Bougainville gets caught in China's Pacific power game
English language declines as education system fails

Tok Pisin breaks through as ANU offers it as a subject

DictionaryPAUL OATES

GOLD COAST - Finally, could it be that there is some light at the end of a very long tunnel.

I have previously written to Federal and State governments about the desirability for Papua New Guinea’s main lingua franca, Pidgin English (or Tok Pisin), to be listed as an optional subject taught in our school’s along with Indonesian, Mandarin and Japanese.

After consistently being rejected at all levels of government from the Gillard school curriculum review to state government education department level, there suddenly seems to have been a breakthrough in common sense.

On page 28 of yesterday’s The Australian newspaper in the higher education section, there appeared Sean Powell’s article ‘Want to speak Tok Pisin? ANU offers more regional languages.’

Apparently Tok Pisin is now to be ranked along with Burmese and Mongolian and offered by the ANU’s Open Universities Australia as one of 14 languages in both short and degree length courses.

The courses will have a blend of online and face-to-face teaching.

The Dean of the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific, Professor Michael Wesley, says competency in regional languages will “play a decisive role in shaping our future world”.

As Raymond Sigimet said in PNG Attitude this morning, "For the average Papua New Guinean, if a foreigner can communicate using Tok Pisin, the foreigner is already considered a friend."

The Director of the ANU’s school of history, culture and language, Professor Simon Haberle, considers mono-lingual Australians are at a disadvantage.

Journalist Sean Powell didn't quite get the research right, however, referring to Tok Pisin as “PNG's native language”.

It’s not a native or vernacular language, of course, being a lingua franca, and one of PNG’s four official languages sitting alongside English, Hiri Motu and Braille.

The devil will be in the detail. Who will develop the Tok Pisin curriculum for the ANU and who will be present the subject and assignments?

Bihain bai yumi lukim laga? We’ll find out soon enough, I guess.


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Raymond Sigimet

Phil - Tok Pisin will still evolve and find its place in PNG. As one of the three nationally recognised languages, I believe it has evolved to surpass Motu and English in the number of speakers.

Tok Pisin is the preferred language for Papua New Guineans to communicate informally, whether it be in government, commerce or education.

I believe, even if there's an English only policy, Tok Pisin will, over time, piggy back on English and come out a more dominant language, perhaps still keeping and maintaining its basic rules but more 'English' in vocabulary and usage.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You are both obviously well-informed about language, Martin and Raymond, so I wonder what you think about the suggestion that Tok Pisin would have evolved independently of any measures instituted by government planners.

What I’m suggesting is that, even if a decision had been made by government to teach only English in the schools and to deal with and converse with citizens in English only, Tok Pisin would have developed anyway as an inter-tribal lingua franca.

I think there are examples of creole languages where this has happened all over the world, even in predominantly English speaking societies. Perhaps the same has happened in French and Spanish speaking communities?

Raymond Sigimet

From what I heard, English will again take its place as the "only" classroom language in the new SBE education reform for elementary schools and up.

No more tok ples and no more Tok Pisin thus English still maintain its prestige as the language for the elites in PNG and preferred medium of standard communication in government, commerce and education.

On the other hand, English for the majority in PNG is still a language to be learnt in the classroom of which many in the education system are struggling to master the basics.

Tok Pisin is a first or second language for speakers and is a common everyday language for the majority of Papua New Guineans. It is an evolving language and I wouldn't be surprise in a few decades from now, as Phil pointed out, that English vocabulary and spelling will form most of Tok Pisin's use.

If there's no standardised Tok Pisin or academic studies into Tok Pisin, there will likely be two scenarios:

1. Speakers will develop a highly informal colloquial Tok Pisin based on everyday "streetwise" speech, borrowed English words with their spelling and irregular contractions that cause the word to be different from the original.

For example: 'Dispela pikinini em i bikhet' (standard); 'Disla pikni bikhet' (informal).

2. Speakers will just borrow English structure, spelling and pronunciation and using them within their Tok Pisin expressions thus Tok Pisin becoming more anglicised and different from its original usage.

