English: Useful to us, or a threat?

Monday September 04, 2017 Written by Published in Local
Carolin Biewer gives a copy of her book South Pacifi c Englishes to the Offi ce of the Prime Ministers media advisor, Thomas Wynne. The book will be presented to prime minister Henry Puna. 17090311 Carolin Biewer gives a copy of her book South Pacifi c Englishes to the Offi ce of the Prime Ministers media advisor, Thomas Wynne. The book will be presented to prime minister Henry Puna. 17090311

Is English a useful addition to the community or a threat to Cook Islands Maori? And, can a local form of English become part of the cultural heritage?


Those are questions now being asked by Professor Carolin Biewer, Chair of English Linguistics at Würzburg University, Germany.

She’s visiting Rarotonga to follow up a previous research trip to the Pacific 10 years ago. That study produced a book called South Pacific Englishes, published in 2015.

The main focus of the findings is the use of second-language varieties of English in Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands, as well as the close connection between language and culture.

Her book is seen by fellow researchers as a welcome contribution to the growing body of “world Englishes” research, specifically identifying different styles of the language used around the globe. And it fills a long overdue gap in the area of English language varieties used in the Pacific.

Biewer’s first efforts won her recognition from the European Society for the study of English.

Until her book was published, Biewer says there was scant information on the use of English in the Pacific. The linguistic influence of English in Samoa and the Cook Islands had never been investigated before. And Fiji had never had a comparison study done between the island nations.

Biewer conducted face-to-face interviews over a six-month period in 2007, in all three countries.

In the Cook Islands she spoke to 34 individuals and gleaned some interesting findings.

She also arrived on Rarotonga at an ideal time, in 2007, when Te Maeva Nui was being celebrated in with visitors from the outer islands.

This gave her a good cross-section of Cook Islands population data. She spoke to 11 people from Rarotonga, nine from the Southern Group and four from the Northern group.

Through her time spent here, it became apparent that people had very different opinions about the role of English in the community.

Biewer looked at how much English they used during the day, and if they spoke in English or Cook Islands Maori to their children at home. She also looked into whether English was spoken all the time. She researched influences in the home, such as western-style media entertainment and cultural behaviours.

She says the styles of English used in Samoa, which has an American influence and Fiji and the Cook Islands, are all different.

And interestingly, she says the Cook Islands version is becoming more “local”, being what she refers to as “Cook Islands English”.

She does admit, however that there is a noticeable close correlation with New Zealand English.

She says relatives returning or visiting from abroad can subtly influence the style of English used by younger Cook Island relatives.

As one example, Biewer says she noticed that the six-year-old child of a Cook Island family she was staying with in Rarotonga, was quickly influenced by visiting New Zealand-based relatives in some of her vocabulary.

She says the child started to pronounce words like pen, as “pin”, with a raised vowel sound.

This week she has been following up with respondents from her original study and has already recorded similar instances.

In a couple of cases, some of the younger interviewees have since spent time overseas. They had been studying or working in Australia and New Zealand and have now returned, speaking those respective styles of English.

Biewer felt it was important to come back and share her book with the Cook Islands community and to say, “This is what you contributed to and this is the outcome”, - and for interested parties to work with the information.

She says she’s been greatly encouraged by people remembering her from her previous visit.

She believes English can be used as a positive means to preserve “cultural conventions”, in the telling of stories and legends in Pacific Island culture.

She also invites people to give their opinion in her latest survey to help her to continue her research.

Biewer says the more people who participate, the more meaningful the results will be.

“I think it is very important to discuss today how attitudes towards English may have changed over the last 10 years and what the future role of English in the Cook Islands might be to benefit the community.

“Together we may start a debate on what the future role of English should be for the Cook Islands,” she says.

To answer the short questionnaire on the impact of English in the Cook Islands, you can voice your opinion at: www.surveymonkey.com/r/DG82DNB

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