Priority Research Areas

Linguistics and Languages

There are currently nine priority areas in which we are either currently working or would like to encourage research students to start working. These areas are of critical importance to the Pacific region at the current time.

If you are a researcher interested in collaborating with us, please visit our staff profiles for our contact details.

If you are a prospective research student, please see the research students pages for guidance on the application process, as well as our staff profiles.

Linguistic research on Pacific languages

With almost 1,400 Austronesian languages, at least 700 Papuan languages and more than 200 Australian languages, the South Pacific is an extremely rich region linguistically. However, although these languages have developed and thrived for many thousands of years, their future cannot be taken for granted anymore. Many of the world’s languages will die out in the next hundred years under the pressure from both international languages like English, and major national languages like Standard Hindi and Melanesian Pidgin. The most pessimistic view assumes that, in the Pacific, no indigenous languages will be spoken by the year 2200. Although in countries with one vernacular, a strong sense of tradition, and a relatively small out-migration – such as Kiribati or Tuvalu – indigenous languages are more likely to survive, in other countries like Marshall Islands, Cook Islands and Niue, the local languages are under threat. In Fiji, the two large languages – Fijian and Hindi – may survive but decrease in dialectal diversity. In countries with very high numbers of vernaculars – such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea – there are many languages about which very little is ‘known’ or ‘studied’ by linguists.

Priority Area 1. Language documentation

Language documentation generally starts with examining one aspect of a language, for example a specific lexicon (e.g. the names of plants) or a particular use of the language (e.g. the structures and words used for spatial orientation) and builds up gradually to a full picture of the language in all its complexity.

Documenting means that you work with speakers of a lesser-known language (ideally your own language) to produce high quality video and audio recordings, which are then transcribed, annotated, and possibly translated into a language of wider communication  so that other linguists can use them. More importantly, though, these materials can then be used by the speakers themselves in any way that they may wish. It may not be up to you to save any language! But starting to document a language can be a first step towards a revalorisation of its speakers’ knowledge, the promotion of its usage in the community, or the development of some materials for schools.

Projects in this area require a good grasp of linguistic analysis (a high grade in LN411 or equivalent).

Current USP projects in this area:

“Navigating the Weather (NaWA)” (Candide Simard & Apolonia Tamata, in collaboration with activists and members of the Uto ni Yalo Trust, and associate researchers Andrea Deri, anthropologist- specialist in climate change, and Caroline Giraud, expert on communication and community engagement). Learn more below.

“Digital documentation of the botanical knowledge of Northern Khmer speakers” (Candide Simard & external colleagues). This project works with the villagers of Surin in Thailand in collaboration with the RILCA institute at Mahidol University, Bangkok, to document their knowledge of the plants and trees in the neighbouring forest, and to understand how much of this knowledge is passed on to the children… and in what language.

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Losalini Rokosuli (MA by SRP, Laucala, Fiji) The semantics of navigations in dialects of the Fijian language
  • Peter Sasabule (MA, Solomon Islands) Documentation of Roviana, New Georgia, Western Solomon Islands
  • Jim Gure (Ma by SRP, Vanuatu) Lexical innovations in Raga, North Pentecost, Vanuatu
Priority Area 2. Language description

Language description refers to the analysis of a language, how it works, how the words are put together, how the sentences are created, and the different means it uses to express the speakers’ messages. Linguistic description sometimes results in writing a full grammar, but more often, it results in writing about particular parts of a grammar only. It is the kind of work to undertake if you are curious and like to solve puzzles, as linguistic description involves discovering how a language works, and making this clear to other people.

Why is this work important? Languages spoken around the Pacific differ vastly from many of the languages that tend to have been studied in most depth by linguists (consider how many shelves are devoted to English in the library!). Linguists working on the description of Pacific languages have an enormous contribution to make to the field of theoretical linguistics, since new insights enrich our knowledge of the world’s linguistic diversity. So few Pacific languages have been studied in any depth, and much of the descriptive work that has been done has been carried out by linguists based outside the region, leaving a vast gap to be filled by Pacific linguists.

Projects in this area require a good grasp of linguistic analysis (a high grade in LN411 or equivalent).

