Friday, October 22, 2010

Language is a Living Museum

Is it hard to see that this country needs to have its own National Language Institute to train Papua New Guineans as linguists and literacy workers to serve as custodians of our Indigenous languages and as a special task force responsible for shouldering the national burden of eradicating literacy? We no longer can afford to lose many more of our languages. We are struggling with the slow pace in eradicating literacy. Language and literacy are the two sides of the same coin that we have not invested enough resources to develop.

The National Language Institute can serve other purposes as well. It can serve as the central point in facilitating research, development, symposiums, translations, and publication of such data that pertains to the status of language, the linguistic properties of our languages, and the evidence of the intellectual or epistemological foundations of our languages and cultures. The Institute can also serve as the center of cross fertilization of languages and involved in developing policies that concern themselves with language, literacy, and culture.

I am not the first to call for a National Language Institute. In the 1980s and 1990s, prominent linguists, the late Professor Otto Nekitel, and the then UPNG Vice Chancellor Joseph Sukwianomb made impassioned plea for the government to set up the Institute to no avail.

The difficulties we have in saving moribund languages, increasing our literacy rate, and poor protection of our biolinguistic diversity necessitate the establishment of a National Language Institute. This should also be one of the medium term goals of our national developmental plan. The Institute should to be set up as a fulfillment of our National Goals and Directive Principles, Basic Rights, and Basic Social Obligations.

In addition we need to create a law to protect our languages and enforce or reinforce the use of our languages in whatever form, medium, and where possible in our changing environment. Right now, even with a Language Policy in place no one seems to attend to it or own it for the greater benefit of all Papua New Guineans.

The importance of our national languages is taken on face value without there being any concerted efforts to see the development and protection of our languages. Our language diversity is closely linked to our biodiversity that without attending to the specific demands for protection, development, and sustainability we can lose cultures, knowledge, and people in this tide of modern changes on our shores in the form of economic development, negative social changes, media communication technologies, and the rush to modernize ourselves.

Papua New Guinea is a land of language diversity and biodiversity. An international scholar Tove Skutnabb Kangae (2003) observes that knowledge “about how to maintain biodiversity is encoded in small languages because it is their speakers who live in the world's biologically (and linguistically) most diverse areas.” The consequence of “killing these languages (or letting them) die is that we destroy the biodiversity in these areas.”

Linguist Peter Muhlhausler (2001, 135) argues that “our ability to get on with our environment is a function of our knowledge of it and that by combining specialist knowledge from many languages and by reversing the one-way flow of knowledge dominating the world’s education system, solutions to our many environmental problems may be found.”

We can also take action to slow the rate of language and biodiversity extinction, and better understand the needs and ways of the indigenous people’s knowledge systems. Muhlhausler (2001, 135) is correct in pointing out that to see the continued survival of our species we need to recognize the importance of “learning from local knowledge, such as learning from the insights and errors of traditional rainforest dweller or desert nomads.” Such knowledge is embodied in our Indigenous languages as uncovered by many linguists and researchers of Papua New Guinea languages.

Muhlhausler (2001, 136-7) observes that as “Enga are becoming dependent on foods imported in tins and containers, as their children have to attend government schools where they are expected to acquire nontraditional knowledge (which leaves little time or opportunity to acquire the full traditional knowledge), and as the habitat of much of the indigenous fauna and flora is destroyed to make way for coffee plantations and gardens in which introduced food is grown, as well as for roads, towns, and airstrips,” the language itself is under threat of losing the indigenous knowledge. He adds further that many studies on other Papua New Guinean language “point to very much the same development.”

Several international linguists observe that few studies have looked at interactions within or among language and of the functional relationships among languages. The study of languages at this dimension is described as linguistic ecology. Where indigenous subsistence activities are abandoned the “specialized syntactical structures and their associated vocabularies” are left to no use (Zepeda 1984). Nabhan argues: “In most cases, however, it remains unclear whether retention of lexemes associated with the knowledge and use of biodiversity has fared any worse than overall lexical retention within an imperiled indigenous language (Spicer 1986, Wurm 1991; Hinton 1994; Nabhan 2001: 146-8).

It is important that we give some thoughts to language and biodiversity in our country. The world of the indigenous people is viewed through their language, which Nettle and Romaine (2000, 14) describe as a window, a living museum or monument that losing one language we also lose one culture: “It is a loss to every one of us if a fraction of that diversity disappears when there is something that could have been done to prevent it.”

Instead of depending on international organizations and institutions to document, study, and translate our languages we need to set up our own National Language Institute.

Discussions are taking place among various stakeholders and interested parties along this line of thinking. What is needed is political action and will to see that the National Language Institute or PNG Institute of Languages is set up for the people of Papua New Guinea and their descendants in the future.


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