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Papua New Guinea: Newsline

A recipe for success in Papua New Guinea

©UNESCO/Rocky Roe
Girls at Besea Elementary school in Central Province

Early childhood care and education is the theme of the 2006 ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ to be launched by UNESCO and UNICEF on 26 October.

By Oseah Philemon in Port Moresby

October 2006 - In a country with over 800 different languages, children in Papua New Guinea can begin their learning experience in their mother-tongue.

Barbara Mea teaches in Hanuabada, a village in Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The urban community, not far from the modern city centre, is mainly indigenous Motuan and its typical houses are built on stilts above the water. Each day, Barbara walks into her preschool level class at the Hagara Elementary School to be greeted by 35 children speaking to her in Motu. It’s their mother tongue, just one – out of over 800 - of the small island nation’s astonishing array of indigenous languages. And even though English has traditionally dominated the PNG school system, Barbara teaches all her subjects - including language, counting, colors and shapes, culture and community living - in Motu.

“In the language class,” says Barbara, “we teach children to read and write in Motu. Through the influence of early missionaries, we already have translations of the Bible and of Methodist hymns, and now there are also other books in Motu.” To get to know their culture, her pupils study the unusual Motuan calendar, which has 13 months instead of the Western calendar’s 12. “Children discover that in Motuan custom, the month determines the people’s communal activities,” she continues. “For example, in the early part of the year, they plant their gardens. Around September, most of the cultural activities take place, so we teach children about the different types of dances performed when people are celebrating.”

The same preschool programme, required by the Ministry of Education and designed to provide children with two years of basic education in their vernacular language before they enter primary school, exists throughout the country. Fred Ngansia, a teacher in Umbukul, rural village on New Hanover Island, New Ireland Province, divides his time between giving his pupils lessons in Tungag, the local language spoken by about 20,000 people, and instructing them in the ancestral life-style, including protecting the reefs that provide the community with fish and other marine resources.

© UNESCO/Rocky Roe
Elementary school at Sampubangin village Markham Valley

A recipe for success

It’s a winning formula. Children achieve literacy in their mother tongue, explore the ancient traditions and develop their sense of identity. At the same time, experts have noted, they make the developmental, cognitive and academic progress necessary to succeed in school. As Barbara Mea explains, “When children first arrive at school, they often feel lost. They’ve picked up the language within their own families - the formal setting and structured learning are new and unfamiliar. But by their third year, when they start primary school and begin to learn English, the basic skills they’ve acquired enable them to grasp it more quickly.”

Proving her point are children like eight-year-old Michael, of mixed parentage like thousands of his compatriots. His mother Stephanie Malun is Motuan, his father comes from Pidgin-speaking Manus. “Michael has learned Motu and Pidgin and is starting English,” testifies Stephanie. “He can speak all three languages quite well.”

That’s the idea. English is one of PNG’s three official languages – along with Motu and Pidgin - but it’s a first language for only 50,000 people. With an estimated 823 languages still spoken by a population of some 5.5 million and widespread multilingualism, PNG is the country with the greatest linguistic diversity in the world. It intends to keep that distinction. This is one developing country determined to preserve its cultural and linguistic uniqueness. One significant strategy is including vernacular languages in the formal education system.

Scaling up multilingual education nationally

Yet PNG’s bilingual education policies are relatively recent. From 1870 on, the first mission schools in PNG used the vernacular languages, but an English-only policy was adopted in the 1950s. Reviewed at independence in 1975, it was maintained under the 1976 Education Act.

Then, in 1979, it wasn’t the government that launched vernacular preschool education, it was a group of parents on Bougainville Island in North Solomons Province, out of concern that their children were losing their language and culture. The community-based Viles Tok Ples Skul (VTPS) (“village language school”) scheme was developed, later known as Tok Ples Pri Skul (TPPS) (“vernacular language preschools”). With local funds and the help of NGOs, it quickly spread throughout the country. Finally, the programme was incorporated in the 1995 government Education Reform and is now the responsibility of the national formal education system.

Having operated non-formally for more than 15 years, the programme still leaves room for improvisation. Fred, for instance, learned to teach simply by observing more experienced teachers. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that I grew up in the village and went to school here before high school. So I know our way of life and our language.”

This article is from the October 2006 edition of the UNESCO Courier, “Learning is child’s play”. Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier and available at at:



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Early Childhood links

eDiscussion 1: Early Childhood Care and Education and Early Gender Socialization

UNESCO: Early Childhood

UNICEF: Early Childhood

The State of the World's Children 2001: Early Childhood