Dr Michael Franjieh

Dr Michael Franjieh

Conjoint Fellow

School of Humanities and Social Science

Revitalising Vanuatu's endangered languages

Dr Michael Franjieh, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the University of Newcastle's Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application Research Group is working to revitalise language and assist literacy levels by documenting some of Vanuatu's most severely endangered languages.

Dr Michael Franjieh 

Vanuatu is home to approximately 250,000 people – and over 100 indigenous languages. Each language holds a wealth of knowledge about the history, ecology, culture and tradition of Vanuatu and its people. However, many of these languages are endangered and will soon disappear. The Orkon/Fanbak language is one such severely endangered language with only 95 remaining speakers left on the island of Ambrym.

Dr Michael Franjieh will return to Ambrym in 2015 to complete his third project on the island – this time documenting Orkon/Fanbak – after being awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship by the Endangered Language Documentation Programme (ELDP), UK.

The fifth largest island in Vanuatu, Ambrym Island is covered in thick jungle with a volcanic crater dominating 100 square kilometres of the centre. Like many islands in Vanuatu, Ambrym has its own Austronesian languages: North Ambrym; Southeast Ambrym; Daakaka, Dalkalaen and Lonwolwol languages in the west; and Daakie language in the south. All languages are spoken by a few dozen to a few thousand speakers each.

Originally the Orkon/Fanbak speakers lived in two small villages on the east coast of Ambrym Island. In the 1940s the villagers moved to the north side to be closer to the church and the cargo ships, so they could sell their produce.

"Because the Orkon/Fanbak people came to live in North Ambrym speaking villages, the only time they spoke their traditional language was in the home. So they were not talking about cultural practices like births, deaths, marriages. These were all happening in the North Ambrym language," Franjieh explained. "So, the loss of traditional ecological knowledge – about plant and animal life – happened because of the loss of language but also because of the loss of the different contexts when they speak."

With so few speakers of Orkon/Fanbak left, Franjieh will involve all the remaining speakers in the project to raise awareness of its impending loss. He hopes this will have a positive impact on the use of the language and improve the prospect of language maintenance.

"Not much is known about the language of Orkon/Fanbak. It's a purely oral language with no written tradition," Franjieh said. "As part of this project, a tri-lingual Orkon/Fanbak, English and Bislama dictionary will also be created. This will be given to members of the community for use in language maintenance and also be made available for cross-linguistic research."

Franjieh became aware of the imminent loss of Orkon/Fanbak while living in a small guesthouse with a local family in a North Ambrym village to document and later create a curriculum in the North Ambrym language for the local school.

Kindergarten in Vanuatu, images by Dr Michael Franjieh Image by Dr Michael Franjieh: Kindergarten teacher with students in North Ambrym, Vanuatu

While there are over 100 indigenous languages in Vanuatu, the education curriculum is in either English or French. This has been identified as an issue in connection with low literacy rates in Vanuatu. In fact, the Vanuatu government plans to integrate many of the local languages into kindergarten and early primary education and then move children to either English or French with the aim of increasing the country's literacy levels.

"Imagine, for example, you speak English at home and you are forced to go to a school where they only speak French," Franjieh explained. "It's a big jump, cognitively. The only time you are exposed to this other language is in a very formal school setting.

"In collaboration with local kindergarten and primary teachers, I created a curriculum of North Ambrym language lessons. Basically, how the local teachers should teach the native language on a daily basis. I ran teacher training workshops, we came up with an alphabet for the language, and created about 40 different books – ABC books, story books and books about customs and culture.

"Before, when the children didn't go to school, they would do everything traditionally, but now they go to school five days a week and church on Sunday. So they are actually losing a lot of traditional knowledge," Franjieh said. "What I was trying to achieve was to put some of that knowledge into the school system so they are learning about their culture at school."

School in Vanuatu, image by Michael Franjieh

Image by Dr Michael Franjieh: Teacher training course in North Ambrym, Vanuatu

Michael Franjieh revitalising endangered language in Vanuatu

Revitalising Vanuatu's endangered languages

Dr Michael Franjieh is working to revitalise language and assist literacy levels by documenting some of Vanuatu's most severely endangered languages.

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Career Summary


Michael Franjieh is a linguist based at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Mike is an Oceanic language specialist with a specific focus on the languages of Vanuatu. Mike is collaborating with the Endangered Languages Documentation Theory and Application research group based in the linguistics department at UoN.

Endangered Languages in Vanuatu

Mike’s current project is an Endangered Language Documentation Project (ELDP) funded Post Doc working on a documentation and description of the highly endangered language of Fanbak. With around 100 active speakers of varying fluency, Fanbak was originally spoken in the two villages of Fanbak and Orkon on the eastern coast of Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, and comprised of two dialects. These villages are no longer inhabited and the speech community is now highly fragmented and dispersed throughout the dominant North Ambrym language area. The documentation will consist of a grammar sketch, a corpus of texts from different speech genres, and a detailed sociolinguistic study of social networks and language shift/loss, focusing on how competing background languages affect language use. 

Research Expertise

Mike specialises in Oceanic classifier systems and their similarities and differences to noun class/gender systems. Mike is interested in grammar writing and lexicography and morphosyntax.

Mike also works on language maintenance and has initiated vernacular language education in the North Ambrym language, Vanuatu. Mike, together with community members and local teachers developed a vernacular language curriculum and developed forty different reading books and a trilingual dictionary. North Ambrym is now being taught at the kindergarten and primary level.

