All ideas expressed in Thor's Articles and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.
LANGUAGE IN SUVA
This is a preliminary report on a sociolinguistic survey. It records the beliefs which 834 permanent residents of Suva, Fiji have about their own language and literacy skills.
The survey is not an objective measure of language abilities. To that extent the survey is more sociological than linguistic. The study was considered worthwhile for a number of reasons :
1. Beliefs about language are critical in shaping behaviour in personal, social, political and educational environments.
2. By acquiring some kind of "map" of a community's beliefs about its own language activities we can find the realistic limits of language policy and language planning, if that is our purpose.
3. Reported language use by different age, gender, occupational and educational groups can help to confirm hypotheses about language change, or even predict where change is likely to occur.
4. We can get ideas for the detailed objective analysis of particular linguistic features.
5. In the USP case, involvement in the research by linguistics students brought the subject alive for them and gave it a local relevance which had often been lacking. Hopefully, some will be led to graduate research in the area.
Suva city is the largest urban centre between Auckland and Honolulu. It has an official population of around 70,000, but the conurbation extending out to Nasinu increases that considerably. Like most cities in the developing world, it is a magnet for the poor and the ambitious. It has parallel economies for different economic/cultural groups, and accommodates an amazing variety of sub-cultures in a ferment of change.
Historical Background (updated to 2006)
At the time of the survey, 1987-89, urban migration from rural villages had generated a tectonic change in the indigenous political landscape, and allowed more or less progressive Fijian forces to overcome rural tribal conservatism for the first time. A new progressive government was freshly elected, due to a switch in loyalties by rural-to-urban migrants and a growing ethnic Fijian middle class.. The urban migrants were intensely ambitious, and saw a rejection of the old hierarchies as the best way to advance their own interests. Lacking either money or education, the acquisition of marketable language skills was one of the few avenues open to them.
At the same time, existing power elites recognized that they were threatened, without really understanding the dynamics. Their reaction was a military coup , disguised as a move to preserve the privileges of indigenous Fijians against the long term immigrant sector of Indian labourers, farmers, merchants and professionals (who together comprise about 40% of the population). That is, by means of a coup urban Fijians were temporarily split off from a nascent coalition with the ethnic Indian population.
If progressive forces had been allowed to prevail in Fiji, the new government would have been greatly assisted in overcoming emerging conflicts by understanding the dynamics of language use and language change in the community, not just from anecdotal impressions, but by a clear demographic mapping to show where resources could be best distributed; They could, for example, have done much to empower the new urban migrants by finding ways for them to optimise their new language achievements, and articulate them into general education and skilled employment programs. As it is currently, 18 years later, the situation is still in stalemate, with mutual antagonism and ignorance as embedded as ever, although paradoxically the army command switched and now prevents reactionary elements from imposing their full agenda .
The interview subjects were selected from five census enumeration districts with populations ranging from 430 to 1200, and chosen for having a roughly equal ethnic composition of Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Such a residential balance is not typical, so the measures of bilingualism in the sample could conceivably be slanted. (However, each urban enumeration district comprises only two or three streets). One census district was comprised almost entirely of a squatter camp, while the others reflected different levels of local affluence.
The aim of interviewers was to obtain the most representative possible coverage in each area. It was felt that the selection of restricted districts in this manner would make replication of and comparisons with the study much more reliable.
Interviewers were asked to aim for a rough balance of males and females, and a good spread of age groups. They were also asked to select subjects in an approximate proportion of 4 ethnic Fijian, 4 Indo-Fijian and 2 (or fewer) "other" per ten questionnaires : that is, about the national population balance. There was no actual question about race, since I preferred to let cultural affinities emerge from the linguistic information.
The interviewers were linguistics students at the University of the South Pacific. All of them, bar about five out of ninety-eight individuals, were at least bilingual. They were able to make contact in a way which I as a "European" foreigner simply could not have done. Each student was asked to conduct ten structured interviews, using a provided questionnaire. They were coached intensively in the pitfalls of interview technique. Pacific islanders have considerable sophistication in interpersonal situations, and these individuals seem to take to the task with more elan than I would have expected from a comparable group of Australian students.
