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Children Thriving in Many Languages: In a land of a hundred languages, children are finally allowed to learn in their own

Date: 2 August 2018

Opening comments by CoEDL Advisory Board member the Honourable Ralph Regenvanu MP, Vanuatu's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, at the opening of the Vanuatu Languages Conference, Port Vila, 25 July 2018


In my opening remarks, I want to talk about the contribution almost all of you have made and will continue to make to the Government’s new vernacular literacy program and Vanuatu’s development in general.

Two years ago, Vanuatu adopted a new development strategy, the Vanuatu National Sustainable Development Plan 2016-2030, also known as “The Peoples Plan” or “Vision2030”.

To quote from the Foreword to the Plan,

Throughout the extensive public consultations that informed this plan, Ni-Vanuatu resoundingly called for a balance between the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development, with our cultural heritage as the foundation of an inclusive society. 

There are references to languages in the “Society” Pillar of the Plan:

SOC 1.1. “Promote and protect indigenous languages”

SOC 1.6. “Integrate culture and heritage into the national curriculum”

Since the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) began to implement the new primary curriculum, with support under the VESP program, an enormous shift in Vanuatu education has begun.

A key component was the decision to give first languages a place in early learning.   This has led to a number of provincial workshops, many of which were ably facilitated by some of the linguists and SIL members who are at the conference 

THANK YOU for your involvement in not just carrying out their academic research, but in actively giving back to the communities where they have worked, with the result that vernacular language readers for Years 1-3 have been prepared in 59 Vanuatu language varieties.

Bislama has also found a new place in education.  It is also recognized as a first language or the main language of communication in many schools, especially in urban areas. As well, it is also being widely used as the language for providing training and support for teachers.

The Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) has produced an extensive range of teacher guides and other teacher support materials, mainly in Bislama, that are now in all primary classrooms.

There has been a lot of questioning, challenging and criticism, particularly on social media, about the new directions of Vanuatu education, but MoET and CDU, in particular, have actively promoted and advocated for the new policy.  The Government is committed to ensuring that Vanuatu’s children obtain the best opportunities for learning and preparation for life, and all of us at this conference know that this means building a strong foundation for education through the child’s first language.  There are also very good cultural and social reasons why this approach, now regarded as best educational practice all around the world, is important for Vanuatu.

Early results and informal indications from this new approach are very pleasing.  There are wide reports of improved attendance, high levels of student interest and engagement with classroom learning, teachers are discovering a new sense of motivation and satisfaction, and parents are observing their children displaying new levels of communication and understanding.

The overall approach to language education is one of positive additive multilingualism, so that children are helped to expand their abilities and build competency in all the languages they need.   The original language policy did not provide for further use or support for the first language beyond the early years, but under the “ademap lanwis” approach, children’s knowledge of their first language and Bislama will be regarded as a powerful asset to assist learning at all levels, and it is also an important area of identity and knowledge that should continue to be fostered from Years 1-13.   The main emphasis in Years 1-3 is building a foundation in literacy and learning in the first language, with some exposure to English or French, and then in Years 4-6 a dual language approach will see more concentration on learning English or French with continuing support from the first language.  At secondary level, learning the other international language will also be added in, as well as learning of any other languages thought to be useful.

MoET looks forward to consolidating vernacular education in the early years, and building multilingualism through the senior primary and secondary levels of education, and eventually at tertiary level as well.

John Lynch has been a key person assisting us in this work, with his excellent ‘contrastive analysis’ booklet for all language practitioners in Vanuatu, and I understand many of you are awaiting the printing of that. 

This year, the Government has started paying the salaries of Early Childhood Education teachers and providing grants to Early Childhood Education providers (or kindergartens and preschools) that are part of Government-recognised schools, which will be teaching literacy in the vernacular.  The Government has also now decided, as of next year, to focus its education programs and budget specifically on basic education in Years 1 to 13, which will provide additional impetus to the vernacular literacy program. 

Finally, thank you for continuing to collaborate with the USP’s Pacific Languages Unit and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

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