Monday, January 4, 2010

The Language Burden

Cultural Day at
Waigani Primary
School 2090

The article appeared first in Steven's Window, a column in The National newpaper of Papua New Guinea. December 24th 2009.

The choice of language for communication among Papua New Guineans has never been an issue. In urban areas most people speak Tokpisin to get around or communicate with each other. English is chosen in an environment that requires communication in that language. Most people code switch between these languages whenever possible. No one seems to bother which language is used in the everyday communication.

The most trouble people have with language is the moment a language is written. One can speak Tokpisin competently, but transferring it to writing is difficult to many speakers. The same is also true of English though more so with speakers of English as a second, third, or fourth language. Written English demands adherence to rules of composition and stylistics, known also as grammar or rules of language construction. Ignorance of these rules results in poor constructions, punctuation errors, spelling mistakes, and misuse of words and expressions.

The main reason for insisting on school age children beginning with Indigenous languages is that our children can have some form of language competency at the elementary level before transiting into English at the third grade and upwards. Linguists, Anne Cursan and Michael Adams, tell us that in “India, South Africa, Malaysia, Switzerland, and many more, speakers learn multiple languages because they participate in multilingual communities in which different languages are used by various speakers for different purposes. In many countries where English is not the primary language, children start learning English as an additional language fairly early and intensively in their schooling.”

“The desire for a shared language (Sometimes within the country as well as internationally) and the desire for the opportunities available for speakers of English can compete with the desire to maintain more local identities and, therefore, languages. The debate about the use and status of English in Kenya, for example, has been lively and captures many of the concerns shared by other countries in the expanding …circle.”

Ngugi wa Thiongo best known for introducing the term ‘decolonizing the mind’ by replacing the English language with local languages is one of the influential people in the debate on language choice. African writers, according to Ngugi, must do justice to the local languages by writing their own local languages. He writes: “We the African writers are bound by our calling to do for our language what Spencer, Milton and Shakespeare did for English: what Pushkin and Tolstoy did for Russian: indeed what all writers in world history have done for their languages by meeting the challenge of creating a literature in them, which process later opens the languages for philosophy, science, technology and all the other areas of human creative endeavors.”

Ngugi’s position is challenged by the South African writer Harry Mashabela in 1983: “But learning and using English will not only give us the much-needed unifying chord but will also land us into the exciting world of ideas; it will enable us to keep company with kings in the world of ideas and also make it possible for us to share the experiences of our own brothers in the world: men such as black Americans W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes; Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah.”

The Nigerians writer Chinua Achebe expands the argument: “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience….I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

The point about bringing this debate to this column is that many of us choose the language with which to communicate in because of the necessity to do so at a particular time and place. I choose to speak and write in English most times, but allow code switching with Tokpisin in many occasions. Most people speak Tokpisin without a second thought, but writing in Tokpisin is difficult to many Papua New Guineans. In schools the language of instruction is English, but Tokpisin is always on the tip of the tongue, when English becomes difficult to understand and use as with some of my university students.

John Kasaipwalova experimented on this linguistic situation in the story “Bomana Kalabus O” where he experimented with the registers of English and Tokpisin. We know that English alone would not affect change in a multilingual environment such as Papua New Guinea. In literary usage we also know that English is insufficient in capturing all our cultural knowledge without the help of our local languages as is the case with Russell Soaba’s writings captured in the poetry collection Kwamra: A Season of Harvest.

Adult literacy classes in Port Moresby city are conducted in Tokpisin and English. Many of the students are mothers living in the city with no skills of reading or writing in English or even Tokpisin, but converse competently in spoken Tokpisin. The methods, approaches, and resource materials used in literacy programs make the difference in a learner’s ability to read and write within a short period.

Come to think of it, the head rush in the direction of imposing an English only curriculum next year is troubling. The poor performance of students in formal education is not necessarily because of the use of vernacular or the lingua francas in schools. Other factors must be considered such as teachers’ language competency and pedagogic skills, learning resources, and attitudes to learning in different linguistic and cultural locality. Enhancing reading and writing competencies of teachers and students alike might break the hoodoo.

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