A Living Language



When Dr Michael Franjieh took a plane north from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila to Craig’s Cove in Ambrym, then a boat ride and a tough hike to a small village on the island, he wasn’t sure he was fit enough to make it. But he was determined. Dr Michael Franjieh from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London was on a mission. He wanted to be the first to record and develop a curriculum in the North Ambrym language, which is spoken by only 3,000 people.

“When I first arrived there was no truck in the area, which meant a lot of hiking to the different villages so you need to be quite fit and healthy. And it is a very hilly area: the name of the area I stayed in means ‘amongst the cliffs, ravines and gullies’ so it was hard going at first. I’m not used to hiking in the tropics.”

As well as its jungle, Ambrym is well-known for the mysterious Rom dance, volcanoes, sand-drawing and some of the best wood carvings in the Pacific. Four years later, Mike, with the help of locals, has written down the North Ambrym oral language for the first time and created a 2,500 word dictionary with translations into Bislama and English. He has also developed a curriculum for the North Ambrym language and locals have been trained in how to teach the local language to early year primary students.

This type of work could be the key to unlocking the potential of students in this South Pacific island nation. One of the biggest hurdles facing Vanuatu education is how to lift the incredibly poor literacy and numeracy rates. Less than one-third of Grade 3 students in Vanuatu reach the national literacy standards and about a quarter reach the national numeracy standards.

There is no doubt students in Vanuatu are struggling. Part of the issue is that school lessons are usually taught in English or French, which is not the first language of most students. In fact, international best practice in education shows there is a positive link between early year students learning in their first language and those same students performing well at school in later years.

 The complication in Vanuatu is that about 100 languages are spoken in a population of 250,000. If that sounds like a lot, it is: Vanuatu has the greatest density of languages spoken per head of population in the world.

On just the one island of Ambrym, eight completely different languages exist. And this proud, independent Republic of Vanuatu is made up of 83 islands. The country threw off French and British rule in 1980 and as a result of these countries’ influence, there are three official languages: French, English and Bislama which is a pidgin English.


Sandy Massing sees first-hand how important it is for children to learn in their first language. He grew up in Ranverrlam in North Ambrym and is now a high school principal in the area. His first language is North Ambrym language, the language Mike has recorded.

“If a preschool student is taught in English, a foreign language, and the teacher says this flower is ‘red’, he or she doesn’t know what it means. But if the teacher says it’s ‘fwiri’ (red in North Ambrym language), he or she understands.”

Despite resistance to the idea in the past, the current official language and education policy for Vanuatu is that all children should have their first exposure to learning for literacy and numeracy in their first language. If the North Ambrym community is any example, then locals support this policy – and not just for educational outcomes – it is also about cultural preservation. When Mike first showed up in North Ambrym, he stayed in Ranverrlam village with the family of John Selong who Mike met through the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila which provided invaluable support for his work.

“I turned up in North Ambrym and a meeting was called in the village with all the chiefs from the local areas and villages. I explained what I wanted to do and they were very happy for me to do this and felt it was a very important thing to do. They understand their language is endangered – not that it will necessarily die out but a lot of words and vocabulary are being lost because of the influence of Bislama and young people moving away from their traditional custom and culture.”

Mike’s work in vernacular education echoes a national strategy. The Vanuatu Government is implementing the Vanuatu Education Support Program (VESP) – a $50 million project to improve educational standards in the country, funded by Australia and New Zealand. One small part of the project is to introduce vernacular education in the early years of primary school.

While Dr Franjieh’s work has been funded by SOAS and the Christensen Fund and is not related to VESP, it is the type of work that the community hopes will help transform the education rates in the country as well as keep cultural identities alive. Sandy Massing says knowing the local language, and therefore local custom and culture, keeps young people on the right path if they go to big towns like Port Vila because they have a strong sense of self.

“When I speak my language I feel I am who I am. When I come to town and speak in Bislama or English, I don’t feel I am who I am. If Mike didn’t do this work, I think our language would have totally changed. Now we have inter-island marriages where people from outer islands marry into our village. Many speak Bislama and other languages and that had started to change the original North Ambrym language. If the language had changed, we would lose our identity.”


