Valuing language: improving education in Vanuatu

By David Coleman, Senior Education Adviser, DFAT and Christelle Thieffry, Senior Program Officer (Education) at the Australian High Commission in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Every year, the world community marks International Mother Language Day in late February, to celebrate language diversity and the critical role of language in education.

The theme for this year’s International Mother Language Day is ‘towards sustainable futures through multilingual education’.

Why does language choice in school matter? As UNESCO writes, “it is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired.  Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable futures”.

Furthermore, research shows that children whose primary language is not the one used for instruction in school are more likely to drop out or fail in early grades.

In Vanuatu, a change in the language of instruction policy is starting to bear fruit.

The Australian and New Zealand governments are jointly supporting Vanuatu’s primary education reforms to ensure mother languages are included in the early years of primary school.


This policy is significant for Vanuatu.  With over one hundred languages and dialects spoken, Vanuatu has the highest language density of any nation on earth.  This means that within single villages several languages might be spoken.  As a result many schools have chosen to use Bislama, Vanuatu’s official language, as the language of instruction.  (A glimpse into the richness of Vanuatu’s ethno-linguistic diversity can be seen in the Oscar-nominated film, ‘Tanna’.)

To support these changes Australia and New Zealand recently participated in a mid-term review of Vanuatu’s Education Support Program, a five-year partnership focused on improving education quality and student learning.  The review involved analysing performance information, visiting schools and speaking with education officials.  We had the opportunity to visit 17 schools across three provinces and four islands, showing us first-hand the language of instruction reforms in action.

The results speak for themselves.  Teachers, parents, principals and children all reported that teaching and learning in a language that is known to them – either in a local language or Bislama – is beneficial.  School attendance is up and classroom-level assessments show kids’ learning is improving.

Teachers reported they are mastering the new curriculum.  Importantly, parent engagement is growing – because they can now understand what’s being taught at school and can engage with the learning materials coming home.

This is consistent with international data, which shows mother tongue instruction facilitates  effective teaching practices in the classroom and encourages learners (and their caregivers) to be active and more involved with the subject matter.


Anything that can help increase higher attendance and lower repetition at school matters for Vanuatu, where nearly 26 per cent of students are overage for their grade level, higher than in many Sub-Saharan African countries.

Overall, it is the effect on student learning that is most critical.

International evidence on the positive learning benefits of mother tongue instruction is strong, with long-lasting spill over effects.  A 2016 GEM Report Policy Paper found that “mother tongue-based bilingual (or multilingual) education approaches, in which a child’s mother tongue is taught alongside the introduction of a second language, can improve performance in the second language as well as in other subjects”.

In the coming years Vanuatu will track student performance through a curriculum monitoring study, Vanuatu Standardised Test of Achievement results and performance on the Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment program.

Australia is proud to be involved with these important reforms because access to quality education is vital to helping build a more stable and secure future both for Vanuatu and Australia’s region.

For a first-hand account of the reforms in action,  click on the link below to view a short interview with Ms Kre William, Principal of Banban Primary School in Sanma Province

david-coleman David Coleman is Senior Education Advisor at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  He has extensive education for development experience in Asia and the Pacific.  David has previously served as UNICEF Chief of Education in Cambodia, Education Adviser with the New Zealand Aid Program, and Education Specialist with the AusAID Education Resource Facility.  He holds a doctorate in international education policy and program evaluation, and is co-author of the book The United Nations and Education: Multilateralism, Development and Globalisation. 

20170221_064551 Christelle Thieffry is Senior Program Officer (Education) at the Australian High Commission in Port Vila, Vanuatu.  She holds a Masters Degree in English and French as a Foreign Language, and a Diplôme d’Études Supérieures Spécialisées (DESS) in Education and Linguistic Policy.  A French/ni-Vanuatu dual citizen, Christelle has worked in support of Vanuatu’s education system for nearly twenty years, as a teacher, a Ministry of Education adviser, and since 2006 with Australian government programs.


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