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Rajendra Prasad (PhD, Laucala, Fiji) Fiji Baat verb construction analysis
  • Svetlana Kiseleva Afuhaˈamango (MA, 2021, Lautoka, Fiji) Uniqueness of emphatic possessives in Tongan
  • Romina Singh (MA, 2018, Laucala, Fiji) Sketch grammar and sociolinguistic topics in Bua Fiji Hindi
  • Alice Rore (MA by SRP, 2017, Laucala, Fiji) Grammar sketch of Sulagwalu, Solomon Islands
  • Rajendra Prasad (MA by SRP, 2017, Laucala, Fiji) Grammar sketch of Nasinu Fiji Hindi
  • Carol Aru (MA, 2016, Vanuatu) A short grammar of Duidui: A language of West Ambae in Northern Vanuatu
  • Ana Kitolelei (MA, 2013, Laucala, Fiji) The Fijian of part-Europeans: a case study of Wainunu-i-caxe
  • David Healey (PhD, 2013, Vanuatu) A grammar of Maskelynes: the language of Uluveu island, Vanuatu
  • Gillian Green (PhD, 2012, Vanuatu) Pacific English: What is it, why is it and its implications
  • Hannah Vari-Bogiri (PhD, 2011, Vanuatu) Phonology and morpho-syntax of Raga, Vanuatu
  • Sébastian Lacrampe (MA, 2009, Vanuatu) Possession in Lelepa, a language of Central Vanuatu
  • Apolonia Tamata (PhD, 2007, Laucala, Fiji) The Glottal Stop in Nasorowaqa Fijian and other Oceanic Languages
  • Jane Kanas (MA, 2001, Vanuatu) Tu kaen Bislama? Wan lukluk long nasonal langwis blong Vanuatu blong soem se i gat tu kaen Bislama we ol i toktok long hem long Vila taon


Priority Area 3. Sociolinguistic variation

Have you noticed that you do not always speak in exactly the same way? You may use different languages, dialects and accents in different situations. You may adapt the way you speak when you address younger or older people; you may use different registers when you are out with your friends or being interviewed for a job. Sociolinguistics studies how language varies in different contexts. It ranges from examining how individual speakers use language to how people use language differently in different towns or regions, and can even contribute to how a country may decide which language (or which variety of a language) will be taught in its schools, used on the radio or enshrined in the constitution.

In practice, sociolinguistic research tends to focus on a single linguistic phenomenon and see how it varies across speakers, or groups of speakers. It applies both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, depending on the question it seeks to answer.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have taken LN413, and also require a good grasp of linguistic analysis (a high grade in LN411 or equivalent).

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Yogita Mala (MA by SRP, Laucala, Fiji) Genderlects in Fiji Hindi as used on Radio Navtarang
  • Tiito Kaeka (MA by SRP, Kiribati) Lexical variation in dialects of the Kiribati language
  • Virendra Prasad (MA by SRP, Laucala, Fiji) Phonetic variation and convergence of Hindi-speaking users of English in Suva, northern Fiji, and India
  • Sandhya Kumari (MA, Laucala, Fiji) Lexical variation in the I-Kiribati and Banaban dialects
  • Bhagirati Bhan (MA by SRP, 2021, Laucala, Fiji) Code-switching between Standard Hindi and Fiji Hindi
  • Wilfred Fimone (MA, 2020, Laucala, Fiji) Variation and change of glottal stop deletion in Rotuman

Image: MA student, Wilfred Fimone, presenting his sociolinguistic data at an international conference


Sustainability of our languages, cultural traditions and knowledge systems

In addition to technical work on the languages themselves, linguists also have important roles to play in working with communities to ensure the sustainability of this region’s languages, cultural traditions and knowledge systems. The first way our research can contribute to this is by drawing attention to the way languages are used in the environment around us, since the way we value and use our different languages can be influenced by the extent to which we see these languages around us in our daily lives. The second way our research can contribute is by collecting up-to-date data about which languages are being spoken in which domains by the different age groups of the population, as well as their attitudes to these languages. Without such data, it is hard to know the extent of the problem with language and culture shift. Thirdly, we can support maintenance and revitalisation efforts by researching appropriate pedagogies for the teaching of Pacific languages in both formal and informal contexts.

