ANDREW Ikupu speaks 11 languages; an elegant and measured English among them. It’s hardly surprising when you consider that he is a native of Papua New Guinea, the country with the most diverse linguistic heritage in the world.
Papua New Guinea is home to more than seven million people and 875 local languages, the result of the country’s rugged and often impenetrable geography of deep valleys and high mountains which have kept small pockets of people isolated from each other.
The greatest number of speakers of a local language is 300,000; the smallest less than 200. Judged against the UNESCO atlas, it is a success story with only 88 of its tongues in danger.
The country has also absorbed many waves of colonisation. In the 1880s the British, Dutch and Germans carved up the land with the British claiming the south-eastern section, the Germans the northeast and the Dutch the west which is now Indonesian.
Each colony left a language heritage: the British favoured the pidgin Motu, the Germans another English-based pidgin Tok Pisin which continued as the lingua franca when the Australians took over in 1906. By the time the Independent State of Papua New Guinea was declared in 1975, English was firmly in place as the language of the elite and those aspiring to be.
Mr Ikupu, who serves as an advisor to the Department of Education on elementary education and travels the country championing early education in the mother tongue, takes up the story.
“During the 1950s missionaries had provided most of the education and it was firmly linked to the religion,” he explained. “When the Germans, French and English left, the legacy of education from each power left us wondering if languages were worth preserving. The elite who had benefited most financially from colonisation encouraged their children to speak only English.
“But after 30 years of independence we said; ‘Hang on we are becoming a society with neither a good command of English nor of our own languages’. Parents could see their children being alienated from their own culture as a result of the loss of their languages and disorientated by a culture based only on money.”
There were other difficulties in a society that remains overwhelmingly rural in its makeup.
“To avoid intermarrying within tribes, people go to the next tribe to court a partner and acquire land but for that you need to speak the language of the larger, outside tribe. So languages become extinguished by those that surround them,” Mr Ikupu said.
In the 1970s the government stepped in with a radical program to systemise language learning and offer the first three years of basic education in the vernacular. It established 3,500 schools across the country from the most remote to urban areas offering three years of basic education in the mother tongue, a locally created curriculum and teachers drawn from the community.
In 1991 the education system was reformed again and a ‘cultural bonding’ curriculum was introduced with even greater emphasis on locally produced educational materials. There were other hurdles to overcome. Only 420 of the local languages had an alphabet so the 26-letter alphabet was adopted and translation of oral sounds into written language began. Now the basic education curriculum is delivered in 250 languages with state backing and community involvement.
“Languages act not only as a cushion but a bridge between cultures,” said Mr Ikupu. “People want English for money and employment but they also want to feel that they have a cultural heritage. We teach children in their mother tongue using a cultural calendar which talks about the seasons and their lives.”
Mr Ikupu, who embodies the modern Papua New Guinean living in the city of Mt Hagen but keeping a grass hut only reached at the end of an 11-hour drive, said the majority of parents were eager for their children to keep hold of their languages but the lure of working outside the country for more money was strong for young people. How did he try to convince them?
“I tell them they will be nothing without their mother tongue. Culture and identity are wrapped up in your language. You are nothing without your identity. I say you will be like the African Americans or Australian aborigines cut off from your own identity. You must keep your languages so that you can stand tall in the world and go to forums like the one at UNESCO and say I am from Papua New Guinea and I speak this language.
“People ask if the investment in so many languages is worth it or realistic but we know that the child learns best when the language of explanation is understood. I am a product of this system. I learned in my own language and then went on to learn English. It is like asking the question is it worth it to keep your identity and cultural heritage?”