Children Thriving in Many Languages: In a land of a hundred languages, children are finally allowed to learn in their own.


vanuatu classrooms Something revolutionary has occurred in Vanuatu in the last seven years but you, like many others, may not know about it.

In 2010, after much discussion, Vanuatu formalised and released its new Vanuatu National Curriculum Statement. The Curriculum Statement brought with it many needed changes, but two of them specifically have completely altered the education system in Vanuatu and by extension, the history and future of the country.

The first one of these two changes was the unification and melting of two different systems into one. Prior to the new 2010 curriculum statement, Vanuatu had two separate systems, one French and one English. Teachers and pupils needed to learn and follow one or the other, according to whether the school they were teaching was Francophone or Anglophone. This created a further, artificial and unnecessary division, amongst the people of Vanuatu, a division that was not intrinsic to Vanuatu, but ‘imported’ by European settlers.

But the second and most important change of the curriculum was that

Vanuatu decided in its Education Language Policy that years one, two and three would no longer be taught in English or French, but in either Bislama or the mother tongue of the particular area.

As strange as it may sound, primary school children in Vanuatu were not taught in any of Vanuatu’s own languages until the new curriculum was implemented in 2015/16.

vanuatu booksThe repercussions for children’s education were significant. In villages all over the country, children do not speak English or French at home. They speak, of course, their local language. When the time came to go to school, they walked into a classroom, a foreign environment already, and sat in front of a teacher speaking to them in a language they did not understand. Speaking Bislama or local language in class was expressly forbidden and the whole class was taught in either French or English.

If learning to read is hard, imagine first learning to read in a language and alphabet that you don’t understand. Of course, this translated into poor participation from the children, who sat wide-eyed, not understanding a word. The disengagement and boredom of the children translated into poor school attendance rates. Children did not want to go to school. It was also hard for teachers all over the country, to be in charge of a class where they felt they could not engage the children, and were unable to use the language that was theirs and they knew so well.

vanuatu education Charley Robert is the PEO Curriculum Development Unit (CDU), he is in charge of the implementation of the new curriculum and has over 30 years of teaching behind him. “When we started to review the existing curriculum through the national forums conducted in 2009 and 2010, with a view to designing the new one, we found that in early child education, literacy rates were very low and so was attendance. Many factors contributed to the low rates of attendance, starting with the difficulty that many families find transporting their kids to school,” Charlie explains. “26% of the National Budget goes towards education and we needed to address the problems that were causing these low rates of attendance and literacy. Of course, introducing a foreign language in the first year of school is a very steep learning curve for any child. We realised that it was time to change the systems that had been installed pre-independence and implement teaching in the vernacular languages.”

The Vanuatu National Curriculum Statement was published in 2010 and its implementation started in 2015, with the support of VESP (Vanuatu Education Support Program), funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments.

New teaching guides for years 1-3 and supporting materials were developed for teachers, and these guides were no longer written in either French or English, but were written in Bislama, following the new syllabi developed for years 1-3. Workshops were organised in all the provinces, to brief teachers on the new National Curriculum.

bislamaElvie Tamata is manager of the In-service unit at the Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education and has been in charge of getting teachers up to speed with the new curriculum and syllabus. “We have a total of 22 provincial trainers, around four in each province and upon the implementation of the curriculum, we brought the trainers to the capital to attend workshops. After the workshops, the trainers returned to their provinces, where they themselves ran workshops to train local teachers to follow the new developed curriculum,” Elvie explains. “The curriculum has also changed from an objective-based curriculum to an outcome-based curriculum, in which the focus lies on making sure that we have successful outcomes, and attendance, engagement and literacy levels are improved.”

To be a qualified primary education teacher in Vanuatu, teachers attend the VITE (Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education), formerly a two-year certificate program that has now also changed to a three-year diploma.

Helen Tamtam is the Early Years Literacy Specialist engaged through VESP to work with the CDU (Curriculum Development Unit) and one of her roles is to monitor results “The feedback that we are getting from teachers visited is very positive,” Helen explains. “Attendance has gone up immeasurably, and teachers are telling us that they are loving their jobs for the first time, as now they have full classes of engaged children who are really curious and want to learn the different concepts that the teachers put forward. They can also see the children making progress in their learning, which is of course, very rewarding.” On a recent trip to the East Santo area in Santo, Helen had the opportunity to hear from the teachers and experience first hand, the outcomes of the new curriculum. “Children are coming to school every day and are more engaged, they are also interested in learning to read, and they go back home and want to read whatever they can get their hands on, such as labels, and classroom displays, even if they are in other languages. Teachers are also collaborating in ways in which they never had before. In the past, teachers from Francophone and Anglophone schools all had different curriculums, so collaboration was impossible and this contributed even more to the feeling of isolation that teachers felt. Now, teachers from different villages are meeting and collaborating for their fist time in their careers.”

Another important aspect, not without its challenges, of the implementation of the new curriculum, has been the translation of the existing readers and learning materials to vernacular languages. There are nine readers for each year (first, second and third), or a total of 27 readers (books) that children use.

These readers have been translated into 59 local languages.

vanuatu lenguageDoctor Robert Early is the Director of the Centre for Pacific Languages at USP University and the Language Policy Implementation Adviser for VESP, helping to develop the vernacular learning material. “There are over a hundred languages in Vanuatu. To establish which languages the readers would be translated into, we decided on every language that has a minimum of 1000 speakers, so we could make sure that there would be enough children to make a class,” Robert explains. “Linguists from countries such as Australia, England, NZ and America collaborated with local linguists and teachers from each language area to translate the readers into the vernacular language. Many of the linguists that helped with this process had been doing field work in Vanuatu for a long time previously, as part of their PHDs or work for their universities.” Besides the readers, other learning materials were also translated, such as posters showing the alphabet in the different languages.

vanuatu schoolsIt is a fact that children first learn to read better in their mother tongue, and interestingly enough, children who first learn to read in their own language, learn a second language faster and more easily than children who first try to learn to read in a foreign language.

“From year four, we have a multilingual approach to schooling, in which students will be taught in their local languages as well as English, Bislama or French, with concepts being explained in at least two languages. This process of multilingualism will not happen instantly and abruptly, but will be introduced gradually through years two and three by incorporating words and concepts in other languages,” explains Doctor Robert Early.

The importance of children learning in their first language cannot be overstated, and its ramifications extend far and wide into the future of Vanuatu.

“Having children learning in their own vernacular language will also protect our languages from becoming extinct as time goes past and people’s mobility increases. In a country like Vanuatu where language and cultural practise, kastom, tradition and land are strongly linked, protecting the language also protects our culture and our future,” explains CDU PEO, Charley Robert. “This is also economically important for Vanuatu, as our culture is one of our assets.”

A revolutionary strategy for Vanuatu that will shape this country’s future in so many ways. Today’s pikininis are the leaders of tomorrow, who will have to navigate between Vanuatu’s past and future, protecting culture while positively integrating the future into the country’s present.

In the words of Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Odo Tevi, “language and lineage link you to your land”, and in Vanuatu, the relationship to the land is the relationship to oneself.

Story by Patricia Gil Garcia.