Oceania is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. It comes as no surprise then that the vast majority of its inhabitants speak more than one language. But is the large number of indigenous tongues the sole reason for this?
The answer to the above question is: no, it isn’t. The multitude of native languages is only one of the causes; the remaining two are colonization and migration.
In the 19th century, the Blue Continent was a highly sought-after corner of our globe. The British, French, Germans, Spaniards, Japanese were among those who willingly visited the islands, bringing with them their mother tongues. English and French gained particular popularity – they contributed to the development of the local pidgins and have become the languages of choice for official communication in all Pacific countries and territories.
Multilingualism in the region has been further enhanced by increased social mobility. While Islanders often decide to settle overseas, which in many ways compels them to be multilingual, people from other countries choose the South Seas as their new home. There are immigrant communities in virtually all Pacific states: Chinese in Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru; Vietnamese and Indonesian in New Caledonia; Korean in Guam; Filipino in Papua New Guinea and Palau.
A true Tower of Babel, isn’t it? Well, only in Oceania.
Most Pacific Islanders are at least bilingual, using two languages on a daily basis. But there are also individuals who can impress you with knowledge of three or even more tongues. You can find them mainly in Melanesia. Why there? John Lynch gives us a thorough explanation in his book. In short: each Melanesian country contains a large number of vernacular languages. The natives, therefore, in addition to their mother tongue and national creole (Bislama, Pijin, Tok Pisin), often speak one or more neighbouring vernaculars as well as fluent/some English and/or French.
In Polynesia and Micronesia, where there generally is one language per island group, the situation is different. People tend to use their native tongue – for example Tongan, Samoan, Marshallese, Kosraean – and a second language, which is either English or French.
Interesting is the fact that Islanders choose to speak vernacular languages at home or within their own community. In more “formal” circumstances, they prefer to use the country’s official language or its lingua franca. John Lynch writes: “In the market in Vila (…) a ni-Vanuatu would use the vernacular if the person selling vegetables came from the same language community (or possibly a nearby one), but Bislama if she didn’t. During a coffee break in a Honiara office, the staff would probably talk in Pijin if they were all Solomon Islanders, but would most likely use English if some expatriates were taking part in the conversation.”
What is more, the Islanders frequently switch from one language to another during a single conversation. This is known as code-switching and is quite common among multilinguals, who practise it for various reasons. Sometimes speakers shift between codes completely unintentionally, without even realizing it. This usually happens when they are talking with a member of their own culture. Other times they do it deliberately, simply to better convey a certain message or idea.
John Lynch also points out that “conversations are often carried out in two languages when the participants understand both languages fairly well, but each speaks only one of them fluently”. He illustrates it with the following example: “In a Port Moresby office (…) a Papuan worker (for whom Hiri Motu rather than Tok Pisin would be the lingua franca) might well listen to a conversation in Tok Pisin, but make his or her contribution to it in English.”
As you can see, the linguistic situation in Oceania is a very interesting one. The region is rich in languages, both vernacular and intrusive. This surely brings many problems and dilemmas, especially when it comes to maintaining a proper balance between the use of the native and “foreign” tongues. But it can’t be denied that this is also a great privilege. Multilingualism has been shown to have many advantages. And though a lot of people in the world can say “I speak English and French.”, not so many can (proudly) say “I speak Samoan and English.”