The Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand existed in isolation until the latter half of the 18th century, when explorers brought them to the notice of European nations. This eventually resulted in these regions being divided up and claimed by colonial powers. British immigrants came, settling Australia and New Zealand. Other Pacific Islands were colonised, but descendants of the original inhabitants continue to form the predominant populations.
Missionary efforts to reach the peoples of the Pacific Islands began in the late 1700s in Tahiti, then moved west, island group by island group, until reaching Melanesia. The missionaries learned the languages, provided schools and translated the Bible. They found the peoples responsive.
The South West Pacific, Melanesia, in particular, is marked by a high degree of social and linguistic diversity. There are many small language communities living in relative isolation. This linguistic diversity continues into Indonesia. The large number of small communities makes Indonesia and the islands of the South West Pacific one of the remaining major challenges for language documentation, Bible translation and literacy.
Of the 1,300 languages spoken in the Pacific:
- 64.5% are spoken in Papua New Guinea
- 8.5% are spoken in Vanuatu
- 4.8% are spoken in the Solomon Islands
- 3.1% are spoken in New Caledonia
SIL International came into being as Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1934, founded by William Cameron Townsend. Its cross-cultural work began in Central America and has now spread to encompass languages in nearly 100 countries.
SIL started work in the Pacific in 1956, working first in Papua New Guinea, then Australia in 1961. Work in Solomon Islands (1978) and Vanuatu (1982) followed.
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