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November 2007

This week saw a conference on placenames held in Ballarat Trends in Toponymy: Indigenous identity and theoretical developments in placename research, (organised by Ian Clark and Laura Kostanski). I got to the first two days of talks, which sparkled with maps and pictures of the places whose names were under discussion. Here are some ideas that struck me.

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After some effort PARADISEC has finally established a streaming server that can be used in normal web pages. This means that an online dictionary, for example, can have example headwords and sentences spoken, or video clips presented to illustrate a given word. You can see the trial version here, (NB this will only work with the Firefox browser and you will also need to pre-install the Annodex plugin).

For some time it has been troubling that we have no simple way of presenting media online in association with transcripts, especially when an archived field recording may be the only recording of a particular language. It should have been simple enough to access media on the web. After all, we do it on Youtube and other places. But we have been further constrained by really wanting all of this to be open source (freely available software) so that anyone with the right skills can replicate this setup and not have to pay. And we also wanted the process for getting material into an online presentation to follow on from normal fieldwork outcomes, in line with output from the tools typically used by a professional linguist (one who keeps up to date with the methods of their profession). When the archival form of the media exists in a repository, it should then be an automatable process to put it into a streaming server for access.

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When Australians talk about 'Indigenous writing', 'Indigenous writers' and 'Indigenous literature' in Australia, they usually don't mean 'writing in Indigenous languages'. They mean English. You'd never guess that Indigenous Australians wrote in their own languages from reading Lisa Slater's review [1] of Penny van Toorn's recent book (2006) Writing never arrives naked: Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia. (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press). Go instead to Mary-Anne Gale's (1997) book Dhaŋum Djorra'wuy Dhäwu: a history of writing in Aboriginal languages. Adelaide: Aboriginal Research Institute, University of South Australia. (and go to the end of this post to see how to get a copy!).

In fact, Van Toorn does have a little about early writings in Indigenous languages, but not much, because she mostly focuses on the east coast of Australia and Tasmania. The English monolingual mindset has always been very strong on the east coast since the early settlers spoke mostly English, or Gaelic, which was not highly valued as a language of learning. The monolingual mindset was less strong in South Australia (which, with the Northern Territory, is the focus of Gale's study), since the early settlers included a relatively large group of speakers of German. German was one of the major languages of science in the nineteenth century, English speakers studied it, and the SA German settlers published in German and ran German language schools until World War 1.

That's perhaps why bilingual education in Indigenous languages, and the production of literature in Indigenous languages has been strongest in South Australia and the Northern Territory, (which was part of SA during its first effective settlement from 1863 - 1911, and which, after 1911, retained close links with SA in relevant institutions such as churches and the law). Van Toorn suggests (p.14) that the German missionaries used the local languages because they knew very little English. Much more relevant are the language policies of the London Mission Society and the Lutheran mission societies, as well as the early SA missionaries' discussions with the Governors of South Australia, about what languages to use in schools [2].

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[From our man in Ísland, Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

The Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages at the University of Iceland organised a conference on cultural and linguistic diversity on 2nd and 3rd November. The conference was associated with a proposal to set up a World Language Centre in Reykjavík and two main topics were discussed:

1. future visions for the World Language Centre to be established at the University of Iceland; and
2. comparative research in linguistic, literary and cultural studies

The conference was opened by Geir H. Haarde, the Prime Minister of Iceland (John Howard please note) who stressed the importance of multilingualism in the modern world and the need for people to learn several languages, not only for their economic advantages, but also to appreciate the richness and beauty of their own native language and culture. The Prime Minister is himself a fluent speaker of Icelandic, English, Danish, Swedish, German and Italian (beat that Alexander Downer). The PM was followed by Vigdís herself, the former President of Iceland (1980-1996) and UNESCO goodwill ambassador for languages, who stressed the need for academics and the general public to appreciate cultural and linguistic diversity. We non-Icelanders in the audience were wishing that we had even a fraction of this top-level political support for linguistics and languages back in our home countries.

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Recently Jangari proudly told me that his Wikipedia page on Wagiman was ranked as "good" by wikimedia. Well they got that right. Check it out, it's fantastic. Good on you Mali. Give the man a PhD scholarship! He's clearly ready for big things.

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Michael Clyne has a good article in today's Australian Higher Education Supplement where he attacks the monolingual mindset of the Federal Government, as shown by Alexander Downer's extraordinary remarks in an interview, a transcript of which appears on his website. Here are the low points.

MR DOWNER: (speaks French) But I mean I don’t think in diplomacy the fact that you can speak foreign languages is anything special and obviously he runs the risk of being seen by a lot of Australians as a show-off.
PRESENTER: So you think that’s how it went down with foreign visitors as well?
MR DOWNER: No because foreign visitors are here trying to deal with English – although of course the bulk of them do speak English but not all of them do – but they are dealing with interpreters and people who speak different languages every day of the week. So…
PRESENTER: Looking at the reaction on television…
MR DOWNER: …there’s nothing that unusual about people speaking foreign languages.
PRESENTER: Well speaking Mandarin is unusual and for someone who could potentially be the next Prime Minister. It is a bit like when Tony Blair went to France and spoke fluent French to the French.
MR DOWNER: Well I mean I don’t think it makes any difference to people’s lives, personal lives, their living standards, their jobs or anything.
PRESENTER: Alright, so he is a bit of a show-off,.
7 September 2007, Interview – ABC with Jon Faine

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[From our legally permanent resident blogger in the UK, Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

One of my prized possessions after having lived in the UK for five years now is a “Pass Notification Letter” which I received on 30th October 2007 when I sat for the Life in the UK Test administered by the Border and Immigration Service of the Home Office. The letter states:

“Following your test today in knowledge of life in the United Kingdom this is to certify that you have reached the level required for the purposes of obtaining indefinite leave to remain … Your success in this test also demonstrates that your level of competence in English meets the required standard for naturalisation or indefinite leave to remain. No further proof of this is needed.”

I had to sit the test because my work permit ended on 10th November and I wanted to apply for “indefinite leave to remain”, ie. permanent residence (rather than apply for a further 5 year work permit extension). Since April this year everyone applying to stay in the UK or become a naturalised citizen has to sit and pass the test, or else take a certified ESOL course. The test is administered by computer and has 24 questions that must be answered within 45 minutes – a pass of at least 75% is required. I bought a Life in the UK Test Study Guide (which says on the cover it is “the essential study guide for British citizenship & settlement tests, over 100,000 copies sold”) for £7.99 and boned up on the five chapters (A Changing Society, UK Today: A Profile, How the United Kingdom is Governed, Everyday Needs, Employment) and took the 10 sample tests in the back. Feeling apprehensive but somewhat prepared I paid my £34 fee and joined 25 other hopeful applicants in the basement of my local registered test centre where we were shouted at by a Test Authoriser that we were “under examination conditions – if anyone looks at another person’s computer screen they will be removed from the test room, reported immediately to the Home Office for cheating which is sufficient grounds for deportation”. Thanks, just what we all needed. Anyway, I managed to answer enough questions correctly and passed.

So what does the test actually test?

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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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