PNG students turn to TikTok to breathe new life into native tongue as country’s traditional languages die out

YOUTUBE: How TikTok is helping save Papua New Guinea’s endangered languages

By Hilda Wayne and Jordan Fennell – Pacific Beat on ABC News

Papua New Guinea is home to more than 850 native languages that are said to be dying with each generation. But two university students are working to change that.

Emily Papa and Lisamarie Wia, both in their final year of study at the University of PNG, started creating TikTok videos to teach people about their language of Engan, after they were inspired by another user on the platform.

“We came across this young Chinese lady who was giving out tutorials in her Chinese language and we were motivated because we like speaking Engan, our language,” Ms Wia said.

“We decided why not do the same and teach other Papua New Guineans and Pacific Islanders our language?” 

Engan is the language of Enga province in PNG’s northern highlands and has five districts and dialects.

Unlike some of the country’s endangered languages, Engan is still widely used as it is the only native language of the province.

Ms Wia (right) and Ms Papa are encouraging others to learn and share their native languages on social media.(Supplied)

“Basically, we started with greetings, common things like ‘good morning’ and ‘good afternoon’,” Ms Papa said.

“Then we moved to pronouns … and from there we want to build up.”

Since the pair started making the videos earlier this year, their language lessons have received plenty of views — and praise — from around the world, with one video racking up 84,000 views alone. 

“We’ve received some messages from England, from somewhere in US too, some in New Zealand, but mostly [from] Pacific island countries,” Ms Papa said.

“We didn’t expect this … so we’re really happy.

“This is something new, so we’re proud of that.”

So, why are PNG’s languages dying out?

The introduction of the colonial-era language of Tok Pisin and English to PNG and increased migration from regional villages to the cities are believed to be behind the decline in native languages. 

The uptake of social media — where most Papua New Guineans communicate in English and Tok Pisin — is also said to be part of the problem, but Ms Papa and Ms Wia are proving the online platforms can be a force for good.

The pair say they want to see other people share their Pacific culture and language with the world.

Now the students want to encourage people in other Pacific nations to do the same.

“Pacific Island countries have rich culture and a lot of languages and things to teach the outside world,” Ms Papa said.

“So why not share our culture, share our language, showcase our pride in who we are and show the world what we have here?”

Keeping culture alive

Melbourne-based mother of three, Albertha Sukaliana, is worried her young sons might lose their language of Halia, after moving to Australia from PNG’s autonomous region of Bougainville.

“I’m trying my best to keep our language going by teaching them,” she said.

While Ms Sukaliana’s family love sharing their culture through traditional dance at events in Victoria, she said the TikTok tutorials helped bring language back into the lives of young people.

Ms Sukaliana (right) tries to do her part to pass her culture and language on to her sons.

“That’s the way to teach our younger generation and to keep our culture alive as well [as] our language,” she said.

Ms Sukaliana said after watching the Engan language tutorials on TikTok she wanted to encourage her teenage sons to consider creating their own videos in their region’s language. 

Social media bridging resource gap

Australian National University linguistics expert Danielle Barth said the TikTok initiative was a positive use of social media.

“I think it’s really important that people in PNG can take their language into their own hands and promote their language themselves,” she said.

“TikTok is a great way to do it because people engage with it.”

Dr Barth said using platforms such as TikTok helped to bridge the gap for those who wished to learn, but did not have access to learning materials.

“Especially for languages where we don’t have heaps of resources or textbooks,” she said.

Dr Barth has been working with the Matukar people in Madang province in northern PNG, to document their language in videos and dictionaries, as part of a long-term project to preserve the language.

She hoped to see villages teach their local language in school but said “that’s a big ask to pull off”. 

Some suggest children should learn in their native language for their first years of education.(Supplied: Mark Harris)

PNG lawyer and writer Dale Digori noted the risk of languages dying out in a 2015 article and suggested children should complete their first school years in their own local languages. 

“We need to change our mindsets with regard to educational policies and reintroduce the old system by which children use their Indigenous languages in the first few years of their basic education,” Mr Digori wrote at the time.

“We also need to establish effective organisations which work towards conserving and promoting our languages and our rich cultural diversity.”

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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