The rest of this paper is a barrage of statistics. I want you to remember that the apparent precision of the numbers is illusory. They represent broad patterns only. For example, we talk about languages such as English, Fijian and Hindi in a pretty crude way, taking no account of dialect divisions, although many respondents were quite clear in specifying, say, Nadronga dialect as opposed to standard Fijian. These differences are very important within the linguistic community. We also ignore the more less diglossic situation which exists between standard Hindi and Fiji baat (the local Hindi dialect). The respondents themselves talk in a blanket manner about their skill in English, whereas a visiting linguist might be apt to perceive a dialect continuum of "Englishes". Further, little qualitative investigation is attempted of the actual degree to which the various languages are used in their domains. Our aims then are quite modest.
About 20% of the sample were primary, secondary or tertiary students. 65% of respondents were in some kind of paid employment, and the balance of 15% were housewives, unemployed or retired.
of workplaces require some English from which we can infer
that those workplaces cater to all kinds of citizens. Roughly
reflecting the population balance, 44% of workplaces require
some Fijian and 36% of workplaces require some Hindi. Work/home
bilingualism remains similar for Fijian & Hindi.
However, English home bilingualism drops to 33%, which is still
three times the number of so-called general electors (not Fijians
or Indians). The next table will show a major increase in English
use across generations, Those using at least two languages
come to 57% at work and 29% at home. Those using at least three
languages come to 12% at work and 2.8 % at home. The very small
number of home trilinguals reflects the minimal number of number
of mixed marriages.
28% of workplaces require monolingual English, 7.5% of workplaces require monolingual Fijian, and 7% of workplaces require monolingual Hindi. These figures are reversed in the home situation : only 7.5% of homes use monolingual English, but 34.5% of homes use monolingual Fijian and 28.5% of homes use monolingual Hindi.
The vagueness of categories probably means that some percentages
overlap. However, the main patterns are clear.
c) Some Western Fijians prefer English since it is more likely to give them social equality with Eastern Fijians (the ruling tribal group).
d) Not all monolingual English speakers are caucasian. Others are upwardly mobile urbanites, derisively referred to as 'wannabes'.
e) Many occupational monolinguals may be housegirls
f) Over 20 languages were identified in the survey, but most of them only contribute a few speakers. The largest minority group were Rotumans.
g) As the table suggests, multilingualism crosses all class and cultural boundaries. This is quite different to many other nations. It is also an important message which has been obscured by the racial rhetoric of public debate that came with political upheaval. English is universally seen as the 'link language'. After the 1987 military coup by conservative Fijian elements, there was some post-coup linguistic chauvinism in the public service. However, there is no serious threat to advancing English usage.
When we turn to the languages spoken by the parents and children of respondents (Table B), some really interesting patterns begin to emerge.
The table shows a very significant generational shift to English bilingualism. At the current rate, most families in the city could be bilingual in their homes within three generations. This must be of great significance for language education, as well as for the whole social and political dynamic of the nation. There is obviously scope here for some enlightened language planning. What the data here cannot show however is the widening gap between urban and rural populations. Although Suva is the largest city between Auckland and Honolulu, in absolute terms it is still small with limited industry. Village populations are likely to remain very significant in the country. There the cash economy is restricted, literacy except for bible reading is minimal and media penetration remains peripheral. In other words, the bilingual shift is unlikely to be matched in rural contexts, although the wish for education and wider horizons will continue to draw young people to the towns (or for an important group of young Fijian men, into the army).
Multilingualism at home
48% of respondents reported using some Fijian at home, over six times the workplace usage level. However, in this case there was virtually no generational change, with 47.5% of parents using some Fijian at home, and 47% of children using some Fijian.
The Fijian language situation was almost matched by Hindi (Fiji Baat) usage, with 43% of respondents claiming some Hindi usage, while 42.5% of parents and 44.5% of children did the same.
From this we can see that most of the plurilingualim can be attributed to English. 29% of respondents claimed to speak two languages at home, while 15.5% of their parents did, and 41% of children did.
The small number of home trilinguals also showed a relatively large shift over three generations. 2.8% of respondents spoke three or more languages at home, while 1.9% of their parents did, and 3.2% of their children.
Monolingualism at home
Monolingual behaviour in this urban population appears to have remained relatively static for original English speakers, but diminished significantly across three generations for Fijian and Hindi speakers.
English monolinguals were 8% of respondents, while 7.5% of their parents were also monolingual, and 8.4% of their children. This group represents the European and mixed race population who are relatively well off, and considering themselves the elite, see little need to become plurilingual.
