Small Languages and Storytelling


Thanks for your comments on storytelling. I too have been wondering if and how the storytelling workshops could have some continuing impact in the country. In fact, I have been wondering how the workshops could have any impact at all.

Recently I read a quote that said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” The quote is attributed to Lee Iacocca, former chairman of the Chrysler Corporation. While I don’t particularly like the philosophy and habits of Iacocca, what he says is relevant to my foray into storytelling.

I have tried to get my ideas across about storytelling for the small languages of PNG and the Pacific, but feel that I have only been partially successful. This seems evident from your response, as well as from the earlier talk I had with you and Brian.  It may be that my ideas about storytelling for small language groups (I always specify “small”) are too marginal for current Branch strategy.


So, as an attempt to be more persuasive and less brilliant, let me reiterate what I understand of the small language situation in the Pacific (in particular PNG) and then return to your question of how the Non-Print Media (NPM) might be the department to carry the mantel (the “papa”). I’ll number my comments for easy reference.

General Comments

1. SIL has worked in only a few (my guess is 5%, or 10 out of 200 as a rough count) of the small languages of PNG (which I somewhat arbitrarily label as “those with 500 or fewer speakers”) and in each case it has been by virtue of a traditional program. I am questioning this approach, this strategy, claiming that it will not reach the goals of the Branch, which I assume are compatible, if not the same, as those of V2025.

2. The PNG Branch administration, if I understand past discussions, approves of the storytelling approach, seeing it as one of the many approaches that the Branch is willing to support. My question is, “Is it one of may approaches, or is it in some sense foundational?”  What are the Branch strategies and conviction that would support it?  As I will try to show, passing it off to NPM may not be the best solution, although I understand the reasoning.

3. By asking if the approach is foundational, I suggest that every small language should be contacted with this approach in mind. Presently, there is not accurate information on the small languages and using present survey methods it will take decades to get the information. The material in the Ethnologue is often very old and it is difficult to correlate its names and figures with, for example, the government year 2000 Census information. Little has been done that I know of to provide a consistent and broad appraisal of the present status of the small languages of the country.

4. To begin with, I wonder if there are in fact 850+ languages in PNG and that 200+ “need” translation. There are undoubtedly 1,000 dialects–and more–but when I have tried to find specific information (more than Ethnologue summary information) on particular small languages, it is difficult to come by. Yet this information is a core factor in the publicity claims of WBT for recruiting translators for PNG and is the basis for the management strategy of PNG and the Pacific.

5. The question of language and dialect is of course not a new one, but it is extremely important when it comes to allocation and translation strategy. With technology such as Adapt It!, it is possible to have translations for every one of the dialects of the country. But is this feasible in terms of economics, infrastructure, literacy and SU? Further, what constitutes a dialect approved for an adaptation? Are there any guidelines or standards at all? I had a quick look in the print shop at two dialect adaptations of a NT (which may not have been done by computer) and found them almost identical. Is the Branch policy that anyone can do an adaptation into any “dialect”?  Note that in an oral storytelling approach the question of dialect is overcome because there is oral intelligibility (it gets more difficult in reading and writing across dialects).

6. A more prudent approach is to begin small language programs only with storytelling. If stories are told in the vernacular and Bible stories are re-told in the vernacular, the language demonstrates enough current viability for the approach to work. The source text for re-telling can be English or Tok Pisin, or some “church” language. Viability should be demonstrated, not simply with instruments and questionnaires, but with stories that demonstrate usage. This is a simple test and implies a strategy, but it will only work if it is supported by the administration.

7. For example, there would not have been a storytelling workshop at Amanab last year and there would be none this year if the Sepik RAD had not promoted and encouraged them. But even the Amanab workshop was less than ideal because 3 of the 4 languages already had translators in them and none of the languages were really small (less than 1,000).  In addition to administrative support, there needs to be experienced translators from a particular region who identify the languages and dialects and help with the linguistic aspects of the work. This brings me to the point about NPM (non print media) and its role.


Linguistic Salvage


8. One of the most important aspects of the storytelling for small languages approach should be some kind of linguistic salvage project.  SIL has promised the PNG government that its language workers would research and archive materials in the languages of PNG: We mention grammars, dictionaries and written materials, I believe.  This commitment by SIL was made in its original agreement and charter in PNG.  The government can document how well we have done—in terms of dictionaries it has not been very impressive.

9. It takes some degree of linguistics and anthropological training to record word lists, record oral history (stories) and outline grammatical features in a language.  If linguistic salvage is an important and recognized aspect of the storytelling strategy, it is doubtful that the NPM department could do it.  On the other hand, the survey or sociolinguistics department could.

10. This is not to say that the NPM could not play an important part in the storytelling strategy, but from a linguistic point of view, a more comprehensive team would be needed.  Although NPM fulfills a definite technological need and help in storytelling, linguists (and ethnomusicologists) are necessary to assure the recording of reliable language data.  And the staff members need to be fluent in Pidgin to do this work in much of PNG.

11. If linguistic salvage is not a part of small language storytelling, then some other approach could be used: the Look, See, Do depends upon written materials, but it might be used; Certainly the IBM (Southern Baptist) or NTM methods of chronological storytelling would be a possibility—if they would have any interest in such small languages. Note that chronological storytelling demands a long commitment, rather than the one-week workshop with a strictly oral approach, such as we suggest.


Having a “papa”

12. The de facto “papa(s)” for the strategy of the regions are the Regional Area Directors. I understand that the RADs have the responsibility for compiling materials, assessing translation needs and assigning members to language programs.

13. It is the RADs who need to direct the work of small language storytelling, if it is adopted as a real Branch strategy, rather than something that “you can do if you want to” and something that the NPM would do if they want to.  The RADs need surveys done by language teams immediately in the areas where the small languages are described in the Ethnologue.

14. I have said what I presently know about storytelling and given what ideas I have about reaching the small languages (I have posted 5 papers on the Branch Intranet, interacted with translators, interacted with the former TSD and BTA, as well as the Directorate, etc.) but the two-pronged aspect of storytelling (vernacular use by oral societies and linguistic salvage) is not something that is seen as crucial in the “ends” statements of the Branch (which I have to admit, I have not seen).

15. As I said at the beginning, it may be that my idea is just not put across well.  On the other hand, it may not be the time for the idea (although I don’t know that there will ever be a time—given the priorities of the Branch and perhaps SIL’s limited time here—for the idea).

Final Comments

16. SIL PNG (and therefore the Ethnologue) is misrepresenting the translation needs of the Branch without accurate and reliable information on all of the small language groups.

17. Using present methodology, the survey or sociolinguistics department cannot possibly gather and assess data on small language groups.

18. The experts are the translators who live in the areas.  People like Bob Conrad, Ron Lewis, Wayne Dye and yourself are the experts of the Sepik area.  Bob Litteral, Bob Brown and others for the Sandaun—in every Province we have “experts”.  Nevertheless, some of the information that Bob Conrad has given me was not even in the files of the survey office!  The point is that translators will need to take an interest in the small languages in their area and contribute their knowledge to a centralized data bank (including of course the Ethnologue).

19. The RADs need to work together on these problems.  Several Provinces may have unreliable data that precludes the elimination of small languages in their future language projects and strategies.  I have been involved in surveys and am aware of the cost, both economically and in terms of one’s own translation program.

20. The output of this small language storytelling approach is oral, not written, although if possible every language group should have the opportunity of literacy and translation.


[Karl Franklin, 2003]