Language toktok


Should I speak English with my children?
IN this monthly discussion we will answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at whether young parents should speak English at home with their children.
In this post-colonial country, being able to speak English is vital for success in life. Without a good command of English, the doors to entry to university or a good job are closed. Without English you don’t have easy access to technology, international news, or the books in your local library. All parents want the best for their children, and that includes being able to use English. But does that mean that parents should use English instead of their local language at home?
The temptation to do this is great. Everyone knows that young children learn languages best when they are young, and that native users of a language are the best users. But there are great costs to using only English as a home language.
The greatest cost is one of identity. Without being able to speak a local language, it is difficult to establish a local identity and to feel part of a local society, especially for children raised in town. In an extreme situation, they end up identifying more with other people who speak the way they do. This can mean only other city children or it can mean expatriate English speakers such as Australians. Children like this can grow up feeling as if they are foreigners in their own country, without any real roots here.
Another cost is missing out on the benefits of bilingualism. Studies in a number of countries have shown that when all other things (parents’ salaries, education opportunities, health levels, etc.) are equal, children who speak more than one language tend to do better on IQ tests than monolingual children. We think this is because it is easier for bilingual children to think abstractly. Where monolingual children have trouble separating a concept from its name in the one language they speak, bilingual children know that there are many words for every concept and so can think in ideas and not just words.
If parents do chose to introduce English to their children at home, it is important not to mix languages. If parents continually switch between English, Tok Pisin, and a vernacular, the children will not know when a word or sentence is in one language or another. It’s better if only one person at home speaks English with the children. That way they will know, for example, that if words come out of Mum’s mouth, they are English, but if Dad speaks, it is Engan. If both parents spend time with their children, they will learn both languages.
Sometimes it is difficult for parents to avoid making English the main language of the household. Often this is with educated parents from different language backgrounds who do not understand each other’s languages. This is where the PNG extended family network shines, as it is not difficult to bring in bubus or aunties to live near or with the children and use only tok ples with them. Along with tok ples the children will learn traditional stories and legends and build an identity with their ancestors, even if they live in town.
But it is not necessary to speak English at home to develop a good command of English. Think of some of the most eloquent speakers of English, such as Sir Michael Somare or Sir Julius Chan. English was not a home language for them, but they had access to good schools and to books, which they used to build good English skills. If you can put your children in a good school and make sure they have access to books, they will have the opportunity to learn English at school while still learning about their own culture and language from you at home. This is surely the best of both worlds.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at or PO Box 642, Kavieng.

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