The SIL in Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea is a country of a little more than three million inhabitants in which 750 languages are spoken - one-firth of all the world's languages.

The languages are from two sources. Austronesian languages reached the region about 10,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. Non-Austronesian languages are estimated to have been in Papua New Guinea for as long as 50,000 years.

One sixth of the Papua New Guinean population - or 470,000 people - speak Enga, Kuanua, Melpa, Kuman or Huli; the rest of the people speak the other approximately 745 languages. In addition, there are presumably many small languages with fewer than ten speakers, all of whom are likely to be bilingual in another "large" language. There is evidence that some languages are losing speakers due to the fact that younger members of these communities choose not to speak their mother tongue.

The government sees English as the road to "national unity through the national language". Although this policy has been adjusted somewhat to allow primary school curricula to use "vernaculars" in the teaching of "cultural subjects," there are no governmental resources yet provided to make this adjustment viable.

Since the country only received its independence from Australia in 1975, the English language is still an index of power. In professions, English is a measure of intelligence; academic potential is directly related to the degree of cultural Australianization. People are considered "articulate" if they sound Westernized. In short, the way a Papua New Guinean reproduces the English language, and the degree to which a Papua New Guinean appears to demonstrate in speech that he or she might have traveled to Australia or other English-speaking countries usually represents the degree to which that person is acceptable to the powerbrokers in Papua New Guinea. As Chimezie noted for Nigeria, "the English language is not just the medium, but the message itself."

The English language produces privilege in which value is tied to its rarity or exclusivity of use and access to acquisition.

As subsistence farming is gradually replaced by export-oriented production, people flock to the cities looking for work. Those from the village are progressively more disadvantaged and another contradiction is manifested - villagers become angry about the inequality of the workplace and at the same time defensive about their local language. They are ashamed to speak it outside of the village. Linguistic and ethnic loyalty appear concurrently with shame and embarrassment about speaking one's native language. As Sankoff states:

There are two mutually reinforcing phenomena here: first, the extent to which lack of knowledge of a particular language or language variety blocks access to other resources or goods within a society - education, jobs, wealth, political positions, and so on; and second, the extent to which the inferior political and economic position of a particular group results in a devaluing of its language or language variety, and in feelings of inferiority and worthlessness on the part of its speakers.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe Bible Translators (SIL/WBT)

It is within this national, historical context that the work of the SIL must be analyzed. What is the relationship between linguistic development and these foreign missionaries?

The major portion of "scientific" language work in the country is done by the SIL/WBT, a United States-based, Protestant missionary group. However tempting the tactical, short-range benefits (such as the development of dictionaries) from SIL/WBT work in Papua New Guinea, and irrespective of the good intentions of some individual SIL personnel, the strategic, long-range mission of these linguists is to translate the Bible for the "Bibleless tribes" of the world.

The SIL/WBT is the world's largest Protestant missionary society in terms of members sent abroad. The SIL/WBT team of 546 people in Papua New Guinea is by far their largest and occupies the entire town of Ukarumpa. The town resembles a United States army base in that it has a PX (a type of supermarket/department store found on all US Armed Forces bases overseas) with products from the U.S. not available in other parts of Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guineans are not allowed to shop in this store. Papua New Guineans work only in a service capacity in this store and elsewhere in the town. Except for perhaps the servants, no Papua New Guinean appeared to live in Ukarumpa. While many of the houses were in Papua New Guinean style, large picture windows enabled the casual visitor to appreciate the foreign furniture within. In 1978, the town also had an airstrip and two small jet planes.

The organization arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1956 at the behest of Australian Protestant missionaries and the colonial administration. The SIL/WBT is still "associated" with the Ministry for Education, Science and Culture. Papua New Guineans are concerned, however, about the lack of sufficient government supervision over SIL/WBT activities.

Throughout the world, the SIL/WBT projects a "we-are-scientific-linguists" image while engaging in fundamentalist evangelism. They thus have an immediately viable vehicle for creating an alliance with whichever national elites are concerned with foreign expertise and "development."

