> July 2006 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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July 2006

Last Wednesday (26 July) I went along to a ceremonial ribbon cutting on a bunch of books on Wiradjuri in the Parkes Shire Library (central west NSW). This prompted some thoughts on language revival, Wiradjuri, the German Saturday school I went to, and teaching language.

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After a couple of very enjoyable Australianist mini-conferences at Crommelin Field Station, James McElvenny from Sydney University has decided to organise the same for Papuan Languages!. We're hoping to replicate the laid back style of the Blackwood by the Beach conferences, but specifically for Papuan languages. Read on for more details.

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On the way back from the interesting Australian Linguistics Institute in Brisbane, we stopped in Newcastle to talk with  Christine Bruderlin and Mark MacLean,  who produce very well laid-out dictionaries and learners' grammars of Australian languages.   The latest is Amanda Lissarrague's 2006   A salvage grammar and wordlist of the language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative.  I think this is the first grammar of a mid-southern coastal NSW language to be produced for nearly 30 years.  Amanda has gone through Threlkeld's nineteenth century material and made sense of it, while retaining the original spellings so that her reconstructions can be checked.  It isn't a learner's grammar, but rather a reference grammar with the original Threlkeld sentences included. See the flyer to buy this book - contact Muurrbay at 14 Bellwood Road, Nambucca Heads NSW 2448.  Oh, for an Amazon of hard-to-get Australian  language material!

I just caught up with the excellent news that Raymattja Marika is the winner of the 2006 Territory Day Award.
For many years she has been one of the mainstays of language maintenance and the use of Indigenous languages in Arnhem Land schools, and of trying to craft a way of teaching and learning in schools which combines the best of both Yolngu and English-based education. It's great to see her honoured, and it's also good at a time when some commentators are devaluing and failing to understand the contribution of Indigenous languages and Indigenous people to education.

Nick Thieberger has just drawn attention to an article today from "The Australian" about the impending extinction of Australian languages, based on a Worldwatch report.  "It is estimated that 90 per cent of the languages spoken by Australia's Aboriginal peoples will perish within the current generation".

This is timely, as over the last few months we have seen increasing attempts by representatives  of the Government to attribute the dreadful state of some Indigenous people to  policies assisting them to maintain their languages and cultures.

In fact, over the last century many Indigenous communities all over Australia have been shifting from speaking traditional languages to speaking English-based creoles or varieties of English.  I have
seen no studies to show that, (keeping remotenesss of location and availablity of jobs constant) this shift has been accompanied by greater access to jobs, wealth, health and happiness.  
(Please add comments with reference if you can think of any).

Bilingual education has been blamed for Aborigines' poor English. But most Indigenous schools in remote Australia have not, and never have been, officially bilingual.  They have been English-medium schools. There is no evidence to suggest that children from the English-medium schools have learned English and other school subjects better than the children from the bilingual schools, and consequently have better access to work.  There are places where such testing could be done, but it needs to be done by independent assessors without a vested interest in the success of one or other type of program.

Second, bilingual programs in Australia have by and large been transfer programs - that is, they are based on the premise that many children learn better through their first language, and that  this allows them to transfer their skills to the dominant language.  The children have been taught English as a second language, from very early on. 

Third, these bilingual programs have often been under-resourced and under threat - they are more  expensive to run than English-only programs.  Whether a school remains bilingual usually depends on the principal of the school - and often new principals want to make their mark by reversing the policies of their predecessors. (a case in point is a new principal in a school which until his arrival had a Kriol bilingual program.  He made a bonfire of the Kriol materials laboriously
created by the local school staff).

Whether bilingual education slows language loss really hasn't been tested either.  We can point to communities such as Yuendumu which have had long-standing bilingual programs, and children
are still learning Warlpiri as their first language.  But no longitudinal studies have been done considering language loss and maintenance in comparable communities with and without bilingual
education programs. 

What isn't in doubt is that communities are shifting away from speaking Indigenous languages, and that once children stop speaking these languages, the languages will disappear.  If there are benefits to this language shift, as the Government appears to be claiming, they certainly don't seem apparent right now. Bilingual education may not be the solution to language loss, but until a better solution appears, it certainly cannot be dismissed.

The latest Ogmios newsletter has just appeared as a pdf - lots of information about what's happening around the world, including excellent links to work on Indigenous languages around the world as well as reprints of interesting articles (local plug: they've reprinted Nicolas Rothwell's rave review of Allan Marett's book on Australian Aboriginal music) .

Back issues of the newsletters are at FEL's website. To get the current newsletter you need to be a subscriber - it's not very expensive - and they're doing a terrific job.

On Thursday 29 June 2006 I joined heaps of overcoated people in the large, airy Reading Room of the Australian Institute of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
(AIATSIS) in Canberra. We were celebrating the launch of "Indigitisation" - a three year funded digitisation program for sound, text, film, and photographs. The view of lake, sky and trees and some determined ducks was a distraction from the speeches, but some things stuck - 40,000 hours of sound recordings of Indigenous languages to digitise, lots of expensive machines, some enthusiastic staff, and as yet no off-site backup. Storage problems mean they're not digitising everything at 24-bit, 96 kHz. They're planning to deliver some sound files through the web, where communities have given permission. So in future you should be able to click on some on-line catalogue entries and download sound files.

The AIATSIS Library staff showed "Collectors of words" - a web presentation of the nineteenth century word-lists of Australian languages from E. M. Curr and Victorian and Tasmanian languages from R. B. Brough Smyth . They're available as pdfs, organised alphabetically according to the place the words were attributed to, and linked to maps. A nice feature is the linking to the AIATSIS catalogue, so that you can find other materials referring to the same language group. Unfortunately the pdfs are only images - you can't search for text in them. If you want text copies of Curr, go for the transcribed copies in AIATSIS's electronic text archive ASEDA. These aren't yet linked to the scanned images - a job for the future!

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
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