SIL Electronic Working Papers 1999-001, February 1999
Copyright © 1999 Robert Litteral and Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.
All rights reserved.

First presented in absentia at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea in June, 1995.

Four Decades of Language Policy in Papua New Guinea:

The move towards the vernacular

Robert Litteral


The 1960s
The 1970s
The 1980s
The 1990s


This paper was originally presented to the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea in Madang in 1995. It outlines the history of language policy in PNG, with a focus and discussion of post-independence (1975) policy in particular. During this latter period the vernacular languages became an accepted and integral part of the early village school curricula. Early top-down control of local education was gradually reversed as the decentralized grassroots policy proved more successful. The review given here demonstrates how the process of indigenous literacy development proceeded and how it conformed to national guidelines.


During the period of the 1960s to the 1990s, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has seen a significant shift in language policy in basic education. The period began with a philosophy of education that focused on western values and used the education system and English as a means of making Papua New Guinea into a nation that would be politically independent in the modern world. Vernaculars were viewed as deficient for formal education, and the communities that were the objects of the education system had little input into it. The result was a westernizing education system that tended to alienate students from their culture rather than strengthen their appreciation of, and participation in it.

During the approach, and granting of independence in the 1970s, the language of education policy was debated. The decade ended with the first post-independence national policy much the same as it was at the beginning of the decade, except that several of the new decentralized provincial governments were taking steps to introduce the vernacular for early education outside the formal system. The decade of the 1980s began with the introduction of the Viles Tok Ples Skul (village vernacular school) system in the North Solomons Province that put more responsibility and accountability into the hands of the community. When the 1980s came to an end, two major developments indicated the direction of vernacular education: (1) Tok Ples Skuls had become a widespread phenomenon; and, (2) a national language policy had been approved by the Department of Education. This language policy encouraged the use of vernacular languages for initial education, and the maintenance of vernacular literacy in the formal education system.

The 1990s began with a proposal for restructuring the education system to introduce a new elementary level that includes the vernacular as the medium of instruction for the first three years. The present philosophy of education and language policy encourages the use of the vernaculars as the best medium of early education. Community control, in terms of content, curriculum and language, is viewed as crucial for providing the best education for children. The function of formal education is to prepare a child for participation in both local and national culture and both community and national life. The present concern is how to introduce this new national system while maintaining local community control and cultural foundations.

The purpose of this paper is to trace the historical development of this shift in language policy for early education, focusing on policy, responsibility, cultural goals and vernacular related activities. These will be illustrated by significant events and organizational activities of each period.

The 1960s

In the 1960s the colonial government had a centralized, top-down authority for policy with final decision making and accountability resting in Australia. English was the only language of initial formal education, a policy that attended to the needs of the expatriate providers of education more than it benefited the largely passive recipients in PNG communities. Papua New Guineans essentially had no input into policy or curriculum content and few were considered qualified for other than low level professional positions. They were national participants in a foreign-designed education system with some adaptations for local content. The large number of expatriates brought into the country during this period to assist with education, even at the primary level, produced an essentially westernizing process on culture.

Institutional activities illustrate this westernizing goal. Many missions abandoned vernacular basic education and switched to English in order to obtain government financing. For example, when the author arrived in the West Sepik in 1965 there were two English schools at both Amanab and Green River stations: one mission and one government. The university system was introduced into PNG, in itself one of the most westernizing influences on the elite leaders of the future. Its language courses emphasized English or linguistic descriptions of PNG languages with little direct applicability to basic educational needs. SIL, although pro-vernacular, limited its literacy activities to adult literacy and linguistic attention was given to linguistic descriptions and language surveys.

Two events at the end of this era are significant in indicating the peak of the foreign westernizing education system and the seeds for the future for basic education in PNG. John Gunther, an elderly, expatriate colonial administrator, wrote an article in 1969 entitled, "More English, more teachers" (Gunther 1969). He said that the need for PNG's education system was not a local language or languages, but more English. By way of contrast, in 1969 the question of a new approach to education was raised by Ernest Kilalang, a young Tolai primary school teacher, at an education meeting dominated by expatriates. His question was, "Why don't we teach children initially in their own language like the missions used to do?" (Kilalang, p.c. 1992).

The 1970s

The 1970s saw the approach and introduction of political independence. The authority for education remained centralized and top-down, but moved from Australia to PNG. This was essentially the localization of a foreign system. The westernizing cultural influence was moderated insignificantly by separating the former primary A (for expatriate children) and primary T (for PNG children) into different international and community school systems. The English preparatory year was dropped in 1972. The draft 1976-80 five year education plan included basic vernacular education but this was rejected by the National Executive Council and English remained the language of formal education with some vernacular permitted for explaining concepts. In practice Tok Pisin was used extensively in the lower primary grades in many rural schools in the region of the former Territory of New Guinea.

There was extensive academic discussion of language policy during this period. At an international academic conference on Tok Pisin at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in 1973, the use of vernaculars and PNG pidgins, especially Tok Pisin, was recommended for education (McElhanon 1975). The Eighth Waigani seminar on Education in Melanesia had a session on language in education (Brommall and May 1975) with many participants encouraging the use of local languages. Professor Tom Dutton, in his inaugural lecture as foundation professor of language at the UPNG, recommended making Tok Pisin the national language of PNG which would include its use in education. All of these recommendations assumed a centralized, top-down decision for policy and implementation.

Institutional changes also indicated possible new directions in language policy. The UPNG added Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu as subjects in the language department and offered several applied linguistic courses during the Lahara sessions from 1974-79 with staff provided by SIL. The UPNG Extension in the North Solomons Province conducted research that showed an interest on the part of parents in having the local languages and cultures included in their children's early education. Some teachers' colleges introduced modular courses on vernacular literacy when it looked as if education policy would change to include vernaculars for early education. These were dropped when the National Executive Council rejected the draft 1976-80 five year education plan. SIL introduced national training courses and participated in the UPNG Lahara courses in applied linguistics. In 1972 Ernest Kilalang and other Tolais were given training by SIL in developing vernacular literacy materials. In 1979 SIL again trained Ernest and some of his colleagues as well as some North Solomons personnel in the production of literacy materials for children. The most significant event for the future direction of language policy was the decision of the North Solomons Provincial government in 1979 to introduce the Viles Tok Ples Skul system in 1980. This was the beginning of the decentralized, bottom-up process in language policy decision making that would change national policy in less than a decade. This decision sidestepped the national policy on language in formal education by developing initial vernacular education in a nonformal system.

The 1980s

The process of decentralized, grassroots-oriented policy making about language for early education expanded during this decade. The decision makers were provincial and community leaders. The main focus was on local language for literacy for children, with some attention also given to math, science, health and social studies. I would call this process indigenous adaptation, as it was using a local language for teaching basic academic skills. Some provinces (North Solomons 1980, East New Britain 1983, Enga 1985) and language communities (Angor 1981, Gadsup 1983, Misima and Barai 1984) developed what were called vernacular preschools or Viles Tok Ples Skuls. An informal network supporting vernacular initial education spread throughout the country. The Provincial Ministers of Education Conference in 1985 recommended that vernacular preschool development be encouraged.

Eventually the political influence of the vernacular education network reached the top, an excellent example of a grassroots development expanding to influence the central government. The 1986 Philosophy of Education committee recommended that the first three years of education be in the vernacular, but this was rejected by Parliament, the only recommendation they rejected. However, in 1988 Parliament included funds in the 1989 budget for the National Department of Education to include a section on vernacular language and literacy, plus funds to assist with training and materials. A National Literacy Committee was also formed and its first major task was to recommend a national language and literacy policy, which was approved by the Secretary of Education. This policy encouraged provinces, communities and non-government organizations (NGOs) to become involved in vernacular education. It encouraged vernacular preparatory schools and the maintenance of vernacular literacy in Community Schools. Later in 1989 the Parliament approved a Literacy and Awareness Program that specified that children should learn to read and write in their own language, giving the highest level of approval to initial literacy in the vernacular.

The activities to support vernacular education in this decade are too numerous to list here. Several provinces, NGOs and the UPNG introduced vernacular training courses. A book specifically for community-based vernacular literacy, Working together for Literacy was written by Nicholas Faraclas of the UPNG and Mary Stringer of SIL (Faraclas and Stringer 1988). New literacy methods were introduced and became an issue in SIL (Evans 1986, Issues of Read magazine). A vernacular workers seminar was sponsored by SIL in 1987 where Papua New Guineans made a recommendation for a national policy that became the basis of the final policy adopted in 1989. SIL expanded a concept of using sets of pictures to produce books in many languages to develop Shell books to assist in the provision of books in many languages.

The decade of the 1980s ended with a national policy for initial education in the vernacular and infrastructure developments within the governments and NGOs to assist in the implementation of this policy. The challenge then was to implement this policy and make the advantages of vernacular education available to all communities.

The 1990s

This decade has seen the initial stages of an education reform that included the introduction of a new initial education level within formal education, called Elementary Education, that will be in the vernacular. This gives vernacular education more status by including it in the formal system and moves beyond cultural-based literacy to cultural-based education. Issues yet to be addressed are the new infrastructure, the teacher training system and curriculum development. This process can be viewed as the formalization of vernacular education, a development process I would term indigenous development. With indigenous development, initial education in the vernacular is not limited to an adaptation focusing on literacy. Instead a completely new system based on the indigenous cultures is developed, covering the whole spectrum of academic subjects and community expressed needs. Ideally this means decentralized curriculum development for each language. Responsibility for curriculum details and content should rest with the community because they are the cultural experts. However, they should operate within general national guidelines.

In 1990 there was a sectoral review of education that recommended a restructuring of the education system. This included introducing a village-based, three year vernacular elementary level consisting of preparatory and grades one and two, changing the community school level to include grades 3-8 and making secondary grades 9-12 available in each province. One of its main purposes was to increase access to education at all levels. The most significant qualitative change was the introduction of a vernacular elementary level. This is now in the process of being developed for the whole country.

The introduction of vernacular into the formal system began in 1990 with the introduction of the Grade One Bridging class for community schools that had an intake of students from vernacular prep schools. Vernacular oral expression and literacy were further developed during this year with vernacular skills viewed as a bridge to learning English. A Grade One visual oriented math textbook was without language so that it could be taught using any language. Preparatory level materials produced included a general curriculum guide and a teachers resource book for math. To assist with the development of literacy materials for new prep schools, shell pictures for the big books used in group reading were made available for local language texts. Later these included blank theme webs on the covers to assist teachers in developing an integrated weekly curriculum around a theme related to the shell book story.

Institutional support for initial vernacular education continued. The PNG Integral Human Development Trust developed a network through most of the country and provided training in literacy and awareness activities. In 1993 the Staff Development Unit of the Port Moresby Inservice College provided a national inservice course for community school personnel on vernacular education. It now provides training for provincial elementary education trainers who provide training at the district level for vernacular elementary teachers. SIL moved beyond national training in basic literacy techniques to a more thorough program that includes the knowledge and skills needed to develop an elementary level vernacular education program. The role of the new University of Education in Goroka and the teachers' colleges in elementary education remain to be seen.

Language policy for basic education has changed 180 degrees from what it was three decades ago. PNG has made significant progress, especially when one considers that there are an estimated 860+ languages in this country. With initial vernacular literacy programs operating in over one-fourth of these languages, there is still a long way to go. The challenge now is to implement this policy by expanding it to all the languages desiring it, and to develop a professional, formal education system in the vernacular that retains community control and does not become bureaucratized. Initial indications are that it is being introduced in a top-down manner with some provincial education personnel in some areas discouraging vernaculars in favor of English or Tok Pisin and centralized curriculum instead of community based ones.


The historical development traced above is summarized in the following table:

60s 70s 80s 90s
Process Westernization Localization Indigenous Adaptation Indigenous Development
Policy Centralized Colonial Centralized National Decentralized Multilevel
Perspective Western Culture Imported Moderating Western Local culture for Literacy Local Culture for education
Language English English, restricted local language Local Language in Nonformal Local Language in Formal
University English

Descriptive Linguistics
Applied Linguistics by NGO

Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu

Waigani Seminar

Dutton:Tok Pisin
UPNG ERU Literacy

Oro and Enga Provinces

Literacy Courses
SIL Descriptive and applied Linguistics

Adult literacy
Applied Linguistics at UPNG

National Training
Assist provinces,communities with vernacular schools

Literacy, production methods

Tok Ples workers seminar

Secondment to NDOE
Cultural based curriculum development

Vernacular education training program
Significant Persons & Events G Kilalang

J. Gunther
Tok Pisin Conference

NSP Research

Vernacular in Teachers' Colleges

Philosophy of Education

Language & Literacy Section

Language & Literacy Policy

Literacy and Awareness Programme
Education Reform

Literacy In-service

Curriculum Reform


Brommall, J. and R. May (eds.) 1975. Education in Melanesia. Canberra: Australian National University.

Evans, Beverly. 1986. A comparison of eclectic and language experience approaches to reading in vernacular schools, Papua New Guinea Journal of Education 22:49-58.

Faraclas, Nicholas and Mary Stringer. 1988. Working Together for Literacy. Wewak: Christian Books Melanesia.

Gunther, John. 1969. More English, more teachers. New Guinea 4:43-53.

Kilalang, Ernest. 1993. Personal communication.

Litteral, Robert. 1986. Vernacular education in Papua New Guinea: Preschools. Papua New Guinea Journal of Education 22:41-48.

McElhanon, Ken, ed. 1975. Tok Pisin i go we? Port Moresby: Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea.

Date created: 9-Feb-1999

[SILEWP 1999 Contents | SILEWP Home | SIL Home]