For example: 'Mi bai humble na stap' (the word "humble" replacing the phrase "daunim mi yet"; 'Em frightening experience long mi' (using the phrase "frightening experience" in Tok Pisin

Philip Fitzpatrick

'Bilong' became 'blong' and then 'blo' for instance. In many cases like this the current spelling is difficult to trace back to the original spelling (and pronunciation).

I think, given time, foreign words, especially those linked to technology, will be satisfactorily absorbed into Tok Pisin. Otherwise the English form will be incorporated into dialogue.

Tok Pisin speakers in the early days had great fun with concepts like 'helicopter' and 'piano'. The former was described as a 'mix-master' and the latter as a box you hammered to make it screech.

'mikismasta bilong Yesus' and 'wanpela bikpla bokis igat wetpela tus na blekpela tus na sapos yu paitim tus blo em isingaut nogut tru' - KJ

Martin Auld

I want the best for my kids. Why then would I want second-best for other peoples' kids?

Fr Mihalic made a political choice in the interests of nation building and unity, as were the choices of Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia.

Would he have thought differently had he been able to predict the importance of mastering a language like English to the digital economy?

Might he have had concerns that social inequality would only get worse if rural kids were left with a creole dialect of English while those lucky enough to be educated in Moresby and overseas learned the real thing?

Similar debates are taking place in the US with 'Ebonics', in West Papua with their dialect of Papuan Malay, and in the NT with Roper River Kriol, what we used to call 'Lingo,' a close relative of Bislama and Tok Pisin.

Identity politics is driving the debate, rather than the best educational outcomes for kids.

NT Kriol

Melayu Papua

Raymond Sigimet

There is much outside interest in learning and interpreting Tok Pisin. I was recently been contacted by a French Canadian anthropology undergraduate from Quebec.

He wanted to do an interpretational presentation of two of my Tok Pisin poems 'Wara Kalap' and 'Dispela nait ino gutpela tumas' (both published in PNG Atttiude) as part of his Language, Culture and Poetics course.

Tok Pisin (like other creoles) and its history is indeed interesting.

I'd agree with Phil that there has to be standardised spelling. Much of the standard spelling came from the late Fr Frank Mihalic SVD, the now out of print Wantok newspaper and the Tok Pisin Bible.

New words, more of which are English, are being adopted and used continuously.

An example would be the advent of information and communication technology, words like computer, globalisation, satellite, google, flash drive, c-share, gigabyte and so on. What Tok Pisin spelling do we give these words?

Also there is the everyday and streetwise Tok Pisin spoken by young people as well as the different PNG varieties, depending on region, province and language group.

A standard spelling would be helpful especially, for Tok Pisin as an academic subject in Australia or other countries.

For example, there are variations in pronunciation which may influence spelling, words like long/lon/lo, bik/big, go/ko, tanim/tanimtanim/tantanim, and others.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And a great medium for poetry Michael.

Should be more of it.

One thing that I have difficulty with is the varied spellings used by Tok Pisin writers.

As Ed points out there are several sources for a standardised orthography and a couple of dictionaries around.

Instead of making up spelling as you go along it might be better to stick to some sort of standard. A job for primary schools perhaps.

Michael Dom

This is a great conversation.

Multilingualism should be encouraged. Isn't it part of multiculturalism?

And a means for broadening intelligence, since this is the essential function of communication.

Tok Pisin performs social communication functions which English cannot within some important contexts.

There's no denying it's ability to sway a listener or break the ice with a subtle double entendre that is part of its structural essence.

Tok Pisin is not better or worse than English as a language of communication.

It's just a different useful tool.

If a language isn't useful or a tool, then it simply fades away.

Clearly Tok Pisin em kamap strong iet.

Philip Fitzpatrick


What a wonderful word. I haven't seen it in ages.

It means "assumption of knowledge, conceit based on fancied wisdom". Sort of the same meaning as 'wanker'.

Its in my 1969 Pocket Oxford but not in my 2013 edition. Spellcheck doesn't like it either.

Definitely needs reviving.

And for all those sciolists out there I agree with Ed and Paul. Tok Pisin is a living, breathing and relative language on a par with all the other languages of the world.