But there is always the risk of language death. Some linguists believe that of the 6,500 languages currently spoken in the world, between 30 to 50 per cent of those languages will die out within the next century. This could be cause for concern given the strong link between learning in your first language when young and becoming a proficient learner in later years.

Dr Robert Early, director of the Pacific Languages Unit at the University of the South Pacific, says language extinction doesn’t get the same attention as animal or plant species loss. Some linguists believe language death, change and the growth of new languages are just part of a natural process. But others say language death means a loss of diversity and the loss of that culture’s idea of what it means to be a human being.

“I sometimes get cynical about huge campaigns to save the dolphins or the whales … sometimes thousands of dollars are spent on a project to save a species of frog in a remote part of the world and people get very emotional and very upset about the loss of plant species or animal species. Well, what about languages? Every time we lose a language, there’s something about humanity that dies as well.”

However, Dr Early says it is very difficult to predict the future in this area because about thirty years ago some linguists predicted that, by now, all of the ni-Vanuatu languages would be dead. The fact that about 100 languages are still spoken shows how important local language is to ni-Vanuatu people.

One of the challenges for VESP to deliver a vernacular curriculum is the presence of some oral languages which have never been written down and some are only spoken by 30 people. Helen Tamtam has just been employed as the early vernacular literacy specialist for VESP with the Department of Education. Helen’s interest in vernacular education started years ago when trying to come up with solutions for improving literacy rates for students.

“The only approach that will work is children beginning their early education in their own first language. In my experience in working with students, I have realised using foreign languages to begin their education has consequences. The effects include students having low literacy levels and students not having the confidence to perform to their fullest capacity.”


In 2015, the first year of the five year VESP project, Bislama will be rolled out in the urban areas where Bislama is spoken. This could be controversial as some people don’t believe Bislama is a vernacular language but this is not the case. Helen currently works at the University of the South Pacific and their small student surveys show about 60 per cent of students list Bislama as their first language. Once Bislama vernacular education is established then the focus can turn to other languages.

“To do this, we will have to identify which languages already have a spelling system in place. There are a couple of schools in the country who already using the vernacular approach and so those schools will be looked at as examples.”

Dr Franjieh knows how hard it is to write down a language and develop curriculum. Three men from the Ranverrlam village were invaluable: Isaiah Bong, Harry Worrworr and George Andrew.

“You start with words. I sat down with people from the village and asked the names of different objects and went through a word list. Once I understood the sounds of the language, I moved on to sentences then on to stories and big texts. I worked with the local people to translate it into Bislama then I translated it into English so I could build a picture of the grammar and vocabulary of the language.”

Dr Robert Early is excited about VESP and in particular, the realisation of the vernacular education policy. But he also warns it could be the last chance to make it work.

“It really is a watershed mark for Vanuatu now. If under this big project they can pull off the vernacular education literacy and numeracy program, that’s really going to set a new track for Vanuatu education. But if things don’t work out this time, then the opportunity will probably never arise again. So there will forever be a challenge for Vanuatu in how to maintain and build on its multi-lingual heritage.”

Helen Tamtam says there will be challenges: making sure everyone understand there is a vernacular policy in place and it needs implementation now; working out which schools and communities will accept Bislama in their schools and accepting community wishes; and finding the best method for introducing vernacular literacy.

Despite all this, Helen believes in five years time, every child will start their early year schooling in their first language. She thinks people will be asking if local language education can continue until year 7 in other subject areas like science and maths. But she also dreams of a transformed Vanuatu.

“In 20 years, I want to see more critical thinkers, students who can make decisions for themselves, for their own lives and are respectful in the community. And we can have a generation of youths who can successfully carry out their lives in a way that can help the development of this nation. If vernacular education is well-captured and the potential of each child is really tapped into, they will become youths of the future who will have a vision and a hope for themselves.”

As for Dr Franjieh, his work is not yet done. He hopes to be back in Vanuatu next year for another language documentation project. Mike wants to again visit Ranverrlam and be greeted by those first words he heard in the North Ambrym language: ‘Neng Le, nam rru a lonurr’ (‘Hello, I’m going to the garden’). This is a part of life in North Ambrym; locals are self-sufficient farmers and Mike hopes his work will help keep the custom and culture of the North Ambrym language speakers alive for generations to come.

Words and photos by Karin Adam / Ambrym photos by Dr Michael Franjieh.