Papua New Guinean students in school uniforms and traditional costumes. Photo: George Weiblen
Even in the world’s most linguistically diverse nation, indigenous languages and skills are yielding to the march of urbanization, a cash economy, road networks, and higher education that are part and parcel of globalization.
The island nation of Papua New Guinea is home to more than 9 million people speaking about 840 languages—12 percent of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages. It is also the world’s most floristically diverse island, harboring about 5 percent of the world’s plant species.
But a new study by Papua New Guinea native Alfred Kik, a doctoral student at the University of South Bohemia, Czech Republic; UMN researcher George Weiblen, PhD; and colleagues found that a sizable gap in indigenous language fluency has opened up between teenage students and their parents. Along with this decline, the younger generation showed lesser knowledge of traditional practices like hunting, fishing, native medicinal plant use, farming, and woodworking and carpentry. But as they lost these traditional skills, they gained in contemporary technical skills like mobile phone and computer use.
Models drawn from the data predicted that the gaps in traditional languages and knowledge will only widen.
“Nearly half the world’s languages, including one-third of Papua New Guinea’s, are considered endangered,” said Weiblen, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences who is also science director at the Bell Museum and has studied New Guinea biodiversity for over 25 years. “Indigenous languages and the traditional ecological knowledge they contain are at even greater risk of extinction than biodiversity.”
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Languages Tell the Tale
The researchers surveyed 6,190 11th- and 12th-grade students in 30 of the 123 secondary schools in Papua New Guinea—rural and urban—between April 2015 and November 2018. The students spoke 392 languages, or five percent of the global total. They were asked questions about, for example, the languages they spoke at home and elsewhere, their skills in traditional subjects, and their ability to name native plants and birds.
The most striking result: while 91 percent of parents were fluent in an indigenous language, only 58 percent of the students were.
“Because this drop happened within a single generation, it’s likely a recent phenomenon and not a result of Papua New Guinea’s brief colonial past, from about 1880 to independence in 1975,” Weiblen said. “Rather, what we’re seeing stems from social and technological change in a country undergoing rapid globalization.”
One of globalization’s biggest effects is the rise of Tok Pisin, an English-based creole language that is used in 66 percent of homes. English is used in 4 percent.
Trends in key factors like the proportion of mixed-language families, which language is used at home, urbanization, and students’ traditional skills predicted that fluency in indigenous languages would further dwindle to an estimated one- quarter of students in the subsequent generation—less than half of today’s figure.
How it Happens
A web of interactions may lead to indigenous language loss, but some threads stand out. For instance, urbanization brings people together and leads to more marriages between speakers of different indigenous languages. The study found that only 16 percent of such “mixed language” families used indigenous languages at home, compared to 38 percent among those who marry within a language. Of the surveyed students, 37 percent came from mixed-language families. Also, urbanization often interrupts contact between generations that reinforces indigenous language use.
The surveyed students attended schools where 17 to 124 languages were spoken, and only 35 percent spoke the same indigenous language as their best friend. These were ripe conditions for future mixed-language marriages and the adoption of Tok Pisin or English.
As young people move away from elders and indigenous languages, they lose knowledge of medicinal plants and native birds. Loosening bonds with elders means losing teachers. Also, research elsewhere shows that the names of indigenous plants and animals lack established translations into Tok Pisin and English, as well as scientific names.
The study found no link between loss of language skills and English or math skills. Therefore, the researchers conclude, formal school education was less important than lifestyle changes brought about by globalization.
“Today’s indigenous students could be among the last with the opportunity to learn languages and lessons directly from their elders,” Weiblen said. “At this time of unprecedented change, we need their wisdom more than ever.”