Priority Area 4. Linguistic landscapes

Linguistic landscapes is a relatively young field of sociolinguistics, which focuses on the languages that we can see in the landscape around us – on street signs, advertising boards, shop fronts, handwritten notices, graffiti, and so on. Primary data is collected via digital photographs, which are taken systematically in a pre-determined area, and then analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Although studies involve collecting and analysing data about language, they are usually really about non-linguistic phenomena such as national identity and politics, mobility and migration, colonialism and neocolonialism, and trade and globalisation. The languages that are visible (and particularly the languages that are INvisible) tell us a lot about who lives where, which ethnic groups hold power, what tensions exist between language groups, which languages are used for literacy and written purposes, and which languages are considered emblems of modernity and progress.

Until recently, no linguistic landscape studies had been conducted in the Pacific at all. In 2017, we launched the first project of its kind (see below), and there is plenty of scope for research students to start their own studies within this project.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have taken LN216, but this is not essential.

Current USP projects in this area:

“Linguistic landscapes of the contemporary Pacific” (Fiona Willans, in collaboration with research assistants from across the region – Salanieta Koro, Fiji;  Jim Gure, Vanuatu; ‘Elenoa Veikune, Tonga; Timothy Rongoau, Solomon Islands; Nanise Senikabuta, Marshall Islands; Tereise Vaifale, Samoa; Aleysha Tamakin, Nauru), in which we compare the visual representation of languages in urban spaces with the highly multilingual ‘soundtracks’ of these cities. Learn more below.

Image source: “Linguistic landscapes of the contemporary Pacific” project (credit: Nanise Senikabuta)

Priority Area 5. Language attitudes, identities and repertoires

Pacific islanders are typically multilingual, which means that they make use of different languages for different purposes and in different contexts. We know anecdotally that many individuals and communities are shifting towards English and other languages of wider communication such as Melanesian Pidgin, but we have limited empirical data that tells us which languages people use, and the extent to which the patterns are indeed changing.

Research within this broad area could assess proficiency in different languages, as well as survey the attitudes that speakers hold towards the languages available to them. Data about proficiency and attitudes can be very helpful in informing a range of applied topics such as language revitalisation, teaching, and government policy.

If you are interested in this area, you should begin by looking to see what has already been written about use, attitudes and proficiency in your own language and other Pacific languages. Where earlier studies have been conducted, you could consider a follow-up study to capture the extent to which attitudes or usage have shifted over the years. Where no studies exist about your own language, you could consider conducting a similar study to one carried out elsewhere. In both cases, you will need to be critical of the methodology of the original study, but you could contribute valuable new information with a relatively simple research design.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who are following the MA by SRP route who would like to undertake a study that can contribute new data on which other projects can later build.

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Pritima Singh (MA by SRP, Laucala, Fiji) Attitudes towards Fiji Hindi, Shudh Hindi and English via a matched guise test
  • Barbara Fatiaki (MA by SRP, Laucala, Fiji) Attitudes of Suva based Rotumans towards Rotuman and Fijian
  • Sadia Shainaaz (MA by SRP, 2023, Laucala, Fiji) Language attitudes of Suva and Nausori Indo-Fijian residents towards English, Fiji Hindi and Shudh Hindi
  • Roshila Singh (MA, 2008, Laucala, Fiji) Language use for interethnic communication among urban Fijians and Indo-Fijians in Suva: Strengthening ties for a common identity

Image source: Fiji Times, 25 January 2020

Priority Area 6. The teaching of Pacific languages as second, additional or heritage languages

People may want to learn – or relearn – a Pacific language for many different reasons. For example, a Solomon Islander who marries someone from the Marshall Islands may wish to learn Marshallese; a Fijian who speaks Fijian at home may be required to learn Conversational Hindi in school; a Cook Islander raised in New Zealand may wish to learn Cook Islands Māori; a ni-Vanuatu who has grown up speaking his father’s language may move to his mother’s island and start to learn the language of her community; an Australian moving to Kiribati for work may want to learn Te Kiribati; and so on.

