Culture and Language

by | Mar 31, 2017 | Team Vanuatu 17

Lachlan shares some insights on culture and language.

I’m about to tell you you’re wrong. But hold on anyway and we’ll have fun. Promise.

There are two myths about culture. The first is that our culture is better and everyone would be better off with more of it. The second is that everyone else’s culture would be better without some of ours. That is also wrong. So let’s be wrong together, because a little voice is going to tell you one of these a couple of times while you read this. Ignore the voice, grab a coffee and strap in.

Some of the kids we took for English classes.

Vanuatu culture is awesome. People are ridiculously friendly, excessively generous, and they’re about the only culture that actually understands Aussie humour. People smile and wave and banter and it’s all happy and fun. I’m really going to miss talking under the stars, walking hand-in-hand with old men (there’s a story for another time), and joking with kids even though our shared vocabulary is only five words. I’m also missing Sydney’s walks along the harbour, good coffee with good friends, snuggling on a lounge with comfortable cushions, and erudite dinner conversations with my kids. At least one of these things really happened. There are good things in both cultures. Both cultures have bad things, too. But I’m writing this pre-coffee, so let’s concentrate on the good.

One good outcome of the mixing of cultures is that it’s allowed language to flourish; a common language, Bislama, has enabled communication across the islands. But language is vital to culture and the government has mandated that education will take place in the local languages.

A quick primer on languages: different languages tend to develop when you’re isolated from your neighbours or when you don’t want to talk to your neighbours because you’re waging war against them. Vanuatu has 110-ish to 140-ish languages, depending on how you count them. Some of that is due to isolation and some of it is because of armed conflict (both are features of Vanuatu’s past). It happens all over the world, but Vanuatu is particularly language-dense.

Some of the literature produced by SIL.

Bible translators are the only source of written literature in many of these languages. The village we were in, Nikaura on Epi Island, has just received its first published literature ever: the Lewo New Testament (Lewo is the local language). On Friday, we spent a few hours packaging up an urgent shipment of books to the island of Tanna. Bible translators from SIL are the only people producing school books, or any books at all, in some of the local languages. Bible translation has enabled the locals to have not only the good news of Jesus in their own language, but education as well.

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