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Language socialisation and the transmission of Qaqet Baining (Papua New Guinea): Towards a documentation project


Language Qaqet Baining
Depositor Birgit Hellwig
Affiliation Linguistics, University of Cologne
Location Papua New Guinea
Collection ID 0330
Grant ID SG0110
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection provides a pilot for a documentation of child language socialisation and transmission practices among the Qaqet Baining. Qaqet is spoken by 6000 speakers in Papua New Guinea in highly multilingual settings. These settings have consequences for the transmission and the long-term survival of the language: children in coastal villages no longer grow up with Qaqet as their dominant language, while children in interior villages speak Qaqet dominantly only until school age.

This pilot collection aims to provide a preliminary corpus of sociolinguistic information, child-directed speech and children’s narratives. This corpus forms the basis for a future comprehensive documentation of language socialisation and transmission practices, which will enable us to better understand how languages can become endangered.


Group represented

The materials in this collection were collected from two fieldsites: one fieldsite where children grow up multilingually (the vicinity of Vunamarita, where Qaqet live in close proximity to the dominant Tolai); and, as a comparative baseline, one remote fieldsite where children still grow up monolingually until school age (the village of Raunsepna).

The Baining are very likely the original inhabitants of the mountainous interior of the Gazelle peninsula (Stebbins 2009). Other groups immigrated more recently, settling along the coast. The dominant immigrant group, the Tolai, developed a hierarchical relationship with the Baining: adjacent communities were subdued, had to pay tribute and take part in raids to capture and kill others, while remote communities were the target of these raids. During the colonial period, the Baining suffered epidemics and stress through forced acculturation. The consequences were so dramatic that the missionaries of the mid 20th century considered the Baining ‘a dying people’ (Hiery 2007). Fortunately, their dire predictions did not come true, but there is no question that the Baining were, and still are, marginalised – with considerable effects on their languages. Many Baining react to their marginalisation by attempting to decrease their visibility, e.g., they will avoid speaking their languages if outsiders are present, so as not to be identified as Baining. As a result, Baining languages are only spoken regularly in in-group settings in remote villages. It is likely that the languages have survived there precisely because of this remoteness.

Qaqet representatives are concerned that their children no longer acquire Qaqet, and they asked if the researchers could support them teaching Qaqet. Qaqet representatives are especially interested in developing literacy materials which target the three years of elementary school: children are supposed to be taught in Qaqet, but this does not happen in practice, because there are no Qaqet materials available and because many teachers come from outside and do not speak Qaqet. These teaching materials should be based on an understanding of children’s language, therefore this collection aims to document the cultural contexts of language learning, the kind of language used with and around children, and the outputs that these children produce.


Language information

Qaqet is a non-Austronesian Baining language that is spoken by approximately 6,000 speakers in the Gazelle peninsula of East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. The collection focuses on Qaqet, but the context described here is similar across all Baining languages.

The Baining languages constitute a genetic grouping that consists of six distinct languages (15,000 speakers altogether): Mali [gcc], Qairaq [ckr], Qaqet [byx], Simbali [smg], Ura [uro], and possibly Makolkol [zmh]. They are sometimes reported as having genetic links to Taulil [tuh] (800 speakers) and Butam [–] (probably extinct). Their wider genetic affiliation remains unclear: they are negatively classified as non-Austronesian (or Papuan), and are included in the geographically – not genetically – defined group of East Papuan languages (Dunn et al. 2002, 2008; Foley 1986; Greenberg 1971; Ross 2000; Stebbins 2009; Wurm 1982).

This situation is currently changing to the further detriment of the languages. The integration of the Baining into the nation state has led to an increased mobility, which also affects language use. Focusing on the Qaqet, we observe that most Qaqet from the remote interior have acquired plots along the coast for planting cash crops (and thus live in close proximity to the Tolai). There is a considerable increase in interethnic marriages: Qaqet report that, in the last generation, the few non-Qaqet spouses would often still learn Qaqet, but this pattern is no longer true. Non-Qaqet spouses are not the only outsiders in remote villages: there are priests and other church employees, as well as health workers and teachers with their families. At the time of the research, a logging company was seeking to extend its operations into the area. If granted permission, this would result in another influx of outsiders with possibly disastrous consequences, not only for the language. Finally, elementary and primary school children are usually not taught in Qaqet, and secondary school children leave their communities to go to boarding school.

