Language Education Policy Studies
An International Network
New members welcome!

Language Education Policy in Papua New Guinea 

Language-in-education policies in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are possibly the most interesting and best model for the world to follow. While many policymakers at state levels make the claim that too many languages is a problem, in the late 1980’s Papua New Guinea – the most linguistically diverse country in the world- embraced linguistic diversity maintenance for their over 800 languages through multilingual education- language as a resource. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the richest countries in biodiversity. When maps of linguistic and biodiversity are overlapped, such correlations can be made.


Papua New Guinea was colonized later than other countries (Germany, England, Australia, and UN Mandate), and got its independence in 1975. Missionaries have been and still are very active in Papua New Guinea, and literacy efforts have been tied to religious efforts, with one study concluding that literacy itself is only used with religious connotations (in other words, literacy itself is associated with Christianity).


During this time two lingua francas emerged, one associated with Australia (Hiri Motu) and the other a pidgin Creole (Tok Pisin). The latter developed as a convenient lingua franca with a mix of German, English, Polynesian, and some local languages. It allows people to respect the ‘Tok Ples’ (‘talk place’ or local language, village or across the mountain) or ‘wantok’ (‘one talk’) of their relatives, friends, and community. Even this pidgin clearly reflects another worldview, it has no future or past tense, is mostly a command language, and has no word for please or thank you. It may be perceived as more culturally neutral (it doesn’t belong to any one place) even though white plantation owners used it to boss people around; whereas Motu is associated with the harshness, oppression and discrimination of the elite and the police under Australian rule. Perhaps this neutrality, the isolation of many of the ethnolinguistic groups, the lack of any one large ethnic group, and the worldview of Papua New Guineans all contributed to the maintenance of this diversity until now.  Differences exist between ideologies in the capital, Port Moresby (where the Motu tribe was and from where the police were drawn), and outside with a range from indifference to hostility (of Motu).


Upon independence, English was made the official language of the state and schooling, with Motu and ‘Tok Ples’ also official in the Constitution. In the schools, this approach failed quickly as students found no use for any of the school knowledge or English language as their worldview was tied to the traditional views associated with land for growing, hunting, and relations with others. Their knowledge system includes a very precise knowledge of the natural environment of their place (birds, animals, plants, soil), and with their own categories of such. Communities started “tok ples” (pronounced as ‘talk place’) schools teaching in their own language. It quickly spread and the government committed itself to support all languages oral and written, and implemented mother tongue education through 5th grade, then bridging to English for two years, with two more years (7th and 8th grade) of mostly English but still some subjects in the local language. By 1998, this strategy was very successful, although few studies have been done, and still spreading, even with some unofficial schools.  Orthographies were/are in development with some partnership with Australian schools for material development. Over 400 groups have such models in place. Since 1999, implementation issues, in particular training, awareness, and how to bridge the years into English became problematic. Most strongly, parents or other actors and stakeholders awareness levels play a role, for example by believing that mother tongue education is not the best way to get high-paying jobs; thus the support has decrease.


Questions to ask and lessons to learn relate to mother tongue education, the role of schooling in social change, and the necessity or not of codifying languages into written form and curricular content.




Kulick, D. & Stroud, C. (1993). Conceptions and uses of literacy in a Papua New Guinean village. In B. Street (Ed.), Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Majnep, I.S. with Pawley, A. (2001). On the value of ecological knowledge to the Kalam of Papua New Guinea: An insider’s view. In L. Maffi (Ed.), On Biocultural Diversity: linking language, knowledge, and the environment. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 343-357.

Malone, S. & Paraide, P. (2011). Mother tongue-based bilingual education in Papua New Guinea. International Review of Education, 57, 705-720.


Yusuf, S. (2011). The Importance of the Foreign Language Learning Contributing to World Peace. US-China Education Review, 8 (5), 580-588.



This web page has a copyright. It may be referred to and quoted, or reproduced and distributed for educational purposes according to fair use legislation only if the following citation is included in the document:


This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as


Harrison, K. (2013). Language Education Policy in Papua New Guinea. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

Widget is loading comments...