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April 2008

Mirabile dictu... The 2020 summit background material on Indigenous Australia, ">Slide 10 of the 11 slides, notes the terrible state of Australia's languages, and the need to do something about them. Considerable urgency is required if we are to preserve Australia's Indigenous languages and traditions.

BUT, the urgency and importance have disappeared from the interim report arising from the summit. The Indigenous section doesn't mention Indigenous languages once. Education ranks highly, but it's the kind of education that focuses on the problems caused by the differences between children's home languages and school languages (send the kids to boarding schools, make parents send kids to school), rather than on helping children negotiate between the two languages, and learn to value them both.

Some of the ideas from Yuendumu that didn't make it into the summit appear in Wendy Baarda's piece in the Education News of the Age . I quote a bit, but go read the whole!

After 30 years living and teaching at Yuendumu - a remote community about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs that speaks Warlpiri as its first language - I have watched literacy attainment levels slowly declining over the past decade. I believe there are two main reasons for this. One is the reduction and neglect of our bilingual or Two-Way program, a key to community involvement and pride in schools at Yuendumu and other bush schools.

The other factor has been the difficulty in attracting school principals of sufficient calibre and experience to be able to navigate complex relationships between two vastly different cultures and to develop innovative, community-based solutions.

There has been a steady loss of positions for Warlpiri staff since the early '90s. Fifteen years ago our Two-Way program was thriving. We had 10 Warlpiri and 10 mainstream staff members, including a mentor and a teacher linguist to support Warlpiri staff.

Now we have only one trained Warlpiri teacher and four Warlpiri assistant teachers with seven mainstream teachers. With fewer Warlpiri staff in the school there are fewer families represented and therefore a declining interest in the school and fewer children made to attend. Attendance has declined over the past decade, a symptom of a malaise within the community itself.

The Aboriginal schools whose Two-Way programs were discontinued have not since lifted literacy standards. Across all remote indigenous schools, whether English-only or Two-Way, the standard of spoken and written English is very low.
Boarding schools may be the answer for some, but why should Aboriginal children need to be sent far away to boarding schools to become literate, when much more could be done to improve education and build strong communities at home?

In the 2020 interim report the only place that Indigenous languages do get mentioned is in the arts section:

• Creativity is central to Australian life and Indigenous culture is the core to this. To measure, document and leverage the strengths of this culture, to articulate our role and improve protection of indigenous culture, language and heritage through a National Indigenous Cultural Authority.

Ho hum, I thought that helping preserve Indigenous languages was part of the job of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Studies. They hold the major archive of language material, and they presently employ two research linguists on short-term contracts. They advise on maintaining and documenting Indigenous languages. It's a specialised field, and good advice could save Government departments and language centres heaps of time and money. And it could save Indigenous people much heart-ache.

There's a bit more on languages of the region in another section

• To reinvigorate and deepen our engagement with Asia and the Pacific.
• To ensure that the major languages and cultures of our region are no longer foreign to Australians but are familiar and mainstreamed into Australian society.

Again, amplification of this in an opinion piece by Matthew Davies in the Age. Again a BUT. Not sure about this word 'major'. Leaving aside the many small endangered languages of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia etc, is Tok Pisin major? Is Solomons Pidgin? Is Bislama? Not in number of speakers, perhaps, but in being important languages for use in the region, undoubtedly.


[From John Giacon]

As noted in the blog post on John Hobson's lecture, the Koori Centre has been one of a number of forces which have pioneered major developments in Indigenous Language education in NSW and other parts of Australia. I want to comment on two sentences in the review:
'Indigenous children need qualified teachers who are fluent speakers of the language'
and 'Majors in Indigenous languages just aren't on offer [in Universities]'.

I will use my experience of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay to reflect on these. I started working in the languages 12 years ago. Sadly, I have not met anyone who has or had elementary fluency from 'handed down' language. For instance I have met a number of people who know that yanay is 'go/walk', but none who knew the past-tense form 'yananhi' or the various continuous forms. Nor have I met anyone could productively use the locative suffix for meanings like 'in, on, at'. Just two examples of the many elements you would need to know for even moderate fluency. People who have done courses now know these elements of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay, and much more. Fluency is growing, slowly.

So, the fluent teachers necessary for language teaching are not there, 'in the community'. However the rules for forming past tense and the forms and meaning of the locative suffix, and much more, are in Corinne Williams' Grammar of Yuwaalaraay (1980). And there is much more information that she did not have time to process in tapes and other Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay sources. So if those sources are used, then resources and courses can be developed: for instance the Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay Yuwaalayaay Dictionary, the 'Speaking Gamilaraay' course at the Koori Centre/University of Sydney and the TAFE Certificate 1 in Gamilaraay and Gumbaynggirr courses.