Those speaking only Fijian at home represented 34.5%
of Fijians, 41.5% of their parents and 30.5% of children. A proportion
of this group would be actively hostile to the urban multilingual
character of Suva, but others would simply lack education. The
15% drop in monolingualism across three generations shows a lot
of aspirational pressure amongst a group which claims political
and historical dominance in the society, but has lost out badly
in the cash and professional economies.
The Indian population has historically been more interested than Fijians in educational, professional and career advancement, although there is a marked split between urban Gujurati immigrants (more recent arrivals) and the original poor south Indian cane farmers. Although Fiji Baat is a rather reduced patois of standard Hindi, and many Fiji Indians are embarrassed about their poor Hindi literacy, there is extensive access to Hindi videos, and now (for the richer elements) to Hindi satellite television. These factors would encourage Hindi retention. However, post the 1987 coup, there is a new dynamic. Many Fiji Indians no longer feel welcome in Fiji, so English bilingualism and higher education is one of their few avenues for possible emigration.
1. Nationalism, education and the media can all affect trends to bilingualism. There was no TV in Fiji at time of the survey (1990). That has changed. In 2006 Fiji TV advertises programming almost exclusively in English. There is some Hindi satellite TV for those who can afford it. The only Fijian television is a weekly news summary. English and Hindi videos are widespread. Fijian language visual media production is negligible. However, radio does remain the prime vehicle for Fiji language transmission across the country, especially given the relatively low rate of literacy and actual reading in rural areas.
2. As a lecturer in linguistics at the University of the South Pacific, I was often asked by anxious parents if using English exclusively in the home would increase their children's life chances. Such aspirational behaviour by 'wannabes' is derided in public, but copied in private. Bilingualism then may not always be seen as an ideal (of the kind rather wistfully promoted in Australian 'multicultural' political circles), but as a way-station in the search for a more marketable primary language.
3. A caution : the data does not analyse the quantity or quality of bilingual usage. Much more research is needed on shifting domain and register usage, as well as the actual competence of speakers in various languages. As linguists we know that when one language starts to claim part of the domain of another one, then the linguistic repertoire of the first language may very well decline. In fact, in another part of this survey their is some indirect evidence for such a loss of L1 competence amongst Fijian and Hindi speakers.
The most complex query in this survey was question 18, where I tried to get at some qualitative aspects of language competence by asking respondents what they thought that their level of competence was in different languages.
In Q.18 I have tried to convey the concept of four different levels of language competence. This is a hard enough thing to do with, say, professional teachers. To ask the general public to make that kind of judgment is an extremely tricky exercise for a number of reasons. Firstly, getting hold of the idea itself is difficult for many people. Secondly individuals vary tremendously in the criteria they apply to self-evaluation, for reasons of personality, life-experience and enculturation. There is some suggestion, for example, that women in Fiji may have a lower level of self-esteem than men when they consider their own language competence.
Life experience is critical in language self-evaluation. Your judgment of linguistic competence has to be influenced by the demands which have been made upon your language in the past. Thus, when we look at the students who come to USP, at first arrival they are the creme de la creme of the secondary system. They have a very high opinion of their competence in English. Many then discover to their horror that their language is suddenly "primitive" in this new environment.
However, even taking into account all of these limiting factors, I believe that some interesting patterns emerged out of the data. They are patterns that are worth investigating further because a sample size of 864 is large enough for many of the idiosyncratic effects to cancel out. We can get an idea of the balance of competence which people feel exists in the community
In Table C the top of the stack represents what I call level 4, this being the point at which a speaker feels competent to handle any required social or profession demand in a language. In fact a majority of users in all three major languages felt themselves competent to level 4 (an evaluation which could evoke some black humour from language teachers in Fiji). A substantial part of the remaining respondents in each case considered themselves to be at least at level 3, which is where the individual does not have optimal competence, but is functional in many practical situations.
83.3% felt competent for most purposes in English (levels 3 & 4). This changes for students coming to university! 61.5% felt adequately competent in Fijian, a figure which exceeds the ethnic population balance by over 10%,, showing a degree of Fijian/Hindi bilingualism. A larger percentage claimed some mutual bilingualism at levels 1 and 2. 52.9% felt adequately competent in Hindi/Urdu; (the Urdu component is very small. Technically, Hindi and Urdu are really dialects of one language). Note that in this survey a few mother tongue speakers even identified themselves as operating at level 3 in that MT, which shows pretty low self-esteem.
