Why ignore English as an economic resource?


In this monthly discussion we will answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how the English language could be an economic resource for PNG.
“Why are Papua New Guineans so stupid?”  When my Japanese guest asked me this question, I was stunned.
After all, he had been talking about how much he was enjoying his visit to PNG and how friendly everyone everyone was to him.
He was even making plans to come back for another visit.
I was ready to kick him out of my house.
Then he explained. He said that in Japan, even highly educated university professors often don’t speak English well enough to hold a simple conversation.
If a foreigner tries to ask the average person on the street where the nearest bus stop is, often the only answer is giggling, hand-waving, and “no English”.
But he said in PNG even the most simple seller in the market would try to speak to him in English, and while the village where he was staying didn’t have electricity or running water, nearly everyone could joke and tell stories with him in English.
He said many Japanese grow up thinking speaking English with this much ease is impossible.
He said he knew many people in his country who would chop off their arm if it meant they could speak English like the average educated Papua New Guinean.
I told him that this English ability didn’t come easily.
People went to school for many years to learn how to use English, and unlike Japan, where all schools and universities teach in Japanese, the trade-off is that most people in PNG could not read or write easily in their own native language.
He replied that he understood that. But his point was that after so much time and effort, most Papua New Guineans then went on to do nothing with their English except watch overseas videos.
He said that in the eastern Pacific Rim, only the Philippines, Singapore, and, of course, Australia, had better levels of English in the general population.
He wanted to know why PNG didn’t host off-shore call centres or send its teachers throughout Asia teaching English.
He said with the Internet, there were many opportunities for people to run online services in English like people from India and the Philippines do. He said people were wasting a valuable linguistic resource, and that was stupid.
He had a point.
But there are exceptions. I know some individual Papua New Guineans  do make use of their English skills.
Many of my village neighbours listen to the news on BBC or Radio Australia shortwave and are far better informed about world events than some of my relatives in the United States or Europe.
I remember that when I was a university student in Hawai’i, one of my fellow students was a PNG student earning extra money editing essays for Asian students with poor English writing skills.
And I know of a Papua New Guinean high school student in Japan with her family who was teaching English in the evenings and earning over K3000 a month.
These are the results of individuals’ effort and entrepreneurship. But my friend was correct in saying that as a nation, PNG was ignoring a resource that can earn money just as coffee, minerals, and palm oil can.
The lack of internet infrastructure and the high cost of internet access where it does exist mean that fewer young people can afford to surf the internet and train themselves in internet app building or website development skills than in PNG’s Asian neighbours.
International telephone calls in and out of PNG are among the highest in the world, so running a call centre in Port Moresby would be far more expensive than in Manila or Bangalore.
The lack of government promotion of employment opportunities in Asia and the Middle East that require English skills means these go to Filipinos and Africans instead.
By improving internet and telecommunication access and lowering costs, many more Papua New Guineans could enter the global web-linked economy, one that is heavily dependent on English language skills.
The relatively high speeds, easy accessibility, and low costs of internet access in neighbouring Jayapura show that this is not impossible.
I look forward to the day when Asians come to PNG to study English rather than Guam or Fiji, PNG announcers are featured on Asian English language TV channels, and .com.pg startups are listed on the POM stock exchange.
I may not have liked the words my friend used, but he was right: the English language is too valuable a resource for PNG to ignore.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland, and Jakob Fugger Visiting Professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.