Integrating indigenous knowledge and language into a post-colonial education system in Papua New Guinea

Author: Cláudio da Silva (University of Coimbra)
Craig Alan Volker (James Cook University)
Speaker: Cláudio da Silva, Craig Alan Volker
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Although Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country and Melanesian culture is centred on small, local units, the education system inherited from the Australian colonial rulers is surprisingly monolingual and centralised. This means that children are educated in English, a language most rarely encounter outside of school, with curriculum and educational materials produced outside the students’ cultural area, often overseas or by foreigners. A poorly organised attempt to introduce limited early education in local languages and the perception that educational standards have dropped since Independence in 1975 mean that there is little public support for education in Papua New Guinean languages (Volker 2014).

A two-month inter-disciplinary workshop in the Nalik-speaking community in New Ireland Province looked at ways of introducing customary knowledge and language into grade 6 and 7 classwork (da Silva 2017). The workshop centred on birds, as birds play an important role in Nalik stories and social representation.

The children were given research goals to interview elders about local bird names, related traditional laws, and stories related to the birds. Students researched important biological or philosophical terms in Nalik, explained them in English, and linked this to knowledge from the social and natural sciences. They presented their findings in individual handwritten books and one longer book written together as a class. Because the students knew that their writing would be published, most took great care in ensuring their English grammar was correct and that they used Nalik terms correctly.

Problems encountered in the workshop included a lack of engagement by teachers, a majority of whom were not Nalik. Nevertheless, the project was strongly supported by parents and community leaders, with one chief attending almost all sessions so that he can lead similar workshops himself in future. Teachers report an increase in students’ care in writing in English and clan elders report a greater understanding of “classical” Nalik terminology used in malagan and other traditional contexts.


Da Silva, C. 2017. “As aves na cultura Nalik: um projeto educativo na Papua Nova Guiné.” University of Coimbra, unpublished MA thesis.

Volker, Craig Alan. 2015. Vernacular education in Papua New Guinea: Reform or deform? In Craig Alan Volker and Fred Anderson (eds.), Education in Languages of Lesser Power: Asia-Pacific Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 2015