Language labels such as ‘L2’ are not always very helpful, especially when learners already consider the target language to be their own language. However, it is not easy to simply pick up the target language, even if it is part of the learner’s heritage, and in fact it can sometimes be extremely difficult to do so. Learners of ‘their own language’ are usually aware of the pressure to fit into a community to which they feel they should already belong, and, particularly when they know that their language is endangered, they may feel the burden of keeping it alive without really knowing how to. To understand how best to assist different learners with varied needs and motivations, learning a range of different Pacific languages in very diverse contexts, we should turn to principles of second/additional language acquisition, and investigate how to adapt language learning materials and pedagogies for different purposes.

There are two broad sub-areas in which we would like to foster new research at USP: the effective teaching of Pacific languages in formal contexts within USP countries (e.g. the school system, or through credit courses at USP) and opportunities for Pacific islanders in diaspora communities to gain proficiency in their own heritage languages (e.g. through online courses or apps, and through community-based initiatives in cities such as Auckland).

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have taken LN416 (with LN419 also advantageous) and who have experience teaching their own language in schools and/or studying their language as part of an undergraduate Pacific Vernacular Language programme.

Image source: A CM212 student completing a micro-teaching assignment in Cook Islands Māori (YouTube, 2020)

Improving the way we teach languages and teach THROUGH languages across the curriculum

Another incredibly important domain in which we work is formal education. This is because the languages and cultural approaches through which children are expected to learn across the curriculum are intimately connected with the success of that learning. As a legacy of colonial times, too much of formal education across the Pacific region has been carried out uncritically through English without enough attention paid to whether children understand what they are learning. We need quality, relevant research to help guide the way English is taught as a second language, but we also need far more research that can inform language-in-education policy across the content curriculum. This includes effective vernacular education, realistic bilingual and multilingual models of learning and assessment, and well-informed classroom pedagogies that draw on learners’ multilingual repertoires as productive resources rather than fallback strategies.

Priority Area 7. The teaching of English as a second language

For several years now, there has been high-profile media coverage about low levels of English proficiency across the Pacific, and we desperately need some good quality research in this area. To a certain extent, we already know many reasons why students are not learning English well in school (relating to syllabi that are more appropriate for first language speakers of English, and the use of English as the medium of instruction across the curriculum before children have had a chance to learn the language) and we don’t need any vague studies that set out to investigate ‘factors influencing weak proficiency levels’ and so on. However, we do need more classroom-based research that will show us how English is actually being taught (requiring observation of lessons with audio and video recording, as well as analysis of the written texts used and produced). Studies of this nature would provide valuable insights that can inform teacher training and curriculum development.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have completed LN416, LN418 and LN419, and who have experience as English teachers at primary or secondary level. Full-time teachers will have to think carefully about practical considerations for collecting their own data if they wish to do classroom-based research (e.g. will you be allowed leave from your own teaching if you decide to conduct research in somebody else’s classroom?).

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Ioran Teeta (MA by SRP, Kiribati) Syllabus on paper vs syllabus in practice: A case study of Year 3 English classes on an outer island of Kiribati
  • Purnima Din (MA by SRP, Lautoka, Fiji) Dynamics of teacher feedback on secondary ESL essays
  • Tupou Singh (MA, Laucala, Fiji) How primary school students in Fiji learn (or don’t learn) present and past tense: A study using the CEFR – English Grammar Profile Online
  • Shaleshni Prasad (MA, 2023, Lautoka, Fiji) Enhancement of oral proficiency within an undergraduate EAP course
  • Evangeline Narayan (MA by SRP, 2021, Labasa, Fiji) In search of principles of second language acquisition in the design and unpacking of Fiji’s English syllabus
  • Zakia Chand (PhD, 2015, Lautoka, Fiji) Language learning strategies of Fiji students and correlations with academic language proficiency
  • Setsuko Wakabayashi (PhD, 2007, Laucala, Fiji) Cognitive processing in foreign language listening comprehension with video text
  • Mohammed Sameer (MA, 2005, Laucala, Fiji) Teacher talk in Fijian English classrooms

Image source: Headlines from various Fiji Times and Fiji Sun articles

Priority Area 8. Supporting English across the content curriculum

At secondary and tertiary level at least, English is the dominant language used as medium of instruction across the curriculum in the USP region. The assumption is that students should have sufficient proficiency in this language in order to understand and engage with what they are taught, and to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in assessments. However, there are several problems with this assumption. Firstly, we know that many students are expected to use English as the medium of instruction and assessment long before they have acquired a high enough level of proficiency in this language. Secondly, we know that the ‘English’ subject is often not designed to support students to use this language across all the other subjects of the curriculum. Thirdly, we know that teachers of other subjects feel either unprepared or unable to help students deal with English at the same time as content in their own classrooms. A lack of confidence and proficiency in the medium of instruction amongst both students and teachers typically leads to teacher-controlled classrooms, dominated by the copying of notes and model answers, rather than the type of learner-centred inquiry-based learning that curriculum documents suggest we are trying to achieve.

