The Parasite Language of Bislama in Vanuatu

A very interesting article was posted last month written by Mavuku Tokona from the Vanuatu Daily Post that I would like to share. It was about how University of the South Pacific (USP) Emalus Campus Language Professor Dr Hannah Vari-Bogiri described ‘Bislama’ as the fastest growing language and possibly a parasite of Vanuatu languages.

Speaking on the subject of the decline of island dialects and its possible extinction, Dr. Vari-Bogiri acknowledged that Bislama is often used as a bridge between different island languages but lately it has been abused and now made dangerous. “Bislama is therefore the fastest growing language today and is the biggest threat and possible killer of vernacular languages by their speakers within the urban areas,” she said.

The Language Professor stated that if parents fail to teach their children their island dialect, they will be entirely consumed by Bislama, a basic form of communication, thus losing a part of their ‘kastom’ identity. “There are some cases in the urban areas of Port Vila and Santo where children grow up only speaking Bislama because parents come from two different language areas of even when parents are from same language area.”

“This is an example where the younger generations in town could fail to know their language and culture due to their parents’ failure to transmit that to them,” Dr Vari-Bogiri explained.

Overall to ensure that language is preserved, it has to be practiced, protected from external influence and more importantly for posterity, transmitted to the next generation.

Director of Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS) Richard Shing said that language is ever-growing and is likely to evolve as Vanuatu continues to diversify in terms of different ethnicities and cultures. Ironically the Director of VKS is one of those families – “Me and my wife are from different islands, so our kids grow up only knowing Bislama.”

The local archeologist agreed that Bislama could be identified as a parasite of languages so long as families abstain from teaching the next generation.


Port Vila, Vanuatu from the air. Photo by ICAS.

As for the vernacular taught in schools, however efficient it may be, it is still not enough. Dr. Vari-Bogiri applauded the educational system with its incorporation of vernacular classes in its curriculum, although, it remains inadequate and needs to be coupled with personal teachings from home. “So, it is promising to see that schools in the urban areas like the Central School and Lycee LAB are taking the lead in promoting language and culture through their students.”

“However, it needs to be cautioned here that promoting vernacular through literature materials or formal education alone is not enough as the classroom is an artificial environment that does not take into account all the language uses, functions and the language repertoire of the speech community.”

While Bislama is recognized as a bridging language, families have a responsibility and duty to retain their island dialect by teaching the next generation and ensure that Bislama doesn’t overwhelm the island dialect of their children.

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