Communities and attitudes towards vernaculars – Jeremy Hammond

[ from Jeremy Hammond, who has just joined the MPI’s group on Syntax, typology, and information structure]
This is a blog-post from Tanna, Vanuatu, where in the past few days I’ve seen two views on vernacular languages. Normally, I don’t take sides in politics but something I heard this morning spurred me into action.
I’ll start on Thursday which was the conclusion of a community workshop on Disaster Planning. An aside, it is good to see some aid projects in action with the community getting involved. The cyclone drill was enlivened when two bigmen of the village turned up to the practice evacuation centre with full rain gear, hurricane lamps and 20ltr jerry cans of water – getting right into the spirit of things.
Anyway, at the completion of the drill, the ni-Van project manager (a woman from another island) gave a nice speech to the new disaster committee which consists of young men and women. Part of the speech was close to our hearts as language and culture researchers. In sum, it was that it was now their responsibility to seek out the elders in the community who still retained some traditional indigenous knowledge of the weather systems. They were charged with the task to learn the signs of the terrain and the animals, that could otherwise soon be lost. While mobile phones (and to some extent radios) are omni-present nowadays, during a time of crisis it is likely that these links to the outside world will be lost and the community’s well being relies on them retaining an understanding of the weather systems. They were told to try harmonize their newfound western-based knowledge of disaster planning and their people’s history. Nice.
In contrast, on Friday morning I went up to the local French high school which was having a presentation for some new EU funding for upgrading the school buildings. While I wholeheartedly agree with this kind of investment in the infrastructure, the politics behind it leave a bit to be desired. I paraphrase from one speaker:

It is important that you talk French. It will help you in finding work and building better lives. If you only talk language, you will not have access to work. Our language is [sic] not useful.

It was the last bit that caught my attention. France (well their representatives at the very least) has/is trying to convince these people that French is a viable alternative to their indigenous languages. In reality, the majority of people here won’t go much past year 7 or 8. They will access their services through Bislama, a truly useful national language of Vanuatu. For example, the above speech to the school (rather ironically) was given in Bislama. If they do finish school then work opportunities lie in government and tourism. Both the largest trading partners and tourist markets are Australia and New Zealand. The largest aid donor countries (thus in contact with government) are Australia, New Zealand and the US (not counting the EU as it is not one country). All their immediate neighbours, excepting New Caledonia, are Anglophones. Trade with Asian countries is conducted in English. Finally the rural communities, like where this school is, can hopefully participate in fruit picking schemes (or other transient labour). These are going to be in New Zealand and maybe Australia (if the Australian government ever pulls its finger out and follows NZ’s lead). Definitely not in France. So for the French-driven EU funded project to insist that French is the way forward at the expense of indigenous languages is a bit too much for me. Especially when Vanuatu’s contact is primarily with English speaking countries. It does feel a little like bribery: language choice for a school. The politics of language in Vanuatu has been going on since the 1800s and doesn’t look as if it will stop any time soon (for example see Nick Thieberger’s photo on his website).
So that is my perspective from the field, biased by being an Anglophone, but still not completely off tack. I think I prefer the Disaster Planning Project’s attitude. Out.

One Comment

  1. bulbul says:

    So for the French-driven EU funded project to insist that French is the way forward at the expense of indigenous languages is a bit too much for me.
    Not to mention that it goes against everything the EU stands for. Do you have any details on the project? It would be well worth it to raise some hell about it in Brussels.

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