Historically, Papua New Guinea has received missionaries of many orders. The "civilizing" mission of Western religious orders has traditionally been linked to literacy and alphabetization. Writing is perceived as a precondition for civilization. Since the preliterate West is labeled the prehistorical era, contemporary non-literate societies are in some "ahistorical sphere" in which human progress to a more advanced stage has been tied to the rejection of "precontact" traditions and origins and subsequent economic domination. As Papua New Guinean writer Leo Hannett says in Disillusionment With the Priesthood, "the very idea of evangelism implies a condemnation of our people - it represents an attitude that does not permit us to be ourselves."

SIL/WBT documents maintain that Institute members do not see [themselves] as forcing a little understood and culturally irrelevant religion on an ignorant people...[It is] the presentation of a viable option in belief and lifestyle which can be accepted or rejected with understanding of the a language that is understood.

But the SIL/WBT workers in the Third World have been accused of not merely promoting "deculturation" and cultural imperialism but also of having links to the CIA and of serving as spearhead for the advance of multinationals.

Calvet provides the following information: In the space of two years and across five or six Latin American countries the WBT/SIL group is reproached for 1) its ties to the C.I.A. 2) the organization of counterinsurgency camps (particularly in Mexico and Colombia) 3) forced sterilization of the indigenous peoples 4) drug traffic 5) trafficking in gold, uranium and emeralds 6) organization of tourist voyages through the Amazon Basin 7) its ties to American oil company research projects. Whether this is true in Papua New Guinea is open to debate. What is known is that because SIL/WBT work is based on proselytization, it prevents coherent, organized linguistic research. According to Papua New Guinean linguist/educator Mark Solon, had SIL/WBT experts started in one region and worked outwards from one center, they could have built a basis for adding new linguistic data upon experience, expertise and information already established. They insisted on isolation from other research undertaken in the country.

Solon maintains that linguistic work in Papua New Guinea should have secular goals in order to serve Papua New Guinea, and, also, should be supervised directly by the government; it is not.

An interesting dichotomy emerges in the works done by the SIL/WBT. The "scientific"-sounding, linguistic work is written in the English language, a process which essentially enhances the international reputations of the writers as experts; the few works written in newly-alphabetized Papua New Guinean languages are sometimes basic language primers and nutrition manuals, but just as often they related to parables or sermons. Academic publications are often in the highly specialized and imaginative language of linguists (e.g., Barai Derivational Operations vs. Universal Passivization and Antipassivization). The titles of sermons often belie a patronizing, paternalistic approach to Papua New Guineans and other groups (e.g. How the Jews Lived and Biblical Customs). During 1978, after 22 years of linguistic work in the country. How the Jews Lived was the only work published in four languages (Waris, Tok Pisin, Bunama, Baining) that had been the object of considerable study. A perusal of SIL strategies in other parts of the world demonstrates that this is part of a widely applied methodology:

Linguists are encouraged, however, to begin doing simple Bible stories (not for publication) to help in their language learning and first attempts to communicate the Gospel when they are well into level 3 of the production scale.

The language of linguistics reinforces "faultless and rational science," mystique attached to the work of the SIL/WBT. Yet such 'science' has no immediate service function to Papua New Guineans. Papua New Guineans do not need to understand linguistics in order to develop rational language policies. Professionalization is not necessary in order to discuss the issue of lexical specialization, for example. In fact, SIL/WBT-trained Papua New Guineans are not encouraged to engage in debates about language but rather to function as converts who will translate the Bible into the remaining languages. Thus the SIL/WBT does linguistic research under the guise of religious goals which are defined by outsiders. Papua New Guineans are treated as objects without will in this process. An examination of SIL/WBT programs demonstrates that it is not the language translation work itself which contributes to the deculturation of those people whose languages are studied but rather the content of the translations, and the learning transmission, and social relations through which language work is undertaken. What make cultures distinct are the beliefs, myths and common knowledge held by the group. The work of the SIL/WBT strikes at the heart of the cultures in which it works by substituting Christian beliefs, myths and moral systems for existing ones to further SIL's political and economic goals. Once this is accomplished it matters little whether the language of the group is alive or whether they are literate.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: