by Jeff Siegel

Jean-Michel 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 claims.

1. 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).

However, 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):

During 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.

Although 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 writes (p.232):

…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 Thomas (1990:245):

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.

From 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.

On 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 PACE Newsletter.)

Many 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, 119-46.

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 Development).

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