ABD Vol.27 No.3

Education and publishing in vernacular languages:
Present state and future prospects in Papua New Guinea


Glenys Waters

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse nations in the Asia/Pacific region, a fact often ignored in educational planning. Colonial occupations were motivated by economics or defence and therefore education, health, and welfare were left largely in the hands of Christian missions. These organizations often adopted one vernacular within their region of influence as the 'lingua franca' for education, evangelism, health care and pastoral work. However, in 1954 the Australian administration adopted a policy of using only English as the language of instruction in formal schooling, a policy that continued until 1989. The arguments in favour of such a policy were these:

1. education was needed for "modernization", self-government, and "development", and this would best achieved using a world language,
2. it was best to use one language for the purposes of nation building,
3. the indigenous (previously unwritten) languages were not capable of being used as a medium of instruction,
4. it would be impossible for such a small nation with such linguistic diversity to find the necessary resources to source the curriculum development and publishing that would be needed for vernacular education in the formal system.

Such arguments have been contested by Papua New Guineans for many years and the history of monolingual and bilingual education has shown them to be fallacious.

It was not until 1989 that conditions within PNG became favourable towards changing the educational language policy and implementing major education reform. The factors motivating the changes included the following:

1.the inability of the existing 'English only' system to cater for 100% universal access to primary education,
2.increasing numbers of school leavers not gaining employment,
3.rising incidence of crime, often perpetrated by the "victims" of the system,
4.unacceptable school drop out rates,
5.continuing high illiteracy rates,
6. the successes of the community-based vernacular preparatory schools,
7.grassroots pressures on politicians to institute a more culturally relevant education system,
8.the development of methodologies and technologies which now make it possible to establish a vernacular elementary education system in PNG,
9.international agencies promoting educational agendas of improved access, quality and retention; and their adoption of a view which now valued linguistic and cultural diversity. This means they now perceive vernacular education in the early years of schooling as worth pursuing, advocating and funding.

The reform of educational language policy in Papua New Guinea

Since 1989, PNG has been steadily moving towards implementing an education reform which includes the use of the child's vernacular language as the language of instruction in the elementary years of schooling. The table below shows what the old system was like and what the new system aims to achieve. Implementation of the reform throughout the nation will be a gradual process taking ten years or more.
Elementary education in the vernacular was not only viewed as a potential solution to many of the problems mentioned above, it was also seen as an educationally sound policy. Children's cultural, conceptual and linguistic learning, begun in the village context, is continued rather than cut off. Vernacular education also allows students to use what is already known to learn new 'skills' such as reading, writing and numeracy in familiar contexts; and it enables active interaction and communication in school from the first day. Later, students are able to use their abilities and school ways of knowing and learning to learn a foreigni language (English) and gradually transition to education in that language when they are ready. It has been found within PNG, and in other countries, that this approach to education (and to learning the national language) is the most efficient and effective in multi-lingual nations.

Implementation of the reform in PNG

PNG has had no official language policyii, and earlier unofficial attitudes only recognized English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu. Nevertheless, NGOs have accomplished quite a lot in the area of vernacular literacy. By 1994, 44% of the 815 living languages had alphabets designed for them and 33% had some books produced in that language. This meant that 88% of the population had an alphabet and 74% had literacy materials. However just because alphabets and literacy materials exist, this does not mean that the entire population of a particular language group has access to them. But it can be seen that a considerable amount of the necessary groundwork for vernacular education has already been done and considerable expertise exists within the country which can be tapped for future work.

Training of elementary teachers for each of the provinces has begun. The trainers are taught to assist communities with the development of a culturally relevant curriculum. The development of a cultural calendar for each language group is the first step.

This is then used as a basis for the development of a series of theme webs based on community events.

iiiLocally written stories are developed as the focal points for the theme webs. Trainers are also taught how to teach others to make vernacular books by hand (photo), by silkscreen (photo), or by risograph. Literacy and Awareness Materials Production (LAMP) centres have been established in each province with the financial assistance of the Japanese government.iv

Curriculum guides, books and teaching aids need to be developed and produced for the three elementary grades. To assist in this massive task the government is in the process of providing kits to each elementary class. These kits include such things as paper, silkscreens, ink, stencils, sequencing cards, blank books and 'shell' books. Shell books are books which have been found to be popular in other PNG communities. They are produced as a picture book with no text and each community writes their own language texts to match the pictures.
Elementary schools are being developed as a community-based programme. The implementation of the reform is dependent upon the cooperation of the three principal stake holders - the community, the provincial government and the national government. The community is expected to build, supply and maintain school facilities; establish a board of management; nominate teachers; liaise with the primary school head teachers in regards to clustering of elementary schools; and provide volunteers to assist with the development of local vernacular curriculum. The province is expected to develop and produce curriculum materials through the LAMP centre; train teachers in the Elementary Teachers Certificate course; register all teachers and budget for their salaries. The national government is expected to do such things as: develop policies relating to elementary education; develop an elementary curriculum framework; design, develop, and co-ordinate delivery of elementary teacher training; source external assistance for the elementary infrastructure; and provide planning and professional services for the maintenance of standards.

