Vanuatu is a country of oral tradition, in which the transmission of language and knowledge has always relied on memory rather than writing. Literacy was introduced by missionaries on the one hand, and by the modern school on the other. The children of northern Vanuatu usually discover literacy in languages other than their own. The language chosen by Anglican missionaries, during the 19th century, was once Mota; the modern school makes use of French, English, and Bislama. Speakers of vernacular languages hardly ever read, let alone write, their own language; while they may speak it fluently, they barely know any stable spelling system to transcribe it. Sometimes they just guess roughly how to transcribe their own vernacular, based on what they know of French or English. But when languages have complex phonologies (especially those of northern Vanuatu, with up to 12, 14, or 16 vowel phonemes), most speakers prefer to wait for an orthography to be designed, and taught in a formal way, before they can really start writing their language. In the meantime, they will associate the use of writing (for signs, letters, text messages) with languages other than their own. This situation tends to weaken the sustainability of vernacular languages in the long run.
Since 2000, I have endeavoured to provide each language community I have visited with a suitable orthography. The first stage consists for me to figure out the phonological system of each language separately, and come up with my own spelling proposals. Then I organise public meetings in each community, so as to present my orthography and discuss options for the more difficult cases. Once we agree upon a stable orthography – the “proper alphabet” of the language, as it will often be called – I set out to prepare learning materials for each language. This effort comes besides my academic duties and usually takes place during my weekends, but I am happy to do it, as I feel it can be useful to the communities who have taught me their languages.
Over the years, I have thus been able to produce a number of booklets for literacy education – a total of 18 books so far. They are of two kinds:
– displaying and exemplifying the language's orthography, letter by letter;
– providing stories to read, usually taken from my rich corpus of recorded traditional stories.
These books are all monolingual, and richly illustrated – for which I thank my wife Sawako.
Each time I finish a book, I print a number of copies, and present them to the community in a subsequent trip. Should they be approved, I do my best for them to be introduced into the school system – especially now that the Government of Vanuatu is expressing interest in supporting the vernacular languages of the country.
In 2006, the Alliance Française de Port-Vila generously supported the production of 600 booklets for the Mwotlap language. The other booklets are ready – and approved by their communities – and I am currently looking for funding to help me produce enough copies for the schools and villages. [Feel free to write to me if you have any tip on this!]
All booklets can be downloaded from this page.