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Review of  Language Diversity in the Pacific

Reviewer: Picus Sizhi Ding
Book Title: Language Diversity in the Pacific
Book Author: Denis Cunningham David E. Ingram Kenneth Sumbuk
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 17.2290

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EDITORS: Cunningham, Denis; Ingram, D. E.; Sumbuk, Kenneth
TITLE: Language Diversity in the Pacific
SUBTITLE: Endangerment and Survival
SERIES: Multilingual Matters 134
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2006

Picus Sizhi Ding, Macao Polytechnic Institute


Sponsored by the UNESCO, this anthology consists of 14 chapters from 20 contributors, most of whom are experts in endangered languages of the greater Pacific region (roughly, Australia/Oceania plus Southeast Asia). The book starts with a Foreword (pp. ix-xi) by Fèlix Martí, who highlights the orientation of the volume towards the future in its approach to language endangerment and survival. A brief background of all contributors is provided at the end of the book.

Chapter one, Language Diversity in the Pacific (pp. 1-14)

D. E. Ingram presents an overview of the 13 papers in the volume, which he groups into three broad parts: (a) language identification and data collection (chapters 2–5), (b) description on the state and use of languages in specific regions (chapters 6–11), and practical issues in language revival, maintenance and education (chapters 12–14).

Chapter two, World Languages Review (pp. 15-23)

Andoni Barreña, Itziar Idiazabal, Patxi Juaristi, Carme Junyent, Paul Ortega and Belen Uranga report findings from the World Languages Review project, which dates back to the late 1990s. Using questionnaires, the project has access to 725 different languages. According to data from 525 questionnaires, 37% of the languages did not have any official status; 43% of languages were not transmitted within the family on a regular basis; the most cited reason for language endangerment (39.7%) was economic or cultural subordination; and 33% of the languages were not used in education at all.

Chapter three, Naming Languages, Drawing Language Boundaries and Maintaining Languages with Special Reference to the Linguistic Situation in Papua New Guinea (pp. 24-39)

As suggested by the title, Peter Mühlhäusler deals with some thorny problems such as what is or is not a language and how a language should be named in Papua New Guinea, which is estimated to have 700 ~ 846 languages. The number of languages in Papua New Guinea is uncertain because the western nation-based notion of language is difficult to apply. The chapter also offers indigenous views on language as well as arguments for maintaining languages.

Chapter four, Obstacles to Creating an Inventory of Languages in Indonesia (pp. 40-53)

Multamia R.M.T. Lauder reports problems found in the project Research on Cognates and Mapping of Regional Languages in Indonesia undertaken by the Indonesian National Language Centre. Major difficulties include the lack or inaccessibility of reliable information on isolated tribes in Indonesia. Government departments are of little help to the research team and to isolated tribes. With the assumption that modernization would be embraced by all, the government has inadeptly run resettlement programs, which are rejected after trials by some tribes.

Chapter five, Keeping Track of Indigenous Language Endangerment in Australia (pp. 54-84)

Patrick McConvell and Nicholas Thieberger present a case of progress in understanding the recent situation of indigenous languages in Australia. The advancement was made when the Australian State of the Environment included 'indigenous languages' as a category in its study in 1996. The chapter describes in detail regional patterns of language shift in Aboriginal languages and proposes using age groups data on speakers collected in the national census to gauge the degree of endangerment. The endangerment index distinguishes five stages of a language: Strong (with speakers from all ages), Endangered (less than 70% of speakers in the age group 5–19), Seriously endangered (a further decline with less than 70% of speakers in the age group 20–39), Critical (a further decline with less than 70% of speakers in the age group 40–59), and Terminal (without speakers).