Chris Overland

Just for the record, I want to make it clear that my sciolistic opining upon the virtues (and foibles) of English is not, and is not intended to be, an attack on Pidgin.

I subscribe to Ed's view that it is a legitimate language in its own right and is of huge value to PNG. It has many virtues and those of us with at least some knowledge of it have long since fallen for its particular linguistic charms.

That said, I'd hate to see English proficiency become the exclusive preserve of an educated PNG elite, while the masses were educated only in Pidgin, thus leaving them less well equipped to compete for employment, higher education and so forth.

History is replete with examples of a ruling elite reinforcing their status by speaking, reading and writing in a language other than that used by the lower classes, however the latter group may be defined.

Even today, I think that there is a respectable argument that this happens almost by default in much of the English speaking world. There are a number of plausible reasons for thinking this.

For example, even in countries like Australia or the USA, where education is notionally free and compulsory, the level of barely adequate literacy (say, where a person cannot read a book aimed at year 8 secondary students) could be as high as 50%.

A person with only this level of reading ability can function pretty well in most day to day contexts but clearly could not read and understand a great deal of the material required to successfully complete year 12, let alone a tertiary education.

It is no accident that Australia's elite private secondary schools are extremely focussed upon equipping their students with high level literacy and numeracy skills and, consequently, their students are at least 25% more likely to enter university than their peers in public schools.

This helps explain why it is that while about 7% of Australian kids attend private schools, their graduates make up nearly 30% of entrants to Medical and Dental schools.

Bearing this in mind, literacy in Pidgin alone would be even more limiting and so it may become, potentially at least, a means of exclusion from meaningful participation in society.

It seems to me that, in a PNG context, it makes sense to teach both languages in tandem, so that a student leaves school with a high level of proficiency in Pidgin and at least a basic conversational capacity in English.

Paul Oates

Onya! Ed. I agree wholeheartedly.

Ed Brumby

I have been dismayed, yet again, by the sciolism displayed in the commentary on this and other recent articles regarding the relative merits of Tok Pisin and English.

Tok Pisin is not merely a lingua franca, ‘creole’ language or ‘patois’.

A great body of scholarly research has determined, beyond any doubt, that Tok Pisin satisfies all of the phonemic, morphemic, syntactic and semantic requirements to be classified as a stand-alone, legitimate language.

Tok Pisin is a bona fide and fit for purpose language in its own right - not just the bastard child of English, German, Kuanua and other Papua New Guinean languages.

This aside, the mere fact that Tok Pisin (a) is one of the official languages of PNG, and (b) has been creolised (ie become the first or ‘native’ language for children born of parents who each speak a mutually unintelligible language and thus use Tok Pisin as their day-to-day means of communication)) for upwards of five generations would be sufficient to confirm Tok Pisin’s linguistic legitimacy and adequacy.

The abundance of research has ensured, also, that all linguistic features of Tok Pisin have been codified and, to some extent at least, standardized.

Much credit is due to Father Frank Mihalic SVD who pioneered the study of Tok Pisin, founded and edited the Tok Pisin newspaper, Wantok, and whose Tok Pisin dictionary (published in 1975) continues to have widespread currency.

Others such as Tom Dutton, Peter Muhlhausler, Suzanne Romaine and a host of other linguists have also explored various aspects of the syntax and the societal and geographic variations of the language.

Even back in the 1960s, Father Frank was a forthright advocate for the standardization of Tok Pisin grammar, lexicon and spelling and for its adoption as a national and official language – at a time when such sentiments were regarded by many in the then colonial administration with barely-disguised contempt.

The contempt may have dissipated in more recent times. But the attitude that English is a ‘superior’ language and that Tok Pisin, by comparison, is inferior and inadequate, remains – as evidenced by some of the comments in this and related articles.

This attitude has a number of progenitors.

Taking primacy is the view is that Tok Pisin is inferior and inadequate because it has relatively simple word structure and grammar and a limited core lexicon which relies on borrowings from English to expand and to ‘develop’ generally.