This kind of data becomes much more interesting when you correlate it with major sociological categories like age, sex and occupation. For our purposes here I have selected out two occupational groups : unskilled manual workers and skilled service workers, which embraces the range of aspiration for most ordinary people in Fiji.
73.3% felt of unskilled manual workers felt competent for most purposes in English (levels 3 & 4). 62.9% felt adequately competent in Fijian, which again exceeds the ethnic population balance, showing bilingualism. 49.5% felt adequately competent in Hindi/Urdu.
96.5% of skilled service workers felt competent for most purposes in English (levels 3 & 4) . 68.1% felt adequately competent in Fijian. 52% felt adequately competent in Hindi/Urdu.
The two stack graphs show some striking differences between these occupational groups. It is not so much in the claimed aggregate of language knowledge. Almost every occupational respondent claimed to make some use of English. However, the confidence that the skilled service workers have in their own English skills is much higher than that of the unskilled manual workers. Perhaps this is what you would expect. After all, skilled service works are usually required to demonstrate advanced English competence as a job requirement, particularly if they deal directly with the general public. Typically these people would also have secondary or even tertiary education. Note however that an English requirement does not even exist in many unskilled occupations. The interviewers were struck by the regard which squatter camp dwellers had for multilingualism as one of the few saleable assets which they could hope to acquire.
The unskilled workers claimed slightly higher competence in Fijian than the skilled service workers. How well this belief is reflected in objective competence needs to be investigated. It could easily be a misplaced judgement, or it may reflect that unskilled workers are using Korean for a wider range of domains than skilled workers. Unlike native Fijians, speakers of Fiji Baat (Fiji Hindi) are well aware that their dialect is a reduced version of a much richer standard, which many of them feel unable to handle. There is a marked reluctance amongst many Indo-Fijians to use standard Hindi in anything which looks like a formal situation, even where the cultural loading is very high (such as at a wedding). In such situations they would prefer English.
We have already seen that the respondents have quite definite views about the change in language skills across generations (Table B). It is therefore interesting to look at self-judgments of their own language competence according to age. The interview subjects ranged from six to ninety-two with a mean of around twenty-nine. What I have done is to break the data into six age categories : 6-11, 12-17, 18-30, 31-45, 46-60 and 61-92.
With the English language data there is quite a significant change across generations, especially at the highest skill level (level 4). One would expect that sort of change from childhood to language maturity. For English speakers in the sample, who are largely L2 speakers of English, the skill level seems to peak around 18-30, and then steadily decline with increasing age.
A whole range of factors will be impacting upon these generational perceptions of language skill. We are not dealing with a static society. The older respondents here have gone through traumatic changes in their social, cultural and occupational environments. Suva has moved from being a very racially stratified colonial society through political independence, into an emerging urban industrial community. Education has spread from the primary level teaching of literacy to a few lucky natives, to something approaching a universal secondary system with a significant cap of tertiary level training too. Skilled occupations have shifted from being the prerogative of colonial expatriates to being the normal aspiration of able individuals in the local community.
You could argue that the 18-30 age group represent the first fruits of the post-colonial situation where, ironically, the rewards for mastery of the colonial language become maximised.
The picture with Fijian and Hindi skill levels is much harder to interpret. There is far less variation, in fact an apparently static situation. With Fijian there seem to be a slight retreat in skills in the 18-30 age group. Remember this was the cohort where English ability was maximised. We noticed earlier that people seem to feel that advancement in one language costs them in other languages. It is possible that the more vigorous teaching of Fijian in schools has benefited younger speakers in a way that was missed by the immediate post-colonial 18-30 group, whereas the older age cohorts perhaps found their optimum competence in a more strictly stratified community. However, the differences shown by our crude survey are fairly marginal. With the Hindi speakers the situations appears to be even more static across the generations.
Almost 100% of both sexes claim to use some English, but in all three major languages there is a smallish yet quite consistent difference between genders. Men rate themselves more highly. The difference is difficult to interpret. I don't know whether we are seeing a culturally induced expression of lower self-esteem by the women, or whether it reflects their more restricted oral linguistic opportunities. I doubt the second suggestion. Even if their English speaking opportunities were more restricted (and I am not persuaded of that) their exposure to Hindi or Fijian is not in question. Besides, language is one skill at which women are supposed to be better than men. However, it is quite possible that women have lower literacy levels than men as a group. There is a clear need here for objective investigation.
