Adorned with numerous tribal communities and races, Papua New Guinea stands out in terms of its social and ethnic assortments. The country has another feather on its cap, the official title of being the country with maximum languages. Though the country recognizes only 4 official languages, there are around 839 living languages used across the country. The cause of worry is that these languages are becoming extinct and are losing their impact in the country. 12 of these languages today have no speakers alive. Analyzing this linguistic crisis, the article suggests some solutions that can bring a positive change in the present situation.

The Linguistic Legacy of Papua New Guinea

All languages basically fall under two broad categories, the Papuan languages and the Austronesian languages. The Papuan languages are indigenous to the country. On the other hand, Austronesian languages were brought by Austronesian people who came to the region nearly 3,500 years ago. The country was under the colonial rule of Germans, English, Portuguese and Spanish administration in the past. The colonial masters left linguistic additions for the country.

English, Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin and Papua New Guinean Sign Language are the four official languages. English is the most widely used and is the medium for delivering most of the formal education in schools. The language has also gained importance due to its widespread usage in the outside world. Hiri Motu is an official language due to political reasons. It is a part of the Austronesian group and was introduced and promoted by the Australian administration for trade reasons. The language was the lingua franca in the 1970s. Now the use remains limited to area in and around Port Moresby. Tok Pisin traces its lineage from New Britain and South West New Ireland[1]. Most of the parliamentary proceedings are conducted in Tok Pisin. The language found its way in through plantation workers and owners. Another language that has been added in the recent past is Papua New Guinea Sign Language.

The reason as to why these languages have managed to survive despite modernization lies in the demographics of the country. Around 86.66% of the population is rural in nature and remains cut off from the outside world. This has prevented any other language from replacing the native languages. Another social reason is that each tribal community has its own language, in which they take extreme pride and prestige.

Existential Linguistic Crisis

Globalization has largely hampered the position of indigenous languages. Around a third of the native languages of Papua New Guinea are on verge of extinction. The younger generation is generally educated in English and Tok Pisin today. Their limited exposure to local languages is agonizing. This situation makes the future of linguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea bleak.

In a countrywide survey in Papua New Guinean schools, nearly 6,190 students were surveyed. These students came from approximately 392 different language groups. About 58% of these students were fluent in their native language. On the other hand, 91% of their parents were fluent in their native language. This survey showed a stark decline in traditional language knowledge between the two generations. Another revelation by the survey was the fact that nearly 26% of the upcoming generation would be fluent in their native language. This is a cause of worry as subsequent decline can be seen between the three generations.

With the increasing usage of English in the country, local languages are facing a challenge. Around 32% of the New Guinean languages are endangered. While Ak, which is a language in Papua New Guinea has 10 speakers, Kamasa has 7 speakers. Abaga has an even lesser speaker count and the number stops at 5.  Apart from this, these languages remain poorly documented, decreasing their chances of survival further. Children growing up in urban areas are more prone to a negative impact on their native language. On the contrary rural population has played a vital role in carrying forward the linguistic legacy of the country.

Another saddening outcome of language decline in the country is the loss of traditional knowledge regarding flora and fauna in the country. The elder generations are well versed with the traditional knowledge of flora, fauna and medicinal plants. This knowledge is available with them in their native language, which is significantly less known to the younger generations. This language barrier makes the transmission of knowledge difficult. Hence this loss of native language leads to deprivation of the rich traditional knowledge. This is also followed by a loss in traditional employments like fishing, hence leading to an overall decline in the cultural quality and knowledge. Traditional bio-cultural knowledge and linguistic knowledge go hand in hand. The loss of one has a cascading effect on the other.

Strategic Solution to the Challenge

The Constitution of Papua New Guinea which came in the year 1975 has a special mention regarding its cultural and linguistic uniqueness. The constitution treats cultural and linguistic diversity as a source of strength. The constitution gives recognition to all languages, specifying that every citizen has the right to literacy in English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, or a vernacular[2]. English became a norm in the education system of the country due to the fact that the government-funded institutes had English as the mode of teaching. Equal support for vernacular languages by the government may work as a booster for the preservation of the rich linguistic past of the country.

NGOs and communities must come forward and contribute by promoting vernacular languages at their level. Japan and Philippines have taken remarkable steps in this direction. The Ainu of Japan have opened community schools where elders from the community teach their native language to the youth. Luckily these steps have proved to be instrumental in language preservation and the numbers of Ainu speakers are growing gradually. Papua New Guinea can also come up with such initiatives. Vernacular languages must be introduced at elementary stages in a child’s education. This creates chances of a higher level of interest and liking for the language by the child. The use of indigenous languages in elementary education is a tide turner pedagogy. The demographics of learners must be kept in mind for the effective transfer of knowledge. Preference or replacement of any foreign language over local languages isn’t the solution to the problem. Instead, gradual introduction of native languages to the curriculum is the better approach towards the problem.

Vernacular languages help in the social growth of a country. Children with knowledge of the indigenous language have better connections and ties with older generations. But these indigenous languages have a more dominant psychological, educational and cultural importance. The government and society must recognize the same. Psychologically, the knowledge of vernacular language leads to a sense of pride and gratification in the community. Educationally, the vernacular languages are the source of transfer of traditional knowledge regarding plants and animal species along with the history of the region. Culturally, the indigenous languages create a hallmark for the country as being home to a multitude of races and cultures.

Along with this institutes dedicated solely for these languages and their preservation must be set up at the national level. Documentation of the languages must be taken up as a matter of extreme importance by the government. Successful results have been shown by Canadian Universities in preserving native languages like Mohawk. The same method can be adopted in Papua New Guinea too.


In 1951, UNESCO made a recommendation favouring vernacular languages for basic education. Along with this 2019 was celebrated as the International Year of Indigenous Language by the United Nations. This was undertaken so as to incentivize individuals to use their native language and to appreciate the importance of these languages in enhancing international diversity.

On a positive note, most of the people in Papua New Guinea see their language as a mark of pride and as a source of identity. What came as a relief from the survey (supra) was the fact that around 88% of students surveyed wanted to train their kids in local indigenous languages. Moreover, most of these languages are on the verge of extinction and the government supported by NGOs, Churches and communities should take holistic steps in order to find a solution to the problem. Hopefully, the combined efforts would be beneficial in preserving the most valuable asset of Papua New Guinea– their linguistic diversity.

[1] Goulden, R.J. 1990. The Melanesian Content in Mk Pisin. Pacific Linguistics B104, Canberra, ANU.

[2] Whitehead, C. R. (1994). “Papua New Guinea: language situation”, in R. E. Asher (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, vol. vi. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 2924–6.

This article is authored by Shubhangi Verma, a second-year student at the Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

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