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French… Lost in translation in Vanuatu?

Suzanne Cavanagh - 05/07/13 - www.MyFrenchLife.org

… With good reason Vanuatu has been listed by Lonely Planet as “one of its top destinations for 2011“.

Vanuatu makes authentic island experience immediately accessible at this stunning Melanesian archipelago and hard to beat for those wanting to get away from the ritzy side of modern life.

For me the opportunity to experience a variety of island cultures, just 3.5 hours from Sydney and as a budding Francophile, practice a bit of French along the way, meant this trip was full of promise.

Suzanne Cavanagh - 05/07/13 - www.MyFrenchLife.orgCertainly, the cultural experience didn’t fail to excite. The Ni-Vanuatu people are wonderfully warm and welcoming, anxious to share their still intact culture with anyone interested to stop and learn. Fishing and hunting based on the methods of old are still part of day-to-day life and a visit to the villages taught us how to fish using a spider web, trap chickens using bamboo spring traps and pick no shortage of medicinal remedies from the surrounding forest.

The second part of my mission, to practice a bit of French, required somewhat more application. Vanuatu, I learnt, has three official languages, Bislama, English and French.

Suzanne Cavanagh - 05/07/13 - www.MyfrenchLife.org

In addition there are numerous local languages spoken on the islands and ‘Kustom  Language’ a visual language that uses sand drawings to communicate.  Bislama, a form of pidgin English, is derived from early plantation pidgin used when thousands of Ni-Vanuatu were forced to work in plantations in Australia (the Black birding era). The use of Bislama became a practical way of communicating, not only between the Ni-Vanuatu, but also with European traders.

Whilst English and French are the official languages of education, there is a tendency for one or other to be favoured by a school, although both are always taught.

It was surprising therefore to find that in Port Vila, the capital, French is rarely heard spoken in the street and only occasionally in the shops and restaurants (except of course in their excellent French restaurants). I learnt in time that some of the other islands such as Malakula, have strong Francophone communities, as a result of earlier trading during the pre-independence era.

Trying to get to the bottom of what was becoming a ‘language labyrinth’, I met with a young Ni-Vanuatu who was educated at a ‘French’ school and, test-driving my French, we discussed how and when French was used. His parents spoke English, in addition to the ubiquitous Bislama language. They have, he explained, a coconut crab export business and being commercially astute, sent him to a French, rather than an English, school so that he could assist them in tapping the French market for this delightful island gourmet product. He further explained that French is spoken by many of the young people and certainly when he visits a nightclub with his friends the ‘language of choice’, becomes very ‘fluid’ with them commencing in French, lapsing into Bislama, moving on to English and well by the end of the night – who knows, some sort of night club ‘patois’?

Suzanne Cavanagh - 05/07/13 - www.MyfrenchLife.org
So French is not lost in Vanuatu, just not as in evidence as Bislama and English.

If, like me, you are rather passionate about speaking French, with a little effort you will find willing French conversationalists, who will probably explain some fascinating things about their island languages and culture. It seems French is not lost – just a little hidden. The archipelago however, is certainly a delight  – in any language..

Images: Courtesy of Suzanne Cavanagh


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1 Comment




  1. Judy MacMahon
    8 years ago

    Suzanne I love your ‘language labyrinth’perspective. When trying to learn a language its so easy to get caught up in the words; you’ve reminded us that langueage means so much more. thanks. Judy