The Kulu Language Institute is a grassroots organisation based on Ranongga, an island on the far western reaches of the New Georgia group in Solomon Islands. It is named for the two closely related languages: Kubokota, spoken by approximately 3,400 people in the northern half of the island, and Luqa, spoken by approximately 3,900 people in the southern half.
The Kulu Language Institute’s broadest mission is assisting people of Ranongga to achieve their full human potential. In a context many people feel they must leave behind their local ways of life to thrive individually and collectively, the Kulu Institute affirms the value of local languages, culture, and people.
The motto of the Kulu Language Institute is “All read well”. The word that is translated as “read” is tiro. When you tiro, you stand at a higher elevation and look down, searching for something that is hidden or covered. The task is really to uncover, to identify, and to distinguish from other things what it is that you are looking at. Eventually, your goal is to pick things up. Tiro is the word used to find nali nuts—you look on the the ground, underneath leaves and litter, to find nali nuts. You pick them up one by one. It is hard work that requires patience, commitment, and endurance. It is also the word used when a fisherman who is standing on a cliff looking out to sea, looking for sea birds diving into schools of baitfish, a sign the schools of tuna are under the surface. Tiro is also used to describe a bird soaring high in the sky and searching for prey.
The Kulu Language Institute curriculum harnesses these indigenous meanings of ‘tiro.’ Reading is searching for meaning under the surface of the words. It is recognising how one thing points to another. Reading is not just saying words on the page. It is knowing the names for things in the world, and for parts of language, and understanding the connections between the two.
Experts have long recognized that literacy in a child’s first language lays a cognitive and linguistic foundation for learning additional languages. In Solomon Islands, English became the prescribed language of schooling in the 1970s. A 2010 education policy from the Solomon Islands Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development outlined a plan for teaching young children to read and write in vernacular languages, but the plan has not been effectively implemented. There has been a lack of teacher training and curriculum materials in Solomon Islands languages, and few Solomon Islanders believe that vernacular languages need to be taught in school.
The Kulu Language Institute addresses many of these challenges, with extensive monolingual curriculum materials and a cadre of enthusiastic language teachers. Most importantly, over more that twenty years, the Institute has transformed the way that many Ranonggans view language. They realise that understanding how your own language works can help you understand other languages, and they have come to see that local languages are as complex and worthy of study as any world language.