Since 2012, the PNG Government concern over the lack of indigenous expertise in science and technology has prompted a major policy shift from Vernacular Education (VE) to Tuition Fee Free (TFF) Universal Basic Education (UBE). Designed to raise literacy levels and quality of education in the country, these policies gave hope to millions of Papua New Guineans who flooded the nation’s classrooms with desire to learn. There is now better ACCESS to basic education, and higher RETENTION of students enrolled. However, the QUALITY index is still “low and steadily declining” (Devete-Chee 2017). WHY are PNG universities and colleges struggling to satisfy the growing demand for scientists, doctors, teachers, engineers, technicians? This question has no simple answers; yet, lack of talent in Papua New Guinea is not one of them. Our 2016-2017 survey of National High Schools (NHSs) in PNG attempted to identify some factors in NHS students’ backgrounds that may have impacted their current lower-than-expected academic performance. Since English is the language of all post-elementary education in PNG, we set out to discover whether the students’ age at the time of learning English is a factor in their ability to use it. This study has verifiably measured the strength of association between NHS students’ Age of Onset of learning English (AO) and their English scores.

Age of Onset of learning English (AO)

Human ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age. We learn our Mother Tongue in early childhood through social interaction with people around us, without any ‘qualified’ teachers. However, with age, and particularly after the age of 9-12, we find that ‘direct-input’ learning – i.e., learning a language from mere exposure – becomes much more effortful. This is because adults learn language differently from children – the more mature brains use a different mechanism of learning another language. For this reason, the age at which a student starts to learn English (AO) becomes an important predictor of the student’s learning potential, because English is the language of education in PNG.

Evidence: Falling quality of education in PNG is linked to delayed AO

To find whether the falling quality of education in PNG is linked to AO, we conducted a survey of all six National High Schools in the country. The students provided data on their AO, and these were matched with the respective students’ English scores. We found that students who began to learn English from the ages of 1 to 5 years had the highest scores, whereas those who started learning from 9 to 15 years had the lowest scores (Figure 1).
Further statistical analysis revealed that an increase in AO by one year is associated with a decrease in student’s English score by 2%. This means that the age at which students began to learn English is strongly linked to their performance in English, which potentially influences their overall performance in other subjects.

The earlier PNG kids

The Universal Basic Education (UBE) syllabus 2015 offers 1 hour of English learning a day (5 hours per week) in elementary school. This is certainly not enough for children to acquire the English skills they need at later stages of formal education. Compounded by the consequences of inadequate teacher education, the lack of focus on teaching English from Elementary Prep onwards results in students’ low academic performance at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education.

Potential strategy for moving quality of education forward

Three facets of the multifaceted and complex problem should be addressed by policy-makers as a matter of priority:

  • Focus of Elementary school curriculum: its main objective should be to equip the children with the English skills required in post-elementary education. To achieve this goal, English should be used as the language of instruction right from Elementary Prep, when children are more receptive to language learning (direct-input learning ability decreases with age). Local Tok Ples should be used as an aid to learning English. To promote social cohesion and integration, local Tok Ples should be taught to all students (not just wantoks) as a subject, 1 hour a day.

  • Adequate investment in teacher training must be made, to ensure that all PNG teachers have the knowledge and means necessary to teach effectively. Teacher training is key to improving the quality of education in PNG.

  • Teacher motivation: By shaping the minds of children, teachers shape the future of our society. They must be given quality teacher training opportunities and proper incentives (remuneration and benefits) to perform to the best of their ability. These measures will also serve to attract talented people to the teaching profession.

Conclusion

A delay in learning English has proven to be too costly for PNG students, their families, and the entire nation. English proficiency is a prerequisite for all learning in PNG High schools, colleges and universities. Equipping children with English skills at a young age will enhance their academic performance in post-elementary education and, thus, enable them to contribute meaningfully to the socio-economic development of Papua New Guinea.

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