Do you think that you have to know Tongan, Tahitian, Marshallese, Bislama, or some other Pacific language in order to get by in Oceania? Well, it surely is nice to be able to talk with the locals using their mother tongue, but in the Blue Continent it isn’t really necessary. If you can speak English or parles français, you will be just fine.
Yes, the colonial languages are alive and well in the Pacific. Ever since they were brought – together with new religions, practices, foods, and various western world goods – by Europeans and Americans in the 19th century, they’ve been constantly present in the Islanders’ lives. It’s sort of like a marriage, for better and for worse. Only Oceania was forced to take the vows.
For a very long time, English and French were considered superior to the indigenous tongues of the region. Some of the natives can still remember when the use of the vernaculars was not encouraged, sometimes even forbidden. Such was the case with Samoan, for example. It was banned at schools, even though large percentage of students spoke the language at home. An almost identical situation existed in French Polynesia, Tonga, Cook Islands, Guam, and many other states. Students, but also teachers, would get punished for using their mother tongue instead of the language of their colonizers.
Thankfully, this has now changed. Pacific languages have started to receive proper attention that they surely deserve. However, that doesn’t mean that English and French have gone out of the spotlight. There has been no separation, and it seems that none of the parties wants to file for divorce. Which is both a good and bad thing.
It can’t be denied that English and French divested Oceania’s native tongues of their strength, power, and importance. They have become the official languages of most Pacific island nations as well as of various regional organisations, such as The Pacific Islands Forum, The Pacific Community, or The Melanesian Spearhead Group. They have been chosen as media of instructions in schools. They have conquered the local newspapers, televisions, and radio stations. They have been used in daily external, but often also internal, communication.
This supremacy is excellently seen in, for instance, the constitution of Kiribati, which reads: “The provisions of this Constitution shall be published in a Kiribati language text as well as this English text, but in the event of any inconsistency between the two texts this English text shall prevail.” Even the constitution of Vanuatu, which lists the national as well as the official languages, gives precedence to the metropolitan tongues: “The national language of the Republic of Vanuatu is Bislama. The official languages are Bislama, English and French. The principal languages of education are English and French.”
The choice between English and French and the countries’ native languages is not an easy one. It is absolutely necessary to support Oceania’s culture and heritage, of which languages are a part. But it is just as important to ensure efficiency of communication among so many multilingual nations.
Thanks to English and French, the lingua francas of the region, people from different countries and speaking different languages are able to easily communicate with each other. They can share ideas and common experiences; they can work together and fight together; they can make their broad Pacific family grow stronger. Because – as Epeli Hau’ofa once wrote – the people of Oceania are connected rather than separated by the sea.
But English and French are important for one more reason. Since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a rise in Pacific migration. The Islanders decide to leave their homes and settle overseas for job opportunities, better healthcare, or simply out of fear of losing their lands to the ocean. As terrifying as this sounds, that’s the (sad) reality. The knowledge of the language of the destination country can reduce the inequalities between Pasifika people and Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, or the French, and therefore contribute to their success in school and on the job market. Taking this into account, for the sake of the Pacific Islanders and their future, English and French should probably still be present in the Blue Continent. And I am certain they will. Because over the decades, these two once intrusive languages have settled in just fine in Oceania, becoming an inherent part of the local cultures.