Chapter six, Papua New Guinea's Languages: Will They Survive? (pp. 85-96)

As a native speaker of a Papua New Guinean language, Kenneth Sumbuk's account of the linguistic situation in this island country is based on both personal experience and professional study. He points out (p.87) that ''the number of speakers of a language does not tell us much about the language's future survival''. He identified 5 main factors that will affect the future of languages in Papua New Guinea: technology, lack of documentation, economic globalization, lack of education in indigenous languages, and lack of socio-political and economic rights of the indigenous peoples.

Chapter seven, Language Endangerment and Globalization in the Pacific (pp. 97-111)

Darrell Tryon starts the chapter with a clear definition for the Pacific region, which covers all islands on the Pacific Ocean including New Zealand and New Guinea (but not those of Southeast Asia). Focusing on Austronesian languages, he describes their grouping and the diaspora of their speakers in developed countries. Echoing the insignificance of small number of speakers to language threat, he considers urbanization, access to education, and marriages between speakers of different languages to be the major factors that impinge on language endangerment.

Chapter eight, Endangered Languages of China and South-East Asia (pp. 112-120)

Moving beyond Australia/Oceania, David Bradley comments on language endangerment in mainland Southeast Asia and China. The cursory survey of the linguistic situation in seven countries should be read in the context that this vast region is largely out of reach to foreign linguists for fieldwork in remote areas where diverse languages are spoken.

Chapter nine, On the Edge of the Pacific: Indonesia and East Timor (pp. 121-130)

John Hajek surveys languages in Indonesia and East Timor. While many languages with a small number (<500) of speakers are in critical endangerment, census results of Indonesia indicate a rapid language shift to Indonesian between 1970 and 1990. Under the vigorous promotion of Indonesian as the national language, other languages, even those with millions of speakers, have found themselves in an increasingly threatened state.

Chapter ten, The Future of the Languages of Vanuatu and New Caledonia (pp. 131-136)

Jean-Michel Charpentier focuses on two Melanesian groups of islands. With support from religious, political and international organizations, Vanuatu has attempted to maintain its linguistic diversity since independence. The limited achievement demonstrates just how daunting the enterprise of preserving the linguistic heritage can be.

Chapter eleven, Trends and Shifts in Community Language Use in Australia, 1986–1996 (pp. 137-161)

Michael Clyne and Sandra Kipp look at a less studied aspect of the linguistic wealth of Australia: community languages introduced by immigrants. Using data from the census, they find that the shift from a community language to English is affected by such factors as concentration of communities, cultural views on language, cultural distance to English, and exogamy, etc.

Chapter twelve, Directions for Linguistic Research (pp. 162-179)

Rob Amery discusses the need to forge partnerships with indigenous communities in keeping their languages alive and relevant to the modern world. He points out that descriptive grammars can be of use in language revival programs, but documenting an indigenous language merely within traditional domains will not help it to function well in the modern times. Thus linguists should provide necessary assistance in creating new words, instead of borrowing from English, for the language to be used in the medical, technological, and scientific domains, etc.

Chapter thirteen, The Contribution of Language Education to the Maintenance and Development of Australia's Language Resources (pp. 180-195)

D. E. Ingram addresses the role of language education in maintaining linguistic diversity in Australia, for both indigenous and community languages. His discussion covers such practical issues as languages in industry, language teacher quality and supply, design of language programs, attitudes to language, language rights, and the role of English, etc.

Chapter fourteen, Globalization, Languages and Technology (pp. 196-211)

Placing languages against the background of the Information Age, Denis Cunningham highlights the stark contrast between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. He urges immediate action to be taken to make technology such as the Internet available to speakers of indigenous languages so that more languages can find their presence in the cyberspace.


Reports and studies on the linguistic situation in a number of countries in this volume are informative and thought provoking, which represents the state of the art of language use and endangerment in the greater Pacific region. The weight of contribution appears to have tilted to languages in Australia as opposed to languages of the Pacific islands. The four chapters on languages in Australia are detailed in depth and wide in scope, addressing not only indigenous but also community languages. Although there are also four chapters on the Pacific islands (two on languages of Papua New Guinea, one on languages of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and one on Oceanic Austronesian languages), the overall depth and scale are not as impressive, especially given the generally accepted view that Papua New Guinea has the highest density of languages in the world. This point is not to be taken as a criticism, but rather, it reflects yet another dimension of inequality among languages of the world: those situated in developed countries are more accessible to research and studies.

