When we talk about language, we often use different words to describe it. We say “indigenous language”, “vernacular language”, “official language”, “national language”, “first language”, “mother language”… That’s a lot of languages, don’t you agree? We are all familiar with these names, but do we know what they really mean? Are they one and the same thing?

2019 has been proclaimed as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. To raise awareness, to promote, to protect. This is a truly wonderful initiative that will only be successful if people fully understand what the fight is for.

An indigenous language is a language native to a particular region (not brought to that place from elsewhere) that’s spoken by indigenous people. Most Pacific tongues (Tongan, Tahitian, Nauruan, Pohnpeian, Hawaiian, etc.) are indigenous languages. Interesting is the fact that an indigenous language doesn’t always have to have the status of a national or official language. For example Drehu, one of the indigenous tongues in New Caledonia, is neither a national nor an official language.

Most indigenous languages are also vernaculars. What is a vernacular language? It is a language people use in everyday life within their own community, but not necessarily outside it. The word “vernacular” comes from Latin “vernaculus”, which means “domestic, native”. As with indigenous tongues, all Pacific languages are vernaculars. In Polynesia and Micronesia, the Islanders generally speak only one vernacular. In Tuvalu, for instance, that’s Tuvaluan. In Melanesia, where there is a large number of indigenous tongues, people tend to speak two or even more vernacular languages. Papua New Guinea is a good example here.

A vernacular is often contrasted with a lingua franca, otherwise known as a vehicular or bridge language. It is used when speakers of different vernaculars want to communicate with each other. In the Pacific region, the lingua francas are English, French, and – in Melanesia – also the local creoles: Bislama, Pijin, and Tok Pisin. They are usually (but not always) the Islanders’ second languages – languages they prefer to use “in the world” (especially the younger generations).

Speaking of which, what is the difference between the first and the second language? I think it is not difficult to guess that a first language – also known as a L1 or a native language – is the language a person learns to speak first as a child. Many people use the term interchangeably with a mother tongue, but the latter doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning. Let me explain. For some people their mother tongue is their first language, so they will say that a first language and a mother tongue are the same thing. But for others,  those whose parents come from another country for example, a mother tongue may refer to the language their parents speak and the first language – the language the person chooses to use on a daily basis. So as you can see, the term “mother tongue” is somewhat ambiguous. However, most linguists equate it with a first language, so we can say they are synonyms.

As for the second language, or a L2, this is a language a person is not a native speaker of. It is learnt later (usually as a foreign tongue). Obviously, not everyone speaks a second language, and some people speak more than one.

Now that we know the basics, let’s focus on an official and a national language. The former is a language that’s given a special legal status in a particular country or other jurisdiction. Typically, a country’s official language is the language of government, the law, and formal education. In most Pacific Island states, English and French function as the official language, even if this is not written in the country’s constitution. Such situation, where a language external to the country has been adopted as an official language, is called an exoglossic language policy, while the promotion of an indigenous tongue as an official language is called an endoglossic language policy.

Probably the most difficult to define is a national language. It is a language that has “cultural” ties with a particular territory – either “de facto” (existing in reality) or “de jure” (recognized by law). A national language is not the same as an official language and isn’t always mentioned in a constitution. As John Lynch notices, Vanuatu is one of the few Pacific countries where the national (Bislama) and official (Bislama, English, French) languages are spelled out in the constitution.

It is important to be able to differentiate between the language terms we so often use. We may think it doesn’t really matter, but it does. So don’t be an ignorant, but a well-informed individual.

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