Literacy is a notoriously elusive collection of skills to quantify in any useful way. Measures such as the widely quoted UNESCO figures on national literacy often conceal more than they reveal. Aptitudes apart, people have very different needs depending upon their occupations, opportunities and tastes. Moreover, with proliferating media they have different ways of meeting those needs. The tabulations which follow need in depth follow up to give them any real meaning. A few comments may help to set the context.
Contemporary Fijian and Fijian Indian communities are not cultures with a strong tradition of reading or writing. Traditional Fijian village life is a tropical, subsistence communal environment. Reading and writing tend to be inherently individualistic activities which go against the grain of such communal living. Language skills are valued, but in the manner of oral storytelling and sophisticated personal interaction. The new generation of urban Fijians are of course a little more drawn to literary activities, but this is recent and not deeply ingrained.
The ethnic Indian community divides into sugar cane farmers, whose ancestors came as poor labourers from South India, and a much more recent influx (1950s on) who are typically Gujurati and form the core of the new professional class of doctors, academics and shopkeepers. The urge to seek advancement through education in this Indian community is generally stronger than amongst the Fijians, but it tends to be a utilitarian interest with little widespread enthusiasm in reading for pleasure. There are of course individual exceptions to this, and some fine local writers. Both the climate and limited resources of Island life also militate against literary activity. Schools and villages have very little reading material available.
Of the !5% literate only in English, those who are not native speakers may be Indian. Hindi requires learning another script whereas Fijian does not.
Fijian language radio is used extensively for the communication of personal messages in rural areas. A villager's business is his community's business. It is a characteristic of urban living that communications become more private, partly as a matter of facility, and partly as a matter of culture.
Note that only 73/202 non letter writers had an entry recorded for this question. The survey recorded the following self-reported evidence of letter writing:
This frequency distribution is intriguing, but perhaps undecodable without a close knowledge of personal communication patterns in Fiji. For example, what constitutes a "letter" for these respondents ? The survey was conducted in an era prior to mobile telephones and e-mail. The patterns would almost certainly be rather different today, although poverty, remoteness and poor resources might still make handwritten notes a convenient option, especially in the villages. As noted above, brief personal messages are widely distributed by public radio in rural districts. It is interesting that English is the preferred language for writing by a wide margin, no doubt reflecting schooling. Many more Fijians than Indians either write in Fijian or code mix their Fijian with English. There could be a variety of reasons for this. The Fijian community tends find a strong social centre in Church based activities (Methodist), using a Fijian language bible. Pastoral and Sunday school needs would also be carried out in Fijian. The Indian community does not have this core of religious activity to bind them. They are mostly Hindu with a small proportion of Muslims. The bulk of rural Indians especially feel insecure in formal Hindi, and are intensely aware that their local patois, Fiji Baat, is not a "real" language. Hence they would probably prefer to do most writing in English.
The survey recorded here is merely suggestive. Nevertheless it does begin to sketch the shadowy outline of a community undergoing great social change. The emerging patterns of language use across generations suggest a convergence of Indian and Fijian communities rather than the violent separation which the surface froth of contemporary politics has imposed. If knowledge of this convergence had been widespread and appreciated by the ruling elite, much of the bitterness and cultural despair of the last twenty years could have been mitigated. Moderate voices would have had more confidence about expressing a cooperative future, against the supposedly populist exploitation of divisions by ruthless politicians. Sound, non-ideological research by linguists in Fiji could be a counsel for hope.
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UNIVERSITY OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC DEPARTMENT OF LITERATURE & LANGUAGE
LANGUAGES IN THE PACIFIC, 1990
1. We are trying to learn what languages ordinary people know and use in the South Pacific. True information about this can help communities to plan education and activities which people really want.
2. Please say what you actually think. Don't just try to please the questioner !
3. Please try to answer every question, even if the answer is "nothing" or "nil".
Thank you for your help,
Thor May, Lecturer
Have you answered this question sheet before? -> Yes/No
1. Age (approx.):....
B. WHAT LANGUAGE WHERE ?
6. What language(s)
do you use at work or school?................
C. WRITING (It is OK to say "none" for any of these questions)
10. How many letters
a year do you write (guess)? ...............
D. READING (It is OK to say "none" for any of these questions)
13. What languages
can you read & write in ? .................
18. What can you do with these languages ? --> (tick the highest level for each)
19. How did you learn these languages ? --> (tick both columns if you wish)
20. What languages (if any) would you like to improve in ? .............................................
21. What new languages (if any) would you like to learn ?................................................
|©2005 Thor May|