In spite of the modern world claiming information is king, small isolated pockets of people still survive, who rely only on tradition and custom. Each group has its own unique language and ancient way of life. However, these groups are quickly being threatened with extinction, as was shown in UNESCO recently released comprehensive database of endangered languages.
Vanuatu, (New Hebrides), has a total of 110 living languages. However, education is not free in the 83 tropical islands of Vanuatu, a tiny South Pacific nation. According to 1997 statistics, which have changed very little, 55.8% of children reach year 6; 26% never go to school at all and only 18.2% have the opportunity to go to high school. Many of their parents can neither read nor write and exist on under $1 a day.
A widely diverse group of young adults from different islands in Vanuatu came together in a workshop, to learn to turn their oral language into the written word, during the International year of language. Most of the students had only very rudimentary primary school education. These students live in a culture where the ancient customs and traditions have been handed down orally, throughout the generations.
“It is the first time most of us have left our remote island home and flown in a plane, or crossed an ocean”, said Jesse, a mother of two. Most of the students had never seen their language in the written form.
Vanuatu is a nation of numerous endangered tongues, with Ifo already lost on the southern island of Erromango.
o Only one person speaks Aore in East Santo
o Ura, another Erromanga language, has only 6 remaining native tongue speakers
o Only 8 people can use Araki on the southern part of Santo Island
o Only 10 people speak Maragus on the island of Malekula
o Sowa on Central Raga Island has 20 native tongue speakers
o 20 people use Nasarian on the Southwest coast of Malekula
o Tambotala on Southwest Santo has 50 people who speak the language
o 50 people are able to use Mafea on East Santo
o Dixon Reef is spoken by 50 people in Southwest Malekula
o 90 people on East Malekula Island speak Repanbitip
o Only 90 people use Lehalurup on Ureparapara Island
o Maii is used by only 100 people in the southwest of Epi island
o Wailapa is spoken by only 100 people in Southwest Santo
o Only 105 people can speak Koro on Gaua Island
o Hiw is spoken by just 120 people on Torres Islands
The Island of Santo has another 8 languages where only 150 people or less are able to speak them. A further five languages have 200 native language speakers.
The question has to be, do you use the limited resources that are available, on endeavouring to keep these ancient languages alive, while most of the children remain without education, qualifications or any prospects of getting a job? While we all value the beauty of ancient languages, is there a choice between rescuing the living dinosaurs of language, or providing education for the next generation?