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What Language Do They Speak in Papua New Guinea?

What Language Do They Speak in Papua New Guinea

Key Takeaways:

Official LanguageTok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and English
Number of LanguagesOver 800 recognized languages
Most Widely SpokenTok Pisin (used by the majority as a lingua franca)
Unique FactPapua New Guinea is the world’s most linguistically diverse country


Papua New Guinea, often abbreviated as PNG, is an island nation in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Not only is it known for its diverse culture and rich history, but also for its staggering linguistic diversity. In fact, Papua New Guinea boasts the title of the world’s most linguistically diverse nation.

The Language Landscape

While many countries have one or two dominant languages, Papua New Guinea is unique. Here’s a quick breakdown of its linguistic landscape:

Official Languages:

Papua New Guinea has three official languages:

  1. Tok Pisin: A creole language derived from English, Tok Pisin is used by the majority as a lingua franca. It’s the most widely spoken and understood language in the country.
  2. Hiri Motu: Another lingua franca, Hiri Motu is less widely spoken than Tok Pisin but holds significant cultural value.
  3. English: Primarily used for government and business purposes.
Tok PisinLingua franca, used by the majority.
Hiri MotuCultural lingua franca, less widespread than Tok Pisin.
EnglishUsed in official settings like government and business transactions.

Linguistic Diversity:

  • Over 800 Recognized Languages: Yes, you read that right. PNG is home to over 800 different languages, many of which are spoken by only a few thousand people.
  • Language Families: These languages can be grouped into two main families: Austronesian and Papuan.

Delving Deeper into Papua New Guinea’s Linguistic Treasures

Tok Pisin:

Derived from the English phrase ‘Talk Pidgin’, Tok Pisin has evolved significantly since its inception. While its roots are in English, it has integrated words from other local languages, making it distinctively Papua New Guinean.

  • Grammar: Simpler than English. For instance, instead of using ‘am’, ‘is’, and ‘are’, Tok Pisin uses ‘i’ before a verb to indicate present tense.
  • Vocabulary: A mix of English and indigenous words. For example, “skul” is school and “haus” is house.

Hiri Motu:

Unlike Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu is not a creole. Instead, it’s a simplified version of the Motuan language, used traditionally by the Hiri traders.

  • History: Hiri Motu became a lingua franca because of trade interactions between the Motu people and their neighbors.
  • Vocabulary: Its words are significantly different from both English and Tok Pisin. For instance, “sivarai” means goodbye.

The Importance of Preserving PNG’s Linguistic Diversity

With so many languages, there’s an inevitable concern about their survival. Here’s why preserving them is crucial:

  • Cultural Heritage: Each language represents a unique way of viewing the world. Losing a language means losing a part of Papua New Guinea’s cultural identity.
  • Scientific Value: Linguists can learn a lot about human cognition, social structures, and migration patterns from studying these languages.

Challenges in Preservation

While the linguistic diversity of Papua New Guinea is awe-inspiring, it also presents challenges:

  • Education: With so many languages, which do you teach in schools? The answer, for now, is the three official languages, especially Tok Pisin and English.
  • Communication: While Tok Pisin acts as a bridge, not everyone is fluent in it, leading to communication barriers.
  • Language Endangerment: Many of the 800+ languages are spoken by small communities. Without active preservation, they could become extinct.


Papua New Guinea stands as a testament to the wonders of linguistic diversity. Its vast array of languages, each telling its own story, offers a rich tapestry of cultural, historical, and scientific insights. Whether you’re a traveler, linguist, or just someone keen to learn about the world, PNG’s linguistic landscape is a treasure trove waiting to be explored.