by Jeff Siegel
Charpentier. 1997. Literacy in a pidgin vernacular. In Andrée
Tabouret-Keller, Robert B. LePage, Penelope Gardner-Chloros and
Gabrielle Varro, eds. Vernacular literacy. A re-evaluation.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 222-45.
Melanesia is one of the few areas of the world where an English-lexified
pidgin/creole, Melanesian Pidgin, is widely used for reading and
writing. However, in this recent publica-tion, Jean-Michel Charpentier
(1997) claims that this literacy is something imposed on indigenous
people by Europeans. He also asserts that because of the nature
of pidgins and creoles, they are not suitable for literacy and use
in formal education. In this review, I would like to examine these
Literacy imposed by outsiders?
Referring to efforts in vernacular literacy in Vanuatu, especially
involving Bislama, the local dialect of Melanesian Pidgin, Charpen-tier
(p.228) comments: “No initiative of this sort has ever come
from a Melanesian intellectual… Literacy, a European concept,
seems only to succeed in Melanesia where European thinking has totally
submerged and erased local cultures”. He also says that “the
strongest partisans for teaching Pidgin are expatriate Anglophones”
who are “insensitive to the difficulties of having to learn
standard English along with an English pidgin” (p.328).
there is much evidence to contradict these statements. For example,
Thomas (1990) outlines developments with regard to the proposed
use of Bislama as the language in education. He reports (p.244):
a debate on the question of Bislama in schools, in April 1982, a
majority of members of parliament [all indigenous people from Vanuatu]
favoured introduction of Bislama as either a medium of instruction
or as a subject. Support for the teaching of Bislama in schools
came from government and opposition members alike.
He also reports a similar point of view from participants at the
1981 Vanuatu Language Planning Conference and from the Vanuatu National
Council of Chiefs (p.245):
The final resolution which the Language Planning
Conference adopted showed strong support for the use of Bislama.
It recommended that Bislama should be taught at least as a subject
in the first four years of primary school and used as the medium
of instruction for classes five and six.
nothing came of these recommendations, Bislama has had an unofficial
role in the non-formal education system – for example, in
the largest adult literacy project in the country which was initiated
and is run by indigenous Melane-sians. This project depends on community
support, as described below (World Vision Australia 1995:39):
Ni-Vanuatu village literacy teachers are supported for the time
of their services to the community, by the community. They receive
gifts of food and labour from their classes, and these classes,
often with the assistance of the communities from which they come,
or from the democratically-run Village Commit-tees, conduct fund-raising
activities such as the production and marketing of vegetables. Thus
established, village based literacy programs, serving the interests
and needs of all in the community, can continue for as long as the
communities wish, and are as sustainable as those communities choose…
With regard to the standardization of Bislama orthography, Charpentier
…the emergence of a norm accepted by practically
everybody has been…the work of missionaries. In Vanuatu, the
Council of Christian Churches established a norm for the writing
of religious texts for correspondence between churches. This semi-official
norm is by far the best known in the Archipelago and hardly needs
fear the orthography proposed by the ‘Komiti bilong Bislama’
made up of mainly Pidgin-speaking civil servants.
However, recent events do not support these statements. (See Crowley
1996 for details.) In 1993, the Literacy Association of Vanuatu
(LAV) was established, with members mostly being Vanuatu citizens
from organizations doing literacy work in the country. In 1995,
a subcommittee of LAV met to unify the spelling system, taking into
account the orthographic proposals earlier made by the Komiti
bilong Bislama (‘Bislama Committee’) and later
incorporated into Crowley’s (1990) Bislama dictionary. It
was agreed that whatever orthographic decisions that were made by
the LAV subcommittee, these would be followed in the forthcoming
new Bislama translation of the Bible and the new edition of the
Bislama dictionary (Crowley 1995). As adviser to the Komiti
bilong Bislama during most of its existence (1986-87), I can
attest that all orthographic decisions were made by the local Vanuatu
membership. The adoption of these and other decisions were then
made by the Vanuatu members of the LAV subcommittee. Thus, the current
norm is not the work of missionaries.
2. Suitability for use in formal education
One reason that Bislama has not had a role in the formal education
system of Vanuatu, despite the recommendations of the 1981 Vanuatu
Language Planning Conference (mentioned above), is described by
One of the most common fears concerning the introduction
of Bislama as a language of education is that, owing to lexical
similarities, negative transfer occurs when pupils subsequently
learn English. This fear was also expressed at the conference, when
it was claimed that when children learn Bislama at an early age
‘it tends to interfere with their learning of English’.
This point of view is reiterated and reinforced by Charpentier (1997).
In a section entitled “The Problems of Teaching in Pidgin”,
he depicts hostility towards teaching in Bislama among the whole
teaching establishment in Vanuatu. The reasons he gives for this
hostility and “for the failure of pidgin as a school subject
and medium of instruction” have to do with learners confusing
Bislama and English (p.236):
The combination of English and Pidgin (or source language X and
lexically X-based pidgin) seems to lead to a social, psycho-logical,
and pedagogical blockage, seriously compromising any passage to
literacy. The children in particular cannot seem to figure out the
respective roles and characteristics of the two codes. The
author continues (p.237):
From a practical point of view, (eventual) literacy
in Pidgin and using Pidgin and English as media of instruction in
Vanuatu would, according to the teachers, create nearly insurmountable
problems at the semantic and graphic levels.
In support of this point of view, he then gives some examples of
potential confusion at the semantic and morpho-syntactic levels.
my experience in Vanuatu I am well aware of such a point of view
prevailing among educators (see Siegel 1993), and certainly there
is evidence of interference from Bislama in the English of some
students. The question, however, is whether this interference would
be exacerbated by using Bislama in the schools, and Charpentier
does not refer to any research which would support this conclusion.
the other hand, there is research which suggests that learning literacy
in a pidgin or creole does not have any detrimental effect on the
acquisition of literacy in the standard form of its lexifier language,
and may even help it. Examples are the work of Murtagh (1982) on
Australian Kriol, Kephart (1985,1992) on Carriacou Creole in the
Caribbean, and Siegel (1992,1997) on Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea.
(All this research has been described in previous issues of the
communities in Melanesia have discovered for themselves that acquiring
literacy in their pidgin/creole lingua franca is useful in many
ways, including its being an aid to acquiring the more economically
important lexifier language, English. It is unfortunate that others
are still being discouraged from doing so by unsubstantiated claims,
such as those of Charpentier, about the two languages being confused
if they are both used in education.
Charpentier, Jean-Michel. 1997. Literacy in a pidgin vernacular.
In Andrée Tabouret-Keller, Robert B. LePage, Penelope Gardner-Chloros
and Gabrielle Varro, eds. Vernacular literacy. A re-evaluation.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 222-45.
Crowley, Terry. 1990. An illustrated Bislama-English and English-Bislama
dictionary. Vila: Pacific Languages Unit and Vanuatu Extension
Centre (University of the South Pacific).
–––– 1995. A new Bislama dictionary.
Suva and Vila: Institute of Pacific Studies and Pacific Languages
Unit (University of the South Pacific).
–––– 1996. Bislama: Orthographic and attitudinal
evolution. Language and Linguistics in Melanesia 27/2,
Kephart, Ronald F. 1985. “It have more soft words”:
A study of Creole English and Reading in Carriacou, Grenada.
Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.
–––– 1992. Reading creole English does not
destroy your brain cells! In Jeff Siegel, ed. Pidgins, creoles
and nonstandard dialects in education. Melbourne: Applied Linguistics
Association of Australia (Occasional Paper 12), 64-83.
Murtagh, Edward J. 1982. “Creole and English as languages
of instruction in bilingual education with Aboriginal Australians:
some research findings”. International Journal of the
Sociology of Language 36:15-33.
Siegel, Jeff. 1992. Teaching initial literacy in a pidgin language:
a preliminary evaluation. In Jeff Siegel, ed. Pidgins, creoles
and nonstandard dialects in education. Melbourne: Applied Linguistics
Association of Australia (Occasional Paper 12), 51-63.
–––– 1993. Pidgins and creoles in education
in Australia and the southwest Pacific. In Francis Byrne and John
Holm, eds. Atlantic meet Pacific: a global view of pidginization
and creolization. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 299-308.
–––– 1997. Using a pidgin language in formal
education: help or hindrance? Applied Linguistics 18:86-100.
Thomas, Andrew. 1990. Language planning in Vanuatu. In Richard and
Allan Luke, eds. Language planning and education in Australia
and the South Pacific. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 234-58.
World Vision Australia. 1995. Vanuatu Literacy and Health Education
Project. (Submission to Australia Agency for International