Most urgent issues

At the present stage of the implementation of the elementary reform the most urgent issues to be addressed are funding, materials production and teacher training.
Most provinces are committed to the implementation of the elementary reform, but the majority identify lack of finances as the biggest hindrance to their work. PNG is a country rich in natural resources but colonial 'development' policiesv, increasing incidence of fiscal mismanagement and misappropriation, and top-heavy bureaucracies, mean that delivery of services to communities is extremely unsatisfactory. Even when funds are budgeted and set aside for training courses, the funds are either extremely slow to be released (often after dates set for courses have expired), or when an attempt to access them is made it is found that they have been re-appropriated. LAMP centers often lack the finances to purchase masters or toner for the risographs, or the necessary supplies of paper. Training positions created at the provincial level are often unfunded or under-funded. Systems for payment of salaries to elementary teachers have malfunctioned. There are doubts whether the number of trainers at the provincial level deemed necessary in the ten year plan will indeed be funded. Wherever one turns, programmes and systems are experiencing funding difficulties.
As in all educational endeavours the quality of the teachers is of paramount importance. In PNG the quality of the elementary teachers will have a big impact upon the success of the reform. Weaknesses in the other sub-systems needed to support a viable vernacular elementary education system can be, and in some instances have been, overcome by such things as the use of handmade books, community fund raisers, and a spirit of volunteerism. But there are no alternatives to training teachers well, and poorly trained teachers who are unsure of what they are doing will have detrimental effects which will not be easily compensated for.
Elementary vernacular education teachers will typically be selected from Grade 10 leavers who have returned to their communities. Some of these need to develop their own vernacular literacy abilities, never having written or read their own language before. Many will also be expected to assist with curriculum and materials development. Also it must be remembered that these 'teachers' are products of an education system which has been 'western', formal, and heavily dependent on rote ways of teaching and learning. Therefore they will need to be retrained to follow the more participatory, learner-centred, activity-based style of education advocated by the reform. Also, elementary teachers are expected to be proficient at multi-grade teaching. Because of all these factors it is imperative that the training given to teachers be of good quality, that adequate supervisory infrastructures are in place, and regular in-service opportunities are provided.
Initial plans for the training of Elementary Trainers called for extensive modularized training over several years interspersed with periods of field work where trainees could apply what they had learned and reflect upon observed outcomes. Training plans and packages are gradually being emasculated due to "funding problems" and also due to the advice of "outside experts". Training through 'distance education' packages has been foreshadowed to replace hands on, learning by doing, interactive training programmes. In a culture where the latter learning styles are the dominant modes, and where communication is face-to-face within relationships, it would be a step in the wrong direction to move to the former training style which is highly dependent on abilities to extract information from the printed page and interpret and apply it to personal situations independently. If trainers are not well trained, their inadequacies and uncertainties are passed on to the teachers they train. Quality of teacher training must be determined by what is educationally the best policy, not by the vagaries of the funding dollar.
The implementation of vernacular education throughout PNG is an extremely ambitious project. However despite financial constraints, concerns over aspects of teacher training, lack of printed materials and curriculum guides, and the pace with which the reform is being implemented, there are many good prospects for the future. If implemented properly the proposed elementary reform does have the capacity to deliver a more culturally relevant education to a greater percentage of the school-age population than the old system. The reformed system sees the cultural and linguistic heritage that students bring to school as something to be valued and built upon. Community ways of knowing and doing can be used as a bridge to further learning, including the learning of a foreign language and knowledge system. Intergenerational ties within the community are strengthened rather than severed. The number of drop-outs should decrease as the traumas of education in a foreign system are significantly diminished. The strengths of the current reform are that for the first time in PNG's history the commitment of grassroots communities, non government organizations, politicians, and international funding agencies are pulling in the same direction towards the same goal.

i Although English is one of the three national languages, for a large percentage of the population it is a 'foreign' language, never used or heard outside of the school setting. ii Nekitel notes that at Independence a statement concerning language policy was conspicuously absent from the constitution and associated documents. See: Nekitel, O. M. 1984 Language planning in P.N.G.: A nationalist viewpoint. Yagl-Ambu Vol. 11, No.1:1-24. iv These centres have typically been provided with desktop publishing facilities and a risograph. v Colonizers have looked upon PNG as a source of natural resources to be exploited for their quick profit. It has been shown that a change in current forestry practices from export of logs to export of sawn timber would result in 400% higher export income for PNG. Although Papua New Guinea has huge forest resources it imports all its paper. Communities pay exorbitant prices for the paper needed to make vernacular books.

Glenys Waters (Ms.)
Glenys Waters, is a Senior Literacy Consultant with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. She has worked among the Australian Aboriginies (1976 - 1987), and in Papua New Guinea (1988 - ). She is a primary school teacher, holds a Bachlor of Education and is currently completing a Masters of Education through La Trobe University, Australia.
Glenys Waters
3 Haldane St., Carrum, Victoria 3197, Australia