[ from our man on the spot, Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, Linguistics Department, SOAS]

Following on from our successful experiment in April 2007 the Endangered Languages Project at SOAS is running an even bigger and better Endangered Languages Week from 30th April to 8th May 2008.
Through films, displays, discussions and workshops we are presenting what is being done to document, archive and support endangered languages at SOAS and around the world. The theme of the week is “What can WE do?", exploring how researchers, students, language community members and members of the public can work together to address the challenges of global language and cultural loss.
Activities include:

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[ from Peter K. Austin, Linguistics Department, SOAS]

Last Wednesday, Elizabeth Zeitoun’s recently published Grammar of Mantauran (Rukai) arrived in my mailbox at SOAS from Academic Sinica in Taipei. This is a beautifully produced description of a dialect of Rukai, one of the Endangered Languages of Taiwan and at 551 pages is a sizeable account of the language.

So I got to thinking: this is a pretty impressive comprehensive reference grammar of an endangered language. And then, well what counts as a “comprehensive (reference) grammar”? The term gets used quite a bit in relation to endangered and minority languages. For example the February 2007 newsletter [pdf] of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, the most recent one available, contains over 25 uses of the term, and all 10 PhD students associated with the Centre are said to be writing a “comprehensive grammar” of a small language. A Google search for “comprehensive reference grammar” returns 1,130 hits, and for “comprehensive grammar” 128,000 hits, though that includes things like A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk,Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, which doesn’t really count for our purposes, nor does Matthews and Yip’s Cantonese: A Comprehensive Reference Grammar.

So I then adopted a tried and true sampling method of language typologists, namely have a look at the grammars of smaller languages that are on my book shelves at SOAS and pick the fattest ones (ok, ok, I know real typologists don’t do sampling like this any longer, but bear with me for the purposes of this exercise). What I came up with is summarised in the following table (astute readers will notice that I am not controlling for factors like margin width, page size, font type size and line spacing, but I’m only human):

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So, the Oz Government wants to ensure that the Oz tax payer gets value for the taxes that pay for me and my colleagues to scuttle and scurry around universities, and our students to read & learn & think & write &..

To this praiseworthy end, each year the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Training ask us to produce copies of everything solid & worthy we've published over the previous year with all sorts of verification information, and of course the all important label MADE IN AN AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITY CONTAINING ALL AUSTRALIAN INGREDIENTS. And the "we" includes not only staff but also students - which is right & proper, except that the students get no direct benefit from the labor of copying and collating the information, whereas a small trickle of money comes back to departments on the basis of their research output.

Now, one of our students* has just published an interesting article on grammaticalisation of a Cantonese particle, in the Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Yue dialects (Cheung, H-H; S-H Cheung and H-K Chan (eds) 2007. Dishijie GuoYuefangyan Yantaohui Lunwunji (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press. ISBN 978-7-5004-6582-9). She kindly copied the article, and the preface, the table of contents, and the ISBN publication details page, all of which are needed for verification.


The first Koori Centre lecture for 2008 was given by John Hobson, "Towards a model for training Indigenous languages educators in Australia" [the full paper will be up via the e-repository shortly). And a timely and thought-inducing talk it was too.

John's recently been to Canada, the US and Aotearoa /NZ, looking at Indigenous languages education there. He's come back convinced that we need to do a lot more in Australia to improve the way Indigenous languages are taught. The price of doing nothing is that kids will lose interest in Indigenous languages, and won't put the effort in that's needed to go beyond saying a few words and singing a song or two.

On the (highly) political side, he's come back convinced that the existence of treaties has created climates much more favourable to Indigenous languages rights in those countries than we have in Australia.

On the money side, he noted the major difference between the user-pays attitude to education found in the US and Canada, and the reliance on governments here and in NZ. Native Americans and Native Canadians are using money from mining, from gambling, from whatever resources they have to pay for language work. In practice this means a great diversity in what's on offer, since some groups have far more resources than others. It also means that they rely more on summer and winter institutes (the inpsirations for our Indigenous Languages Institute and Australian Linguistics Institutes) than we in Australia have.

On the less (but still) political side, he highlighted the growing realisation that, like any children learning languages, Indigenous children need qualified teachers who are fluent speakers of the language. (This point has been emphasised by Timoti Karetu (Inaugural Commissioner of Maori Language) *).


After South Australia, and New South Wales, another Australian State gets serious about bringing Indigenous languages into schools.

The Queensland Studies Authority has released a flyer [.pdf] about Indigenous languages, affirming that, among other things:

"understanding the language backgrounds of Indigenous students is a critical factor in the successful learning of Standard Australian English as part of formal education in Queensland schools"


"it is valuable for all students to understand the language diversity of Australia's Indigenous peoples"

and finally, the promise..

