mixed-race children whom they collected from villages and plantations in the area.


The mothers came from all over the Bismarck Archipelago and the fathers from Germany, other European countries, China, Japan, Guam, and what is today eastern Indonesia. At the school everything was in German, a language the children almost never spoke when they arrived. Older speakers told me that their parents said the children were strictly prohibited from speaking Tok Pisin, but they got around this rule by speaking in Tok Pisin sentences with German words, making a kind of pidgin German that quickly became the symbol and in-group language of their group. This is reflected in the name of the language; unser means “our” and deutsch means “German”, so Unserdeutsch means “our German” (not “your European German”).


As the children grew up, the nuns encouraged them to marry each other and work on plantations or at businesses owned by the church. In most families Unserdeutsch was the language used at home, so that within one generation PNG had yet another tok ples. When a pidgin language becomes the native language of a group of children, we call it a creole language. This is why Unserdeutsch is sometimes referred to as Rabaul Creole German. The language continued to be spoken even after the Australians invaded and took over from the Germans after World War I.


This small community was severely disrupted during the Japanese occupation in World War II, especially those with Chinese ancestry. For many, Unserdeutsch was helpful as a secret language that Japanese could not understand. After the Australians returned at the end of World War II, the colonial government had a strong desire to Australianise the territory more strongly. The Vunapope schools were no longer allowed to teach German and teachers went to mixed-race families telling parents to use only English with their children. In the 1960s, mixed-race families were allowed to take Australian citizenship. This classified them as expatriates in the country where they were born, but it gave them financial assistance to send their children to boarding schools in Australia. These children came back to see their parents only once a year at Christmas. Because of all this and because of their immersion in Australian society, few of the children kept up an active use of their parents’ language, and many stayed on in Australia after finishing school.


At PNG Independence most families kept their Australian citizenship and eventually moved to Australia. Today less than 10 elderly Unserdeutsch speakers still live in PNG, but more than 100 people still live in Australia who speak Unserdeutsch. But because they do not speak the language with their children and grandchildren, there are no speakers under 50 years of age today, and most are in their seventies or older.


Unserdeutsch is therefore a language that is practically extinct in PNG because of emigration and in a few decades it will be extinct in Australia because it is no longer spoken at home.


Because of this, the University of Augsburg in Germany is currently undertaking a large documentation effort under the leadership of Professor Péter Maitz. According to him, the language is unique because it is the only case we know of anywhere in the world where a creole language developed that is based on German.


It is also one of the few creole languages that we know of that developed among young children in a boarding school environment. And as he told an assembly of school children at Vunapope School, it is one of the few cases where we can pinpoint exactly where and exactly when a language started. Unserdeutsch is yet another reminder that linguistically, PNG is very much the land of the unexpected.

Is the California way of preserving local languages good for PNG?

When most people think of California, they might think of Disneyland, movies, and rock music, all phenomena that are expressed in English. But before colonisation, the area that now forms the American state of California was inhabited by many small groups of indigenous people, each speaking its own language, much like in PNG. After invasion by the Spanish in the 1500s, the area became the northern part of Mexico before being invaded and taken over by the United States about 170 years ago.


With these centuries of domination by two powerful languages, Spanish and English, and massive numbers of immigrants from around the world, it is no wonder that almost no one speaks indigenous California languages today. Very few children grow up in households that use these languages, and even if they do, once they go out of the house, there is usually no one else who uses them. Today quite a few California languages have only two or three old people who speak them.

Some years ago the California government recognised its responsibility for doing something to ensure that at least some of these languages will not disappear forever. It set funds aside to pay one language master and one language apprentice for a year or so for each of several languages.

The language master’s job is to teach the language to the apprentice through everyday living, with support and advice about language learning given by linguists from California universities. The apprentice’s job is to spend most of the day with the master, speaking only in the indigenous language. Once the apprentice has learnt the language, even when the master passes away, there will still be at least this one person who knows the language. In this way the language never dies. This technique has been adopted by other areas with small, endangered indigenous languages.


Here in PNG there are already some languages that have only a handful of speakers. Could this language master-apprentice approach work to keep these highly endangered languages alive? Should a provincial or national government department give funding and support to this kind of language preservation?

Besides supporting endangered languages, this approach might also be used by universities to teach local languages. PNG universities are the logical place for people to study PNG languages, but right now only one university, the University of Goroka, teaches a local language, the Alekano language spoken around Goroka town.

With the large number of languages spoken in the country, no university can ever begin to teach even a small fraction of the languages spoken in the country. But in a language master-apprentice programme, universities could give university credit to students who want to learn a language that is completely new to them or who want to deepen their knowledge of a language they already have some acquaintance with. They would just need to be able to find an elder willing to teach them the language. With this type of programme, the role of university instructors would be to coordinate and oversee the language learning, rather than actually teaching the language themselves. The real teachers would be the elders with no university degree, but with the wisdom and knowledge handed down from their ancestors.


Whether this approach or others are taken, some innovative effort will be needed to make sure that the cultural heritage in each PNG language is preserved for future generations. This is the generation where it is still possible to do this.


As Californians know all too well, someday it may too late.

Should I speak English with my children?

In this post-colonial country, being able to speak English is vital for success in life. Without a good command of English, the doors to entry to university or a good job are closed. Without English you don’t have easy access to technology, international news, or the books in your local library. All parents want the best for their children, and that includes being able to use English. But does that mean that parents should use English instead of their local language at home?
The temptation to do this is great. Everyone knows that young children learn languages best when they are young, and that native users of a language are the best users. But there are great costs to using only English as a home language.
The greatest cost is one of identity. Without being able to speak a local language, it is difficult to establish a local identity and to feel part of a local society, especially for children raised in town. In an extreme situation, they end up identifying more with other people who speak the way they do. This can mean only other city children or it can mean expatriate English speakers such as Australians. Children like this can grow up feeling as if they are foreigners in their own country, without any real roots here.
Another cost is missing out on the benefits of bilingualism. Studies in a number of countries have shown that when all other things (parents’ salaries, education opportunities, health levels, etc.) are equal, children who speak more than one language tend to do better on IQ tests than monolingual children. We think this is because it is easier for bilingual children to think abstractly. Where monolingual children have trouble separating a concept from its name in the one language they speak, bilingual children know that there are many words for every concept and so can think in ideas and not just words.
If parents do chose to introduce English to their children at home, it is important not to mix languages. If parents continually switch between English, Tok Pisin, and a vernacular, the children will not know when a word or sentence is in one language or another. It’s better if only one person at home speaks English with the children. That way they will know, for example, that if words come out of Mum’s mouth, they are English, but if Dad speaks, it is Engan. If both parents spend time with their children, they will learn both languages.
Sometimes it is difficult for parents to avoid making English the main language of the household. Often this is with educated parents from different language backgrounds who do not understand each other’s languages. This is where the PNG extended family network shines, as it is not difficult to bring in bubus or aunties to live near or with the children and use only tok ples with them. Along with tok ples the children will learn traditional stories and legends and build an identity with their ancestors, even if they live in town.
But it is not necessary to speak English at home to develop a good command of English. Think of some of the most eloquent speakers of English, such as Sir Michael Somare or Sir Julius Chan. English was not a home language for them, but they had access to good schools and to books, which they used to build good English skills. If you can put your children in a good school and make sure they have access to books, they will have the opportunity to learn English at school while still learning about their own culture and language from you at home. This is surely the best of both worlds.

Why are our languages dying?

Everyone knows that PNG has more languages than any other country in the world. But you don’t have to be a linguist to know that many of these languages are not in good health and some are dying out. Why is this?
There are quite a few reasons why languages are dying out. Sometimes it is because of natural disasters. When the Aitape tsunami hit the northern coast, several small villages were wiped out, including some which were the only places where small languages were spoken. The only speakers of these languages who survived were the lucky ones who happened to be away studying, shopping, or working in towns or plantations. Few of them will marry people who speak their own language, so we can assume their languages will not be passed on.
Climate change is also a culprit. The inhabitants of the Carteret Islands, for example, use their language vigorously now, but I wonder what will happen when they have all been resettled on larger islands and the first generation grows up surrounded by neighbours speaking other languages.
But much more than nature, the greatest enemies PNG languages have are their own speakers. For a language to have a natural life, it needs to be learned by young children in natural surroundings. In many families, parents speak some language other than their own with their children, usually Tok Pisin. Sometimes this is because the parents are from different language backgrounds. At other times, both parents are from the same language, but they speak Tok Pisin with each other and with their children because they are living in town or other mixed area and are just used to speaking Tok Pisin all day long.
I have even heard some parents telling me they speak Tok Pisin to their young children “because it is easier than tok ples”. This, of course, is not true. For an adult, Tok Pisin is much easier to learn than most local languages. But young children’s minds are naturally wired to absorb whatever language is in their surroundings. This makes it especially important for them to be exposed to their ancestral languages when they are young; what is a headache to a thirty-year-old is play to a three-year-old.
Some parents choose to speak only a major language at home because they don’t want to confuse their children by speaking several languages at home. But again, young children’s minds are wired for multilingualism. As long as the languages are kept separate (Mum speaks language A, Dad speaks language B, and the neighbours speak language C), they can easily separate them all in their heads and learn them all at the same time.
At the turn of the century the government established vernacular elementary schools. One of the aims was to strengthen local languages and cultures. There are many reasons why this experiment failed (most notably the lack of good planning and teacher training), but in some areas it was because families assumed the schools would teach the vernacular language, so they would not have to speak it at home. But schools alone cannot keep a community language alive. It must be used at home, with all the love and warmth that only a home can bring. So if you want your own language to remaining among the living, you have to make that effort and start speaking it with your children and grandchildren every day. Otherwise you might find that you end up being the last speaker of your language.
It is hard for people to imagine a day when their language is no longer spoken, but it is happening more and more, not only in PNG, but in indigenous societies around the world. Old people who are the last speakers of their languages tell us how lonely it is when they have no one to speak to in their own language. One man told me he speaks to the flowers in his garden every morning in the language his parents used with him, “because today the flowers are the only ones who will listen to me”.

