Bridges to Cultural Awakening

23rd September 2021

“Languages are really intriguing. They are, at least for me, the bridges that lead to understanding other cultures.”

For Shuyi Qui, a student of the Master of Asia and Pacific Studies program at ANU, language has always been intriguing. Given her ever-growing interest in the Pacific and, more importantly, in the diverse languages spoken in the region, ANU was the perfect destination for the cultural learning Shuyi was seeking. The great cohort of scholars and academic collections made ANU the ideal place to further her study and understanding of the Pacific region.

In fact, studying Tok Pisin has made Shuyi’s learning of the Pacific region even more fantastic. According to her, on the one hand, it brings her closer to the sea of the Pacific islands, and especially to PNG.

“I have two really great lecturers who guide my journey. Jenny is from PNG. She puts a great deal of effort into developing the Tok Pisin program with her insights and a distinctive reflection on delivering Indigenous knowledge. Darja bases her teaching on years of fieldwork experience and a wide range of multimedia materials, many of which are documentaries that film and present a real part of PNG. Although study journeys to the Pacific have been nearly impossible due to the pandemic, I still feel like voyaging on a canoe sitting in the classroom or the virtual Zoom room, to borrow from I-Kiribati and African American scholar Teresia Teaiwa’s metaphor.”

On the other hand, she loves having a classroom cohort from different walks of life with their unique stories about PNG, as well as the many great scholars whom she may not be able to meet in person but whose works help her in her journey.

Crossing the Bridge of Tok Pisin

As part of her studies, Shuyi also chose to specialise in Tok Pisin language and culture. For her, languages serve as bridges that lead to understanding other cultures, as is evidenced in the impressive lineup of diverse languages she’s well versed in—French, Japanese and Latvian. She searched for materials firstly for the purpose of learning the language, but gradually, she started reading in Tok Pisin generally to understand and gain more insight into not just the language but also into the Pacific. Of course, Tok Pisin is only a small part of the huge Pacific language repository, but to Shuyi, it was a good starting point and a navigator. Learning Tok Pisin for Shuyi has been like the “ocean currents or sea winds” aiding her navigation through Pacific Studies. She did not have a particular focus on Tok Pisin, but learning the language has helped shift her focus to Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Pacific Studies in a Globalised World

One day, when Shuyi was tasked with an assessment (PASI6001: Pacific Studies in a Globalised World, delivered by Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa), she got thinking: how was it that Tok Pisin was the only fully taught Pacific language at ANU and, in fact, across Australia? She had always been somewhat perplexed by the concepts of in-depth understanding and authenticity during her tertiary journey through Pacific studies. She wanted to learn a Pacific language and push herself closer to the region. But this was clearly not an easily accessible option.

It is this realisation and her interest in languages that provoked her to select her theme for the assessment given to her: to conduct specific research on Pacific languages being offered at universities around the world. Shuyi looked at it as an opportunity to study the landscape of tertiary Pacific language education, and to reflect on its nuances and on its relations with the Pacific studies. To do this, she also familiarised herself with the finer nuances of the Tok Pisin Program and interviewed the CHL Tok Pisin academics, who kindly shared valuable and insightful stories about the work that goes on behind the scenes—from the establishment to the design of this program.

There were limits to Shuyi’s research, or course. For example, she left aside other types of languages that could be important as well to communications, such as body and sign languages, or like the Hula. She believes there could be further research done on the differences between different tertiary education systems, the main source of funding, and the sustainability of teaching programs, among other aspects.

But limits notwithstanding, Shuyi’s research experience has certainly been enlightening, with findings that throw open several questions and considerations with respect to the future of Pacific and Pacific language studies.

Pacific Perspectives to Ponder

The assessment was a real eye opener. Shuyi learned that Pacific languages are less taught in tertiary institutions and are mostly recent establishments. It was not surprising that most universities offering Pacific language programs are situated in the Pacific, often close to communities where the languages are spoken. There are also programs in a few universities in France, covering the languages of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Vanuatu; and in China, covering a wider range of languages. Although languages are primarily used for communication, they are also interwoven with rich cultural, historical, and social contexts, and are significant markers of social identity. Therefore, the programs serve goals such as enhancing connection with the community, whether it is outsiders connecting with a specific community and its people, or community members reconnecting with their culture and identity. Moreover, language-teaching programs are increasingly accompanied by growing interest in research about the Pacific.

Shuyi also discovered that the driving forces behind the establishment of Pacific languages courses are many. Terrence Wesley-Smith's three rationales to approach the Pacific are relevant here—i.e., pragmatic rationale, laboratory rationale, and empowerment rationale. With reference to the ANU Tok Pisin Program, it could be in the University’s pragmatic interests to provide Tok Pisin, both to know Australia’s closest neighbour better and to reinforce the University’s status in its Pacific studies. From an empowerment rationale, academic staff at ANU recognise and emphasise the importance of languages, so they have tried hard to promote the establishment of Pacific language programs to infuse new dynamism and focus to Pacific studies.

Languages are not only a way to approach the Pacific—they are part of the Pacific. Whether it is for pragmatic or other purposes, the establishment of language programs can help more people know the Pacific in the true sense.

As such, Shuyi believes that more universities need to invest time and resources to establishing Pacific-language programs and courses. Tertiary institutions have a bigger role than primary and secondary schools in educating qualified graduates to meet society’s needs, to preserve, advance, and disseminate knowledge through research. Pacific societies have a lively and significant role to play in the world—contrary to popular notion, the Pacific is more relevant than ever before. With studies on the Pacific still being developed at universities, the need of the hour is to treat Pacific languages as an inseparable part of such programs.

One other point to consider is the practice of ‘decolonisation.’ To a substantial extent, studies on and by Pacific societies are conducted in English or French, and the subjects are organised with ‘western’ standards. For example, science. The dominance of science has cornered and marginalised many traditional skills and knowledge in Pacific societies, which should be culturally and important to people. A language program is a viable option to address this concern. Shuyi has been emphasising that language learners are not only acquiring the language, but also the ability and channel for authentic insight into the community or society in question.

In other words, if more language programs were to be taught at universities, we could expect to learn about the world from so many other unique perspectives—and the more diverse and unique perspectives we have, the more authentic is our learning and experience.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster