Vanuatu: Indigenous language loss and the multiplying effects of climate change

Rising from the deep waters of the South Pacific Ocean, an archipelago of erupting volcanos, bright blue inland marine holes, towering banyan forests and prolonged stretches of smooth sand beaches comprise the country of Vanuatu. These diverse landscapes, spread over 80 islands, have fostered a rich array of life – not only of plants and animals, but also of peoples and cultures. Dozens of distinct communities practising unique traditions and speaking different languages thrive throughout these islands.

The country’s geography, which has gifted this diversity, is both its blessing and its curse; Vanuatu has the privilege of being the country with the most indigenous languages per capita, alongside the misfortune of being one of those most immediately at risk from climate change. These islands offer a window into one of the lesser- discussed threats of our changing climate: the threat to indigenous languages and global linguistic diversity.

Today the world is rich with languages – approximately 7,000 of them. But as the days pass, the numbers fall. Language scholars broadly agree that within the next 100 years, more than half of the world’s languages will have gone extinct (meaning that no native speaker of a language remains). This decline has already begun, and news stories regularly mourn the passing of a ‘last speaker’. There are many causes of this loss. Governments typically support national languages over regional languages in education and media. Persecuted groups face pressure to abandon minority and indigenous languages. Global conflicts lead to the splintering of linguistic communities during refugee crises. Technological advances in communication and transportation facilitate interaction between formerly distant communities. Globalization necessitates the use of large international languages for political and economic purposes. Now add to this list a new and exacerbating factor: climate change. As climate change threatens the sustainability of indigenous communities throughout the globe, it also threatens their languages – languages that are already struggling to survive.

Climate change will ultimately affect all countries and peoples in the world. The most immediate and extreme effects, however, will be felt by tropical island states, which are particularly vulnerable to the rise of sea levels, warming ocean temperatures and increasingly destructive cyclones. Plans for relocating communities displaced by climate change are either under way or being discussed for the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and for low-lying coral atolls in the Paci c such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. These areas of the world are disproportionately rich in indigenous languages, as each small island or nation is typically home to one or more distinct languages or dialects. As people are forced to leave their lands and relocate to other communities, they must adapt to new languages, and maintaining their own indigenous languages is a significant challenge.

Vanuatu is one of these states at the forefront of climate vulnerability. In 2015, the country was devastated by Cyclone Pam, a category 5 tropical cyclone cited as one of Vanuatu’s worst environmental disasters of all time, which completely destroyed the infrastructure of many villages and severely affected the nation’s economy. While environmental hazards such as cyclones and floods, as well as tectonic activity like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, have long been part of life for the people of these islands, there is increasing evidence that climate change may be contributing to the intensity and frequency of such events. The grave injustice is that Vanuatu, whose people live mostly in self-sustaining villages and produce very few fossil fuels, did not create this climate change disaster yet will be among its earliest and most deeply affected victims. In 2018, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu announced that the country would be the first to explore legal means to ‘shift the costs of climate protection back onto the fossil fuel companies, the financial institutions and the governments that actively and knowingly created this existential threat to my country.’

This existential threat extends to the country’s languages. Vanuatu is home to over 100 indigenous languages, from the 900 speakers of Aneityum at the southernmost tip to the 250 speakers of Hiu at the northernmost. With such a large number of languages and a total population of only 270,000 people, Vanuatu is believed to be the most linguistically diverse country on Earth. These languages have had the good fortune to thrive in a country that embraces, rather than suppresses, indigenous identities. The island state is rather unusual in its support of its languages: the government formally recognizes the indigenous languages in its charter and supports mother tongue language programming in elementary schools. These efforts reflect a more general movement to respect, celebrate and maintain indigenous cultural practices. But these efforts are in a battle against the myriad of stressors taking aim at the country’s languages.

Vanuatu’s languages exist in a linguistically complex environment. The country has three official languages: English, French and Bislama. The first two, left by colonial powers Britain and France, who jointly governed the country until independence in 1980, remain the primary languages of education and business and are imperative for anyone seeking opportunities outside the country. The third official language, Bislama, is a creole based on grammatical structures from local Melanesian languages but with vocabulary primarily from English. It arose during the 1880s when Vanuatu’s people were forced to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji. Bislama now serves as a lingua franca and is spoken by almost everyone as a second language and increasingly as a first language for those in the capital city, Port Vila, and those from linguistically mixed families.

Encouraging the use of the official languages, particularly Bislama, are developments in communication and transportation. A mobile phone network, launched just over 10 years ago, now connects islands that never had landline capabilities, and a new ring road on the main island of Efate greatly eases movement between communities previously accessible to one another only by boat or long treks on foot. (The road was just recently reopened after repairs following the destruction of Cyclone Pam.) While most would agree that these developments are positive for the country, they come at the cost of placing additional strain on its indigenous languages.

Now climate change is exacerbating these effects, threatening to destabilize the foundation that has bolstered Vanuatu’s indigenous languages for centuries – traditional village life. Spread over dozens of islands, across disparate pieces of coastline, separated from one another by a wide river, a steep interior or the ocean waters, a number of relatively isolated indigenous communities have developed. These communities have thrived for centuries thanks to a climate that supports abundant resources – forests filled with fruit trees and edible plants, vast sh stocks and rich soils for subsistence farming. This sustainability has helped earn the country a ‘world’s happiest’ ranking in international surveys of wellbeing.

In these villages, without reliance on outside interactions, distinct indigenous languages and cultures have flourished. Now, however, as coastal areas become uninhabitable and weather changes adversely affect farming and fishing, some communities will be forced to relocate. This movement will bring different linguistic groups closer together in the fewer habitable areas and increase the number of people moving to Port Vila, environments that foster use of Bislama and decrease use of the indigenous languages.

Language loss may not seem as significant as the other losses Vanuatu and the world face in a changing climate, but it is far from solely a sentimental one. Languages are foundational to identity, the principal means for conveying a community’s culture and heritage.

This is why indigenous communities in North America, rebuilding their societies after decades of persecution, are prioritizing language revitalization alongside efforts to improve education and health care. Languages are also an invaluable source of information about the brain: loss of a language before it has been documented is a loss of scientific data needed to understand cognition, and, sadly, most endangered languages have yet to be studied or recorded. Finally, languages encode information about the natural world: the dozens of types of vines twisting into the trees on the Vanuatu island of Malakula, referred to by their thickness, rate of growth and distance from the ocean, have names in the local Na’ahai language but not in Bislama, and likely not in any other language.

Change is coming to the world’s languages. Many will not survive the great shifts ahead, while others will persevere against the odds.

For communities dedicated to preserving their languages, the right planning and resources will help them succeed. Unfortunately, climate change’s multiplying effects shorten the timeframe and rob them of the necessary resources, making the challenge that much greater. Among the many critical reasons that humanity must fight to mitigate the looming climate crisis is the need to save the languages of Vanuatu and the linguistic diversity of the planet.

Anastasia Riehl

Photo: Members of a coastal community on their boat in front of an outcrop in Vanuatu. Photo supplied by Anastasia Riehl.