Why isn’t Tok Pisin widespread in the southern region?

Reader John Daida has written to ask why Tok Pisin is widely spoken in some areas, but not in others. To answer his question, we have to look at the colonial history of PNG and see how it is reflected in people’s attitudes and language use today.

Until the end of World War II, Papua New Guinea was divided into two colonies, German New Guinea in the New Guinea Islands and Momase regions, and British New Guinea in the southern region. From the very beginning, the German colony was more commercial and oriented towards a plantation economy. Large numbers of persons were taken as blackbirded labour from this colony to work in Queensland and Sāmoa, where they mixed with Melanesians from many islands. In order to communicate, these people tried to use the English words they learned, usually following the grammatical patterns of their own Austronesian languages. This pidgin English was the ancestor of modern Tok Pisin.

When these persons returned home, they brought with them the pidgin English they had learned. When Germans started to establish plantations in Madang and the Bismarck Archipelago and recruited an ethnically mixed group of men to work on the plantations, it was natural that these workers would speak with each other using the pidgin English they had learned from their wantoks who had worked on plantations elsewhere. German never really established itself as a language for everyday communication because very few New Guineans had enough contact with Germans to learn the language, and many Germans were happy to keep German as a secret language for the colonial masters to use amongst themselves. When the German colony was finally formally established, Tok Pisin was already the common language in the areas the Germans controlled. As German control spread to new areas, Tok Pisin followed.

The situation in British New Guinea was different. There the lack of a widespread plantation economy and of blackbirded labour meant that pidgin English was not introduced into the colony. Instead, inter-ethnic mixing was led by the police force, who used a simplified form of the Motu language called Police Motu amongst themselves. As new areas were brought under colonial control and people started to move from one area to another, it was natural for people to learn this Police Motu to communicate with each other. In many areas missions used English in schools and evangelism. In this way Police Motu and English became the common languages in British New Guinea.

In the early 1900s, Australia took over the administration of British New Guinea (renaming their new colony “Papua”), and at the beginning of World War I Australia invaded German New Guinea, which it then called the Territory of New Guinea. Although Australia now controlled all of what is today Papua New Guinea, the two colonies continued to be administered as separate colonies, with each more or less following the same policies that had been in place before the new Australian administrations. This meant that there was almost no movement of Tok Pisin-speaking people from the New Guinea side to Papua, so very few Papuans learned Tok Pisin and even fewer New Guineans learned Police Motu. The Australian government officers in each colony stuck to themselves and rarely moved from one colony to another, so even they learned either Tok Pisin or Police Motu, but not both.

In the 1930s Australians started moving into the Highlands. As they moved, they brought with them large numbers of Tok Pisin-speaking carriers, health orderlies, and police officers. They also took Highlanders to coastal settlements for training or as plantation labour, situations where they quickly learned Tok Pisin. This spread Tok Pisin as a common language throughout the Highlands region in a very short time. The only Highlands areas where Tok Pisin did not spread at this time were the Southern Highlands, which was part of Papua and therefore not part of the same movement of people, and Enga, where effective colonial control was not established until after World War II.

Political changes after World War II had a great effect all aspects of life, including language use. Australians brought the two colonies together under one administration, so that for the first time both expatriate kiaps and ordinary Papuans and New Guineans moved from one area to another. A radio service covering both Papua and New Guinea gave news and other shows in both Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu, so that even if people themselves did not move, they became acquainted with each other’s languages.

As Port Moresby became the capital of the united territory and then the newly independent nation, an increasing number of people moved from all regions into the city. Slowly the population of the city began to resemble the population of the country as a whole. Since the population was greater on the New Guinea side, this meant that in time a majority of the people in Port Moresby were Tok Pisin speakers, and so it was natural that Papuans living in the Port Moresby area would also learn Tok Pisin. As roads connected the Southern Highlands and Enga with other Highlands provinces, these people also learned Tok Pisin to communicate with others along the Highlands Highway. This same movement of people did not happen in the areas of the southern region far from Port Moresby, such as Western and Milne Bay Provinces, so in these areas many people even today do not learn Tok Pisin until they leave for the larger urban areas for work or study.

