Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Vanuatu

Today marks Independence Day for the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. There are several reasons why we love Vanuatu: the name is fun to say, it's always one of the prize-winning answers on the BBC's quiz show "Pointless", and we could look at photos of those beautiful islands all day. However, the main reason we love the world's 162nd largest country is because of its linguistic diversity.

Vanuatu has three official languages, two of which are not indigenous. English and French retain official language status in the country due to its  colonial history. Even though the first Europeans to arrive in Vanuatu were Portuguese explorers, it was the British and the French who were most interested in controlling Vanuatu. The two European nations were so interested in Vanuatu that they agreed to collaboratively control it from 1906 until 1980 when Vanuatu gained its independence from both the UK and France.

The flag of Vanuatu
While I love both the English and French languages, their official status in Vanuatu is a sad reminder of both countries' colonial pasts. The presence of English has also led to the creation of Bislama, the country's third official language, which is a creole language and the most common second language across Vanuatu.

Bislama is spoken natively by around 10,000 of the 265,000 people on the islands of Vanuatu, though there are 100,000 speakers of it as a second language. 95% of Bislama's lexicon is of English origin with a few words of French origin and the remainder made up from Oceanic languages.

Vanuatu as a nation has the highest density of languages per capita of any nation in the world. The nation has such a high density of languages that no country, other than Papua New Guinea, even comes close.

In fact, Vanuatu is home to over 100 indigenous languages and all of them belong to the Oceanic language family. Since the Oceanic language family is only made up of around 450 languages, more than in 1 in 5 Oceanic languages are spoken in Vanuatu.

While we won't go into the details of every language, but what we can say is that the largest of the languages is spoken by around 11,500 people and the smallest of them are going extinct. The decline in the other languages is partly due to the use of Bislama, whose growth is said to be responsible for the decline of indigenous languages. In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of people in Vanuatu who speak indigenous languages natively dropped from 73.1% to 63.2%.