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community perspectives on valuing, maintaining and reviving local languages will be supported through our products and services."

A start, a start! Good on the many people who have worked to get this up.

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Among the people invited to share ideas at the 2020 Summit on visions for Australia's future are several speakers of traditional Indigenous Languages, Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan, Raymattja Marika and Thomas Jangala Rice. Apart from them, as far as I can see, linguists haven't got a look in. Our ideas aren't part of the vision for Australia. Sigh, so what's new?

Australia's language capacity has declined. This includes the capacity to speak the languages of our neighbours, the loss of Australia's Indigenous language heritage, and the fact that Indigenous children in remote communities are not learning Standard English. Changes in policy are needed to rebuild our ability as a country to learn and use languages. It'd be great if the summit considered this as something to push for.

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Dhanggati people (Dhanggati is the language of the Macleay Valley) and linguists are well served by a new 205 page reference book on the language.

Lissarrague, Amanda. 2007. Dhanggati grammar and dictionary. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative 14 Bellwood Road, Nambucca Heads NSW 2448.

It's another Muurrbay product (in 2006 they published a reference book on the Hunter River language by Lissarrague) which really justifies the funding from the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records programme, now housed in the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.


[ from Peter K. Austin, Linguistics Department, SOAS]

A series of five documentaries on languages is scheduled to air on OBE (Original Black Entertainment) TV in the UK starting on 13th April 2008. OBE TV is a freeview 24 hour Channel on Sky Digital Channel 204 with a primary target audience from the African, Caribbean and other ethnic communities in the UK and Ireland, Europe, North Africa and beyond. OBE TV reaches over 7.8 million satellite subscribers in the UK and Ireland alone.

The documentary series is called World – Speaking in Tongues and the episodes are.....

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The Australian's running a campaign against cultural appropriateness where it pertains to Indigenous Australians. Cultural awareness courses, out the window! Cultural training for journalists? No need! Last Saturday they had a front-page story taking up a paper due out this week on Indigenous children's education by the economist Helen Hughes of the Centre for Independent Studies . Helen Hughes, so The Australian claims, is saying that educational apartheid exists in the Northern Territory (a claim denied by Nadine Williams, the very experienced President of the NT Branch of the Australian Education Union, but The Australian buries her view at the end of the article. A teacher talking about education isn't sexy; an economist is).

What The Australian is licking its chops over is that apparently Hughes is inveighing against 'culturally appropriate' teaching methods.

I'm with them in that the term 'culturally appropriate' has been over-/ab-/mis- and sloppily -used ( Lexical Integrity, die!), and in that the idea of Western science and Western maths versus Indigenous science and Indigenous maths looks like a false opposition. Science is science - I want the bridges I cross over and the planes I fly in to be constructed according to the best available science and technology, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Chinese, English or whatever.

Where we part company is as to how the best available understandings of science and maths are to be taught and in recognising that Indigenous people have knowledge which should be built on.

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[ from Linguistic Export Peter K. Austin, Linguistics Department, SOAS]

Since 1963 the Australian National University has annually awarded the University Medal as its most prestigious undergraduate academic prize. At each conferring of degrees ceremony the University’s most outstanding first class honours students are recognised with the award. An Honour Board displaying the names of all University Medal winning students was launched in February 2008 and is now on display in the Great Hall, University House, Canberra. There is a Virtual Honour Board on the ANU website.

Between 1974 and the present 17 Linguistics students have been awarded the medal, and quite a few names that will be familiar to readers of this blog are among them. They include a number of students who went on to do PhDs and further research describing and/or documenting endangered languages:

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It's been almost two years since the first Papuanists' Workshop and now it's time for another. The linguistics departments at Sydney University and in RSPAS at the ANU are organising the second Papuanists' Workshop. It will be held on Saturday and Sunday 28-29 June 2008 at the University of Sydney, right before Lingfest gets started. Anyone who has an interest in Papuan languages and linguistics is invited to come and present a paper or just listen to other people's papers and join in the discussion.

Papers should be 20 or 40 mins long and on a topic related to Papuan languages or linguistics. We're hoping to have one day dedicated to talks on the theme of 'giving back to the community', making practical use of our linguistic research for the benefit of the community by such means as developing orthographies and producing educational materials. Talks related to topics of this sort are especially welcome.

For more information on the conference, see the conference website, which is being constantly updated.

The closing date for abstracts is 20 April 2008. To submit a title and abstract for a paper or to register, e-mail James McElvenny at james.mcelvenny at arts.usyd.edu.au

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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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Murriny-Patha Song Project Documenting the language and music of public songs and dances composed and performed by Murriny Patha-speaking people

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