What Languages Are Spoken in Vanuatu?

Flag of Vanuatu.
Flag of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu has a total of three official languages: English, French, and Bislama. Bislama is a creole language based on English, and is currently the first language of the majority of the urban residents of Luganville and Port Vila. Over a hundred indigenous languages exist in the archipelago, making Vanuatu the nation with the highest density of individual languages per capita in the world. The country currently records an average of nearly 1760 speakers per native language. Some of Vanuatu's languages remain endangered, while others have recently become extinct.

Official Languages of Vanuatu

English and French

English and French were introduced in Vanuatu in the 1900s when it was jointly administered by both French and British colonialists. The contributions of the two powers, as well as the nation's continued links with them, make it advantageous for Vanuatu to retain the two languages. There exists an unofficial separation line in modern day Vanuatu between the areas where French and English are used as mediums of instruction in schools. Business in Vanuatu is primarily conducted in English, while French companies make use of both French and English.


Over 95% of the words in Bislama evolved from English, while the rest were influenced by French, in addition to some local languages. Bislama traces its history to the era of blackbirding, when populations of Pacific Islanders were forcefully transported to plantations in territories such as Fiji, Queensland, and Australia in the 1870s and 1880s. A pidgin language subsequently emerged in these plantations, which featured English vocabulary as well as the grammatical structures of the region's language. The pidgin was adopted in Vanuatu upon the return of blackbirding survivors in the 20th century. The pidgin enabled communication with European settlers and traders and also with native communities. It existed as a spoken language for many years, and the first dictionary in Bislama was released in 1995. Today, people of different ethnicities in Vanuatu resort to Bislama as a common medium of communication. The creole is closely linked to the Tok Pisin creole of Papua New Guinea.

Indigenous Languages

About 138 native languages have been recognized in Vanuatu. Most of the languages are named after the island occupied by its speakers, although some bigger islands feature multiple languages. The most diverse islands in Vanuatu are Malakula and Espiritu Santo. The 23,000 inhabitants of Malakula speak thirty different languages. Many language names denote networks of dialects and not unified languages, and can make it difficult to determine how many languages should be recorded. The number of local languages in Vanuatu thus differs from one report to another report. Vanuatu's native languages are all Oceanic, most of which are classified in the different branches of the Southern Oceanic division. Three Polynesian languages are Mele-Fila, Emae, and Futuna-Aniwa. Vanuatu’s local languages include Baki, Aore, Daakie, Dixon Reef, Ifo, Koro, Lelepa, Lewo, Mavea, Mota, Nese, and Tangoa.

Endangered Languages

The increasing popularity of Bislama has had the unintended effect of endangering other minority tongues. The population of Ske speakers, for example, stands at approximately 300 as more and more people inhabiting the Ske area opt to speak Bislama, Apma, or Sa. Some of Vanuatu's critically endangered languages are the Araki, Bangsa, Lemerig, Matanvat, and Naman languages.


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