Since 2018, we have started to investigate issues relating to English medium instruction at tertiary level (see below), but we also need to move our interest down into the school systems of the different USP countries in order to understand how students are acquiring and being supported to use English for academic purposes across the whole curriculum.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have taken LN418 and who have experience teaching both English and a non-language subject. Full-time teachers will have to think carefully about practical considerations for collecting their own data if they wish to do classroom-based research (e.g. will you be allowed leave from your own teaching if you decide to conduct research in somebody else’s classroom?).

Current USP projects in this area: 

“Moving academic literacy support into the mainstream” (Fiona Willans, Tilisi Bryce, Ralph Buadromo, Rajendra Prasad and Aluwesi Fonolahi), in which we evaluate students’ engagement with academic literacy support built into a first-year linguistics course at USP delivered via blended and online modes. Learn more below.

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Evangeline Narayan (PhD, Labasa, Fiji) How children acquire the language of Mathematics in early primary classrooms in Fiji
  • Roshila Singh (PhD, Laucala, Fiji) Academic literacies and English language support practices of lecturers at the University of the South Pacific: a case study of English Medium Instruction at a regional university in the South Pacific
  • Vimal Kumar (MA by SRP, 2023, Laucala, Fiji) A study on text complexity across the school curriculum in Fiji: Readability & lexical coverage

Image source: LexTutor Software used to analyse text complexity in Vimal Kumar’s study

Priority Area 9. Multilingual education

Multilingual education research investigates the way more than one language is used in the classroom, particularly when teaching subjects other than languages. A multilingual approach to teaching may be formally prescribed (e.g. the policy states that L1 and L2 should each be used for 50% of the time; or that L1 should be used for the first few years before a gradual transition to L2); it may be recommended or sanctioned without any formal guidance (e.g. all classroom materials are in L2 but teachers are encouraged to use L1 to help make sense of them); or it may be a classroom practice that goes on somewhat under the radar (e.g. L1 may officially be prohibited). Official policy in most (but not all) Pacific countries is to use the children’s L1 during the earliest years, before introducing L2 as an additional and then main medium of instruction as children get older. However, there is widespread variation in the ways such policies play out in practice, and we have limited empirical evidence of what is actually going on classrooms. We desperately need such evidence before we can begin to investigate what works and what doesn’t. In the project that we are currently working on at USP (see below), we have collected audio recordings of the way Grade 1 teachers in Fiji use the different languages available to them when teaching multilingual or monolingual classes. We analyse the different functions of what teachers say in different languages (eliciting, controlling behaviour, explaining etc.), and the syntactic and lexical complexity of their talk. This provides an interesting starting point from which Fiji-based research students could develop their own studies with one or more of our participant teachers. At the same time, it provides a research design that students in other countries could use as a framework for their own similar studies.

Projects in this area would particularly suit students who have taken LN416, especially those with experience teaching at primary level. Full-time teachers will have to think carefully about practical considerations for collecting their own data if they wish to do classroom-based research (e.g. will you be allowed leave from your own teaching if you decide to conduct research in somebody else’s classroom?).

Current USP projects in this area: 

“Multilingual ECCE: Bringing language policy to life in the Grade 1 classroom” (Fiona Willans & Rajendra Prasad), in which we investigate Grade 1 teacher talk in a range of schools across multilingual Fiji. We analyse the complexity of teacher talk (number of languages, range of vocabulary, proportion of different utterance types, and range of functions), in an attempt to provide some empirical grounding to the debate: Is it really too complex to implement multilingual education?

Current/former PGR students working in this area: 

  • Elizabeth Fifita (MA by SRP, Tonga] Pedagogical translanguaging in the Year 4 classroom in Tonga

Image source: Niue Ministry of Education

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