More insidious is the view that Tok Pisin is, largely, the language of the ‘uneducated’ PNG masses and therefore less worthy than the English spoken by the educated elite - thus reflecting and reinforcing the inextricable links between language, identity and caste and the universality of ignorance and prejudice in matters of language use.

As Chris Overland and others have opined, competence in English does provide advantages that Tok Pisin does not: providing access to a huge body of literature and scientific and other writings and enabling greater precision of expression and description among them.

But these advantages have more to do with features of access and application than with legitimacy and adequacy.

The legitimacy of Tok Pisin has been well established. Its adequacy is evident in the millions of Tok Pisin-only conversations that take place daily in Papua New Guinea.

Paul Oates

Thanks Raymond, your suggestion reinforces to me about how Tok Pisin can convey various meanings, as Robert points out, by using tok bokis to illustrate the thoughts of the speaker rather than with a technically constructed and precise definition.

That Melanesian factor in itself should be worthy of emphasising.

I contend that, where a definition of language is concerned, given English - or for that matter, any language that doesn't have an equivalent vocabulary word, can adopt the word or term from another language - Tok Pisin should be accepted as a language in its own right.

If you are able compose limericks and poetry and convey metaphysical meanings in a language, surely that qualifies Tok Pisin as a defined language.

Raymond Sigimet

Bai was lo displa man husait we bai i karim pait (hevi)

Robert Forster

OK - I haven't spoken Tok-Pisin since 1990 but here goes.
Why imprison the translation within a tight English frame?
"Lain mas stanap wantaim husat man i laik karim olegetta trabel bilong ol".

Paul Oates

'Lukautim gut husat ibin sanap strong lo taim bilo birua'.

Surely this illustrates the previous reasoning however that it depends on who say what and in what context.

I rest my case m'lud.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Lukautim husat bai ikarim pait

Anyone else?

Possibly halivim rather than lukautim, tasol atink yu wokim gut - KJ

Chips Mackellar

Yes, but with all its fluidity, Pisin still lacks precision. Try translating this into Pisin:
"to care for him who shall have born the battle."
(Abraham Lincoln, 4 March 1865).
Note here that for emphasis, Lincoln reversed the role of "shall" and "will." In this context, what is the Pisin equivalent of the future perfect tense for the verb "to bear"?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Like a lot of people going back and forth to PNG for the last 50 years or so, I've watched Tok Pisin evolve and change.

A lot of words have gone by the wayside and a lot of others have been added. Other words and expressions have been modified.

My impression is that Tok Pisin is a highly personalised language. Different individuals speak a slightly different language. And of course there are regional variations.

While the language has its limitations it can also be used as a technical or academic language through the simple expedient of dropping in the appropriate terms in English. This is one of the strengths of Tok Pisin, its flexibility.

I've often listened to motor mechanics explaining what's wrong with a vehicle in Tok Pisin and I've heard academics explaining concepts in Tok Pisin with appropriately salted English technical expressions.

And it's not just a case of adding 'im' to the end of the words. It's knowing how to insert those words in the right context.

A similar thing happens with old European languages. A flick through an Irish dictionary will reveal lots of technical words rendered with Irish spelling for instance. The Welsh do the same thing.

Even more extensive languages do it. Listen to Bahasa for instance.

This is in stark contrast to languages like Motu, which seem to retain their purity. If a Motuan speaker wants to explain something technical they simply switch to English.

It would be interesting to see how Tok Pisin has evolved in say 100 years. It may have become an entirely new language in its own right or it may have faded away under the onslaught of English.

Paul Oates

Hi Robert - I think you're on to the essence of why Tok Pisin is so vibrant and alive. This is not something you can clinically explain in a dictionary or technically define in a book.

It's rather like someone learning a language like French from a non-French speaker and a book, then trying to speak it without the proper accent and inflections.

An essential element of any course on Tok Pisin would include having practical sessions with a Tok Pisin speaker.

Therein lies the most important part of the whole exercise. To effectively speak Tok Pisin you must have a deeper understanding of where and how it is spoken. That requires two essential ingredients.

Firstly, the student has to have practical experience in the use of the language and secondly, that will only follow with experience in Melanesian and PNG cultures.

