The University of Newcastle, Australia

Two-year project culminates in the creation of vital language resources for Vanuatu communities

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Post doctoral Research Fellow with UON's Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application Research Program, Michael Franjieh, has just finished a two-year project examining one of the most endangered and undocumented languages in Vanuatu. During his work in the field Michael has been creating vital resources including dictionaries and storybooks to ensure the language lives on through the generations.

Funded by the UK-based Endangered Language Documentation Programme (ELDP), Michael’s research focused on a small, undocumented language called Fanbyak.

“The literal meaning of Fanbyak is under the banyan’ and was the name of the original village where the language was spoken. There are only 130 speakers of this language and it is spoken in three different villages on the island of Ambrym in Vanuatu," Michael said.

Michael has been focused on describing descriptions of different areas of the language’s grammar for use by other linguists interested in Oceanic languages and examined how migration and marriage affects intergenerational language transmission.

During his fieldwork in Vanuatu he has also been working with the community to ensure the language is maintained and passed down to younger generations.

“I held an alphabet workshop with the community to discuss which letters to use for the written version of the language and how to write and spell different words. I have recorded many traditional stories from different language speakers. These have been written down and edited by some of the speakers and I am turning these into storybooks for people to learn to read in their language.

“Along with my main language consultant, I am creating a dictionary of the language to help people read and write in Fanbyak. This is the first time Fanbyak has been written down. We hope that by creating these materials, people will be motivated to learn the language, especially those who can understand the language, but can’t speak it.”

Centre for 21st Century Humanities member and ELDTA Director, Dr Bill Palmer said Michael’s work is creating fundamental changes on the island of Ambrym to raise awareness of the impending loss of the language, while at the same time casting light on what the language can add to the scientific knowledge of language.

“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. Through the creation of these educational resources and documentation of the language Michael is having a direct impact on preserving the language and the culture of the community,” Dr Palmer said. “The study of small previously undescribed languages like Fanbyak also has considerable scientific value. Every different language is built on the same shared mental capacity for language that all humans are born with. By seeing the differences between languages like Fanbyak and other languages we already know something about, we have more of an insight into what languages can be like.

During his most recent visit to Ambrym, Michael collated family trees of all the speakers of the language as part of his research on intergenerational language transmission.

“I found 130 fluent speakers of the language out of a total of 670 people from the Fanbyak community. The reason that speakers are not passing on their language is due to migration to different linguistic areas where they are outnumbered by speakers of other languages and end up speaking the larger language.”

“For example within the island of Ambrym all Fanbyak speakers are polylingual and speak the larger North Ambrym language and Bislama, the English based creole which is one of the national languages of Vanuatu used for intercultural communication. When community members move to the capital city, Port Vila they tend to switch to speaking Bislama and their children end up speaking Bislama instead of Fanbyak,” Michael said.

Michael has spent around 6 months in Vanuatu for his research and says it’s a wonderful place to work despite missing the creature comforts of home.

“It can be hard without hot showers, electricity and running water but the people and environment more than make up for it. People are really friendly and over the years I have made many good friends in the villages in which I have worked. It is also a beautiful place, surrounded by the jungle and bordering the sea. Ranvetlam village is also the closest village to the active volcano, which glows red at night.”

Michael’s work with UON closes with the finalisation of this project, but having gained his PhD in London and worked in UK academia before coming to Australia he has appreciated the collaborative atmosphere at the Endangered Languages, Documentation, Theory and Application (ELDTA) Research Program.

“I recognise there is a dearth of Oceanic academics in the UK, for obvious reasons! So it made perfect sense to move to Australia and work with ELDTA where several people focus on Oceanic languages. I have been able to work closely with Dr Bill Palmer and we are working on a co-authored paper together on morpho-phonological processes within the Fanbyak verb phrase,” Michael said.