The stretching of the geographic notion of the Pacific to Southeast Asia and even China in the scope of the book is a good editorial decision. Indonesia, with its richness in languages and proximity, both geographic and linguistic, to the Pacific, certainly deserves attention and discussion in this volume. Notwithstanding the brevity of Bradley's account, it has at least conveyed the message to the reader that there are more, many more languages out there, far and remote, that may not be known by the world, not even their names. These languages of mainland Southeast Asia and southern China may not look interesting grammatically to some linguists, as they are presumably analytic with a typological profile much like that of Mandarin and Thai, which some consider too simple, but in fact much more challenging — given few morphological clues — for a non-native speaker to describe and analyze properly. Nonetheless they undeniably form an inseparable part of the diversity of human languages.

There is a general misperception, even among linguists, about the number of speakers: the fewer speakers a language has, the more likely it is endangered; on the contrary, the more speakers a language has, the less likely it is endangered. Such a simplistic view can be misleading in measuring language endangerment (Ding 2006b; cf. Sutherland 2003 for other factors involved in gauging the risk of species extinction). Some authors in this volume also voice their concerns about taking the number of speakers without making reference to the linguistic ecology as an indicator of language endangerment. As dozens of languages with less than 100 speakers have been spoken in Papua New Guinea for centuries, Sumbuk suggests that a stable number of speakers is more important than the population size of the speakers. On the other hand, Hajek, observing the encroachment of Indonesian to other languages in the country, warns that 'some care should be taken when expressing the view that a large number of speakers guarantees the future of a language.' (p. 124)

Since language shift in the modern times typically arises as a natural response to the rapid and sudden change of the living environment, the ultimate solution for sustaining linguistic diversity would lie in strategies which enhance the original linguistic ecology of indigenous peoples. That is, the pressure for adaptation should be redirected from speakers of indigenous languages to languages per se through processes such as 'language modernization' (Ding 2006a) and expansion of the domains of use of indigenous languages, as argued by Amery. (For more discussion on an ecological approach, see Mühlhäusler 2003 and references therein.)

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the volume is free from typos (as far as I can tell), a rarity in publication of recent years. If I were pressed for improvement of the book, I could only suggest a change of a larger font and perhaps inclusion of a couple of chapters: one on languages in the Philippines, and the other on New Zealand, where the Maori have successfully developed a maintenance program called 'the language nest' to preserve their native tongue (cf. Tsunoda 2005). Two authors have mentioned the Maori case in passing, but a full chapter would inform the reader of a workable model and its achievement in detail, which should be able to render the impression of the fight against language loss less gloomy.


Bradley, David, ed. 2006. Heritage Maintenance for Endangered Languages in Yunnan, China. Bundoora: La Trobe University.

Ding, Picus S. 2006a. Language modernization of Prinmi: Problems from promoting orthography to language maintenance. In Bradley (2006), 19–26.

. 2006b. Approaches to linguistic diversity and biological diversity: A critical comparison. Presented at the Language Culture and Mind Conference (II). École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications.

Mühlhäusler, Peter. 2003. Language endangerment and language revival. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7,2: 232–245.

Sutherland, William. 2003. Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species. Nature, 423: 276–279.

Tsunoda, Tasaku. 2005. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Picus Sizhi Ding is a faculty member at Macao Polytechnic Institute. Taking
a holistic approach to linguistic research, he is interested in languages
of China, particularly those less-studied and under-studied. His interests
in languages are not confined to the grammar of languages, but extend also
to the well-being of minority languages and maintenance of linguistic

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