The situation described above means that most adult Qaqet are multilingual: many still speak their native language, plus one or more neighbouring language(s), Kuanua (the Austronesian language of the dominant Tolai), and especially Tok Pisin (an English/Kuanua-based pidgin). Multilingualism was probably always a feature of this region: there is considerable evidence for Austronesian borrowings into the lexicon and grammar of Qaqet (Dunn et al. 2002, 2008; Foley 2000; Lindström et al. 2007; Reesink 2005; Ross 1996; Stebbins 2009, to appear). However, there are indications that the present multilingual situation differs qualitatively from past multilingual situations. Our initial observations suggest that present-day language transmission is interrupted to varying degrees in the different communities: no transmission (in the towns), early multilingual acquisition with Qaqet being the non-dominant language (in the accessible communities), and monolingual acquisition until school age (in the remote communities); from school age onwards, Qaqet ceases to be dominantly acquired in all communities.


Special characteristics

One main reason for languages becoming extinct is that they are no longer transmitted to the next generation. The central aim of language documentation is to document the contexts in which children become socialised to speak appropriately. We therefore aim to extend our standard corpus creation techniques to developing corpora of speech practices that focus on child language.

From a language documentation perspective, this collection is a case in adding a language socialisation perspective to standard documentation practices. It adds to our knowledge of which factors contribute to the endangerment of languages and how we can support communities in continuing to transmit their languages to the next generation. From a language acquisition perspective, this collection adds significantly to our knowledge of how children acquire languages in multilingual societies. Currently, our knowledge is severely skewed towards the acquisition of larger European languages, which are acquired in either monolingual settings or settings of family bilingualism (but not in settings of community multilingualism). Therefore the project will add to our knowledge of the acquisition of a typologically different language in a situation that is closer to the global language learning norm (i.e., multilingualism).


Collection contents

The materials in this collection were gathered in two fieldsites: one in which children grow up multilingually, and one in which children grow up monolingually until school starting age.

When completed, the collection will include

  • a sociolinguistic survey of the two communities based on audio-recordings (translated and tagged for their sociolinguistic information) or interview notes of interview sessions, including basic demographic, socioeconomic and educational information as well as linking this information to self-perceptions about the use of the available language(s) in different contexts (especially with and around children) and to attitudes towards the different languages and towards language learning and child-rearing practices, with the information gathered collated into spreadsheets
  • video recordings of the language used around and with children do develop an idea of the kinds and ranges of interactions that children engage in with different (adult and child) interlocutors during the course of their day
  • video recordings of four children (two in each fieldsite) aged approximately two to three years in different contexts, estimating 60 minutes of recording for each child and context, in order to develop an initial idea of the kinds of natural interactions in which children participate, and the kinds of natural language input they receive
  • video recordings of children narrating the Raven/Jackal story (Kelly 2011) from around 30 children of between 5 and 12 years of age plus a number of adults in both communities as a baseline, in order to complement the naturalistic data recorded from the four children and to provide an initial indication of the range of older children’s language development
  • time-aligned transcription, translations and annotations
  • metadata


Collection history

Birgit Hellwig began her research project on adult Qaqet in 2010. The research team had already established a fieldsite in Raunsepna, had developed a good understanding of the adult language, and had made initial observations on child language (on the cultural contexts where children acquire language, and on some characteristics of child-direct speech and children’s speech). What was missing was detailed information that was necessary to conduct an in-depth documentation of child language.

This pilot collection intends to collect data that allows researchers to assess the feasibility and to determine the scope of such a documentation project. The specific outcomes of this pilot were intended to be the establishment of two fieldsites for the longitudinal study of child language socialisation, a sociolinguistic survey of two communities, recordings of the language used around and with children, and recordings of narratives. These outcomes would provide the necessary knowledge to assess the feasibility of a full documentation project, and to determine its scope.

The materials in this collection were gathered and prepared between 2012 and 2013 during four months in the field as part of the ELDP-funded Small Grant held by Birgit Hellwig, and eight months of data processing.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Hellwig, Birgit. 2010. Language socialisation and the transmission of Qaqet Baining (Papua New Guinea): Towards a documentation project. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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