Bislama as a Vernacular: Developer or Destroyer?

Photo: Thompson Natuoivi/Facebook

Language shapes thought.

Bislama stands on the elevated national pedestal as one of Vanuatu’s three official languages, and as the ‘national language’ of the Republic. Policy Objective number IV of the Vanuatu National Language Policy (VNLP) released in 2012 upholds the need to ‘Support the use of local vernacular languages and Bislama, our National language, to fulfill educational and cultural needs and practices.’

The VNLP is littered with ‘Bislama’ as an alternative to our local vernaculars. The World Atlas ( linguistically-diversecountries- in-the-world.html) ranks Vanuatu as the second most linguistically diverse country in the world. What does that tell us about our approach to vernacular in schools? Bottomline is, we have to find a common denominator-type language.

And bislama offers that ready solution. It is pure common sense for teachers to resort to teaching children in Bislama than in a traditional vernacular. And that appears to be the path most of our schools have followed.

In early June 2017 Central School (CS)’s Principal Mr Paul A. Hetyey spoke on the importance of and why the CS has initiated its annual ‘Vernacular Day’. He called on all schools ‘to promote vernacular languages’ and that ‘if we lose our languages, we lose our culture’.

What stood out prominently in the Principal’s speech is the point that ‘vernacular languages are strangled by Bislama’, as quoted in the Daily Post (http:// schools-to-promotevernacular-languages/ article_fb15f7b0-ae4e-56b4- a3b3-0be4872aa22e.html).

Webster’s dictionary defines strangle as ‘to stifle…or to suppress or hinder the rise’ of something. We could say that not only vernacular languages are being strangled by Bislama, but English and French also suffer.

One other growingly popular privately-owned school in the capital today has also made a very conscious decision to stick to the English language as a medium of transfering knowledge to its students. A lot of high ranking individuals (even of the education sector) have placed their children in this school because they are not convinced about this ‘hafkas’ language – Bislama – being used as a vernacular.

The use of Bislama as a vernacular in schools is is becoming the cause of some heated debate within the education sector especially now that its effects are being exposed after its introduction in all Government schools some 5 or so years ago. The debate is still very much suppressed from the public arena. Officials within Government (MOE) continue to defend the idea.

And that’s expected. They have to do it as part of their loyalty to the State, and must be seen to uphold ‘government policy’. Whether or not they as individuals fully buy into the idea is something else.

Given the growing uneasiness, isn’t it high time that we seriously reviewed the policy’s effectiveness and impact? We have agreed to implementing this policy on a mass policy roll out process for several years now across the entire country without first doing a pilot under very strict Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) settings to assess the impact on children who need to pass exams, enter university, graduate, and more importantly convince employers and find work in the scarce job market where they have to prove high levels of competencies in reading, writing, speaking, liaising with the rest of the world, and engaging in discussions and negotiations with others beyond Vanuatu’s borders, in English or French, not Bislama.

We listened well to the advices received from foreign consultants and so-called ‘experts’ and rolled out the policy nationwide, but failed to contextualise the whole idea within Vanuatu’s unique setting.

Talk-back-Show on TBV (radio and TV) as well as FM107 should probably take this up as a subject for a future program.

We’ve allowed foreign advisers who don’t teach in Vanuatu classrooms, who don’t understand what’s really wrong with Bislama, and its effects on our kids’ brains, to tell us what to do. We are now hearing of the challenges. And those consultants are happily paid and gone.

A local educationist recently commented that if we are not careful, we will ‘kill a generation of young children’ who have been subjected to this policy.

The success of vernacular in other jurisdictions cannot be the benchmark to justify the policy undergoing a wholesale cut and paste operation here in Vanuatu. We’ve all learnt from the ill effects of cut and paste policies in other areas in the past. Time and time again they’ve failed to work, amid varying circumstances.

Inappropriate context being a key one.

Bislama, of all languages, is not anybody’s mother tongue, to begin with. The root of this plantation language comes from traders trying to communicate with our locals over beche-de-mer and sandalwood trading in our past history.

There is this recent case where a mother asked her Class 3 child to spell a particular English word. The poor kid could not do it, though he had it spelt correctly in Bislama. Some have noticed pronounciations being a big challenge, especially within public schools that are using bislama as a vernacular. They can’t pronounce English words properly because they’ve been taught to pronounce those words in bislama.

Key question to raise at this juncture is, has an impact study already been carried out on this policy or not? Available literature indicates that a survey was conduct in Shefa province in 2011 to assess Adult Language Literacy and Numeracy (LLN). The result of that survey indicates that ‘only 27.6%’ were classified as literate. That is already alarming enough.

How about a proper impact study being conducted on school kids since the introduction of Bislama into schools? We cannot take things for granted, especially when the education and future employability of Vanuatu’s children is concerned. Too much is at stake.

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