South Sea crusade

August 29, 2003

The preservation and documentation of endangered languages has been deemed a priority in the South Pacific islands. Geoff Maslen reports.

More than 1,100 languages are spoken on the islands that dot the Pacific Ocean, and for the past 20 years a special unit at the University of the South Pacific has been working to ensure their survival.

The university is owned and operated by 12 of the island countries.

Although the main campus is in Fiji, the USP Pacific languages unit (PLU) is in Port Vila on Vanuatu, a chain of 80 islands formerly known as the New Hebrides.

"USP does try to decentralise its various operations so that not everything is in Suva," says university pro vice-chancellor and unit director John Lynch. "But Vanuatu was chosen because it is the most linguistically diverse of all the USP countries and has more than 100 of the 200 languages spoken in the region."

This year, almost 1,200 students are being taught by PLU staff, with the majority undertaking courses as part of a pre-degree foundation programme or a degree in English, education, law and so on. Three students are currently enrolled on PhDs.

Lynch, who took charge of the unit in 1991 after a term as vice-chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea, says the courses are delivered through distance education. Correspondence is the main mode of delivery, but audio and video tutorials are also used, and local tutors are engaged if there are sufficient numbers of students.

"English has to be the main medium since it is the only common language among all our students," he says. "All course materials, examinations and so on are in English, but local tutors can use any language they like, provided all students have that language in common. In Vanuatu, we often use Bislama - the local version of Melanesian Pidgin English, which is the national language - rather than, or alongside, English."

Summer schools are run in island countries when enough students are present and staff available, Lynch says. In recent years, a senior lecturer in the unit, Robert Early, ran the foundation course as a summer school in Kiribati.

Lynch completed his PhD research on one of the languages of Tanna in Vanuatu. Today, he says his main research interest is in the historical comparison of Pacific languages, although he has also published grammar books and dictionaries of a couple of Vanuatu languages.

One of the unit's prime objectives is to provide Pacific islanders with the skills needed to ensure the survival and development of their languages, he says. Therefore specific courses have been established that deal with the analysis and description of languages and with the compilation of dictionaries.

"In addition, other courses give students some general background in areas such as translation and the structure of Pacific languages. There is also a course on language issues and problems in Pacific countries," Early says.

He adds that PLU staff are also involved in a wide range of research and applied activities. These include documenting endangered languages, providing advice and consultancy on language policy, assisting monolingual dictionary projects in several major languages and organising and participating in relevant workshops.

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