Teaching Expertise

At the University of Surrey I have lectured the UG module in Language Diversity and the PG module in Global Diversity in Language and Communication as well as the PG module, Introduction to Research Methods: Answering Questions with Evidence. 

At the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Mike convened the following courses: Field Methods (PG), Morphology (UG.PG), General Linguistics (UG). Mike was also the Graduate Teaching Assistant for Intermediate Syntax (UG)

Administrative Expertise

Convening courses; creating and marking assignments and exams; marking PG dissertations; helping students during office hours, providing both pastoral and academic advice; participating in departmental and exam scrutiny meetings.


  • Doctor of Philosophy, University of London
  • Bachelor of Arts - German, Linguistics & Computer, University of London
  • Master of Arts in Language Documentation, University of London


  • Field Methods
  • General Linguistics
  • Language Description
  • Language Documentation
  • Literacy Development
  • Morphology
  • Oceanic Languages
  • Research Methods
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Syntax


  • German (Fluent)
  • Bislama (Fluent)
  • English (Mother)

Fields of Research

Code Description Percentage
200408 Linguistic Structures (incl. Grammar, Phonology, Lexicon, Semantics) 60
200406 Language in Time and Space (incl. Historical Linguistics, Dialectology) 20
200405 Language in Culture and Society (Sociolinguistics) 20


For publications that are currently unpublished or in-press, details are shown in italics.

Book (1 outputs)

Year Citation Altmetrics Link
2015 Franjieh M, The languages of Vanuatu: Unity and diversity, Asia Pacific Linguistics, Canberra (2015) [A3]

Chapter (2 outputs)

Year Citation Altmetrics Link
2015 François A, Franjieh M, Lacrampe S, Schnell S, 'The exceptional linguistic density of Vanuatu', The languages of Vanuatu: Unity and Diversity, Asia-Pacific Linguisitcs, Canberra 1-21 (2015) [B1]
2015 Franjieh M, 'The construct suffix in North Ambrym', The languages of Vanuatu: Unity and Diversity, Asia-Pacific Linguistics Open Access, Canberra 91-116 (2015)

Journal article (1 outputs)

Year Citation Altmetrics Link
2016 Franjieh M, 'Indirect possessive hosts in North Ambrym: Evidence for gender', Oceanic Linguistics, 55 87-115 (2016) [C1]

© by University of Hawai¿i Press. All rights reserved.Indirect possessive hosts (IPHs) in Oceanic languages are normally described as relational classifiers, whereby the classif... [more]

© by University of Hawai¿i Press. All rights reserved.Indirect possessive hosts (IPHs) in Oceanic languages are normally described as relational classifiers, whereby the classifier characterizes the real world semantic relation between the referent of the possessor and the possessed. The IPHs in the language of North Ambrym (Oceanic, Vanuatu) do not function as relational classifiers but instead match several of the criteria established for markers of gender. First, the IPHs in North Ambrym act as agreement markers in anaphoric possessive constructions. Second, the IPHs are specified in the lexical entry of the noun, and a noun only occurs with one IPH, unlike a classifier system where a possessed noun can occur with different IPHs. Evidence from different linguistic experiments will be presented that support the analysis of IPHs as gender markers. The experiments test different uses of possessed nouns and show that IPHs in North Ambrym do not change dependent upon interactional contexts, as expected in a fluid classifier system. Instead, each possessed noun is restricted to occur with just one IPH.

DOI 10.1353/ol.2016.0011

Conference (1 outputs)

Year Citation Altmetrics Link
2011 Franjieh MJ, Von Prince K, 'Classifying nouns vs. classifying relations: a case study from Ambrym', Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation & Linguistic Theory 3 (2011)

Grants and Funding


Number of grants 3
Total funding $266,619

Click on a grant title below to expand the full details for that specific grant.

20152 grants / $241,619

A Documentation of Orkon/Fanbak, a language of Vanuatu$239,619

Funding body: The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project

Funding body The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project
Project Team Doctor Michael Franjieh
Scheme Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship
Role Lead
Funding Start 2015
Funding Finish 2016
GNo G1401211
Type Of Funding International - Competitive
Category 3IFA

48th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea, Leiden Holland, 2-5 September 2015$2,000

Funding body: University of Newcastle - Faculty of Education and Arts

Funding body University of Newcastle - Faculty of Education and Arts
Project Team Doctor Michael Franjieh
Scheme Travel Grant
Role Lead
Funding Start 2015
Funding Finish 2015
GNo G1501041
Type Of Funding Internal
Category INTE

20131 grants / $25,000

Literacy Development of North Ambrym$25,000

A project focusing on developing vernacular literacy materials for use in early years education in the school system in North Ambrym. This included 40 books, a tri-lingual dictionary, teacher training workshops and the development of a vernacular language component for the curriculum

Funding body: Christensen Fund

Funding body Christensen Fund
Project Team

Michael Franjieh

Scheme International - Competitive
Role Lead
Funding Start 2013
Funding Finish 2014
Type Of Funding External
Category EXTE


ELDP Grants

Researchers work to save languages from extinction

October 2, 2014

The University of Newcastle has been awarded three grants from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP), UK, to assist in the documentation of endangered Pacific languages.

Dr Michael Franjieh


Conjoint Fellow
School of Humanities and Social Science
Faculty of Education and Arts

Contact Details

Email michael.franjieh@newcastle.edu.au
Phone (02) 4921 6031


Room MC125
Building McMullin