I hope ANU reads this blog and gains an understanding from what we have been discussing.

Robert Forster

Tok Pisin will never be an academic or technical language. Its vocabulary is not sufficiently wide ranging, and its structure sufficiently flexible to allow it.
However its oral strengths continue to be underrated by those who are misled by its apparent simplicity and believe they speak it well but cannot.
Tok Pisin's capacity for metaphor, for tok bokis, is bottomless. It is this which fuels it charm, strength and popularity.
Real Tok Pisin speakers, those tuned in to the subtlety of its never ending range of metaphors, constantly explore their range and effectiveness.
It is either fortunate, or unfortunate, that these skills exclude elementary speakers who are baffled by its capacity to generate a message within a message on an almost infinite basis - and simply do not understand what is being said to them.
So much of this communication, which can be sly, humorous, or plain vindictive rests on context and inflexion.
It is because of this Tok Pisin will always be an oral language. It has to be heard. It will never be a language that lends itself easily to technical or academic explanation.

Martin Auld

Tok Pisin is a creole language.

I like languages, so heart says good. Head says a very small clique at ANU are empire building. ADF used to learn Bislama, a far more useful entry point to Pacific creoles than its more developed relative Tok Pisin.

I have other reservations too. University level implies academic accreditation for successful study of a patois that will never become a language of higher learning. Same for the Timorese Tetun, also among the new ANU choices.

Only a tiny number of people will want or need to learn either, and conversational competency is all that's required. Out of that tiny cohort half will pack up and go home after their first introduction to malaria, dengue etc.

Tok Pisin and Tetun have the lowest possible degree of difficulty and can be learned by anyone informally in a short time. ANU empire building is another example of government crowding out private enterprise. Far better for the few who need to learn to pay for a private tutor in PNG.

In relation to Tetun, there's an element of ideological prejudice,spite and inferiority complex involved. Australian government and aid workers in Timor absolutely hate it when two locals talk Portuguese in front of them so they can't understand.

It makes us feel inferior to the natives. Rather than learn Portuguese ourselves, Aussies would prefer Timorese to speak English or dumb down to their Tetun patois, easier and quicker for us to pick up.


When you speak to anyone in their own language they are more open and friendly towards you! In Vanuatu I was able to converse with the locals in Pidgin English very well. Some words obviously are different and you may need to change conversation. I have also spoken to Solomon Islanders in Pidgin.

“Bislama is a pidgin language used in Vanuatu and is now a creole in urban areas. It essentially combines a typically Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary. It is the only language that can be understood and spoken by the whole population of Vanuatu, generally as a second language.
SOLOMON ISLANDS PIDGIN ENGLISH, also commonly Pijin and technically Neo-Solomonic. A variety of MELANESIAN PIDGIN ENGLISH spoken in the Solomon Islands, a country in the south-western Pacific Ocean and member of the Commonwealth. It is closely related to Bislama in Vanuatu and TOK PISIN in Papua New Guinea.

Peter Sandery

Hiri Motu Quo Vadis?

Philip Kai Morre

Tok Pisin is a creole language, or lingua franca, and it is limited in many ways. It would need to be very much developed to become a standard for common use.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Paul for this article and your individual effort to get Tok Pisin listed as a language subject in Australia.

I also believe that the only face to face medium for Australians to communicate with any Papua New Guineans in future would be Tok Pisin.

Tok Pisin is not only a lingua franca but has an ever expanding nest of native (creole) speakers. Many young Papua New Guineans are growing up in towns and villages speaking Tok Pisin as their first language. This is evident in some rural societies within a major language group.

Tok Pisin is set to become the main language in PNG in the next decades and this decision to include Tok Pisin alongside other regional language courses in Australia is commendable.

A few months back, an Australian military (army) officer approached me to seek directions to find people near my work location.

He was courteous enough to speak Tok Pisin which greatly removed communication barriers for me to communicate freely with him and assist, direct him and his team.

For the average Papua New Guinean, if a foreigner can communicate using Tok Pisin (or a vernacular), the foreigner is already considered a friend.

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