The uneven spread of Tok Pisin reflects the movements of people and ideas because of colonialism and post-colonial independence. People always learn new languages because of the benefits they feel they will have from better communication with people who speak those languages. Tok Pisin spread first because of the economic benefits people in Momase and the New Guinea Islands, and later the Highlands, felt they could get from participation in the Tok Pisin-speaking plantation and trading economy of the Territory of New Guinea. It spread later into Port Moresby and the surrounding areas because of the migration of Tok Pisin speakers from other regions and the desire or need of local people to communicate with these new neighbours. Where there are no immediate benefits to be had in using Tok Pisin, such as in the south-west and south-east regions of the country, Tok Pisin is not used as much.

International Year of Indigenous Languages

logo of the un international year of indigenous langugaes

Happy New Year! And Happy International Year of Indigenous Languages!

From time to time the United Nations declares a special year to focus world attention on issue of world importance. This year the focus is on indigenous languages, which are a rich repository of humanity’s heritage, but which are under increasing threat. In the same way that we are becoming impoverished through the devastation to our biological heritage, we are becoming poorer due to the destruction of our linguistic heritage.

By definition, indigenous cultures are cultures and the languages used to express them have existed in a particular environment for a very long time. During that time, as people learned about their environment and how to live in it, the languages they used grew to contain words and expressions to name the flora and fauna, to describe the workings of traditional medicines, foods, and materials for building homes, and to produce oral literatures unique to those areas.

At the moment we have around 7000 languages in the world. PNG is particularly rich in languages, with about 12% of the world’s total, more than twice that of all of Europe. This rich heritage is in danger of being lost, however. In the world as a whole, about a third of all languages are for one reason or another in danger of disappearing in the next generation or two. Many of these are in PNG. In fact, you may know children in your own extended family who have never learned to speak their own language and whose knowledge about their people’s traditional wisdom is therefore impoverished.

When children for one reason or another no longer learn indigenous languages, the names for plants and animals are lost, many of the detailed intricacies of the techniques for making medicine, foods, and building disappear, and entire libraries of oral literature vanish. The people who speak the languages no longer know who they are, and other peoples are no longer able to learn from them. The United Nations and a whole and UNESCO in particular hope to bring awareness of this danger through the International Year of Indigenous Languages by supporting international events and encouraging local activities. Besides recognising the importance of indigenous knowledge, the United Nations hopes that support for indigenous languages will contribute to efforts to bring peace, human rights, social inclusion, and an understanding of the importance of cultural diversity to more countries and societies.

You can see what kind of events have been planned for the International Year of Indigenous Languages by going to http://www.iyil2019.org. Unfortunately, there are not yet any activities planned by the PNG national or provincial governments, even though PNG has the lion’s share of indigenous linguistic wealth. But this does not mean that individuals, local groups, and NGOs cannot mark the year at the grassroots level.

One such NGO-sponsored activity is this year’s annual conference of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea, to be held on the UPNG campus Monday-Tuesday 23-24 September 2019. The theme of this conference will be “Celebrating the indigenous languages and cultural diversity of Papua New Guinea & the South Pacific”. The conference will feature talks and presentations from students and linguists in PNG as well as many international guests.

At an individual level, if you know your language, you can make an effort to use it with your children or grandchildren this year. Take them for a walk and talk to them about the names for the plants and birds near your home. Show them the different kinds of fishing nets or mumu styles and the different names each has. Help them to use the correct family relationship terms in your language when they talk with relatives, so they don’t just call everyone “uncle” and “auntie”.

Local institutions can also observe the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Schools, for example, can have special speech days, where students get prizes for both speeches in English and speeches in local languages. Schools and other public institutions can also consult with local elders to adopt a slogan in the local language for their school logo. Religious leaders can encourage their followers to learn simple prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria, or the Bahai Noon Prayer) in their own language or give prizes to children who memorise verses of scripture in local languages, and can incorporate these into worship services.

Town councils can promote welcome signs in local languages or give streets and buildings local or bilingual names. Public meetings can open and close with traditional greetings or closings.

It is important to remember that indigenous languages are not only repositories for knowledge from the past, but tools for expressing our modern life. This year might be a good time to start a Facebook page in your local language or to add a mobile phone texting signature in your own language.

Finally, this year would be a good time for individuals, organisations, and government bodies at all levels to seek out the advice of linguists in the country working at universities and NGOs such as SIL, about ways to strengthen and preserve languages in your area. These people have expertise and often international experience in working with indigenous languages and welcome partnerships with interested individuals and groups.

Happy International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019!