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Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
23rd August 2008

I just got back to London after 9 days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the invitation of Dr Lucia Galluscio, Instituto de Lingística, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires. Lucia is one of the leading researchers on indigenous languages of Argentina, having worked for over 30 years on a range of languages including Mapundungun (spoken by the Mapuche in southern Argentina), and Mocovi, Tapiete and Vilela (from the Chaco region in the north of Argentina - she leads the Chaco DoBeS project). Lucia is also a staff member of CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas), the national Argentinian research agency, modelled on the CNRS in France, and has held a Guggenheim Fellowship among other awards.

I was invited to participate in four events while I was there:

  • a course attended by 30 indigenous people called Lenguas indigenas: Documentación, Fortalecimiento, Estudio y Transmisión (Indigenous languages: Documentation, Strengthening, Study and Transmission) where I gave a lecture on current trends in our work at SOAS
  • Simposio Internacional: Contacto de Lenguas y Documentatión (International Symposium on Language Contact and Documentation) where I gave a paper on "Layers of Language Contact in Sasak, Eastern Indonesia"
  • a public lecture at the Biblioteca Nacional on "Survival of Languages in the 21st century: Australian Aboriginal languages"
  • a discussion at CAICYT (Centro Argentino de Información Científica y Tecnológia) with a group of Linguistics students from the Universidad de Buenos Aires about archiving philosophy, policies and experiences at ELAR at SOAS. I was also able to talk to CAICYT staff about their work on e-research and electronic publishing, including impressive collaborative projects with Brazil and Peru on open access to research materials and results (one of the CAICYT staff spoke Italian so the conversation was rather more interactive than my usual passively understanding Spanish (or Castilliano as it is called there) and responding with "si" or "claro" at appropriate junctures)

During the Indigenous languages course and the International Symposium (and associated social events) I had a chance to learn a lot about the indigenous languages situation in Argentina and to interact with some of the indigenous attendees (Mapuche, Wichi, Pilaga and Toba) about their languages and the work they are doing. Many were teachers, working on language support and revitalisation, in politically charged and difficult circumstances. There are a number of parallels between the situations of indigenous languages in Australia and Argentina (though the absolute numbers of some groups are much greater in Argentina, e.g. 60,000 Mapuche and 40,000 Wichi). There was a lot of interest in revitalisation of "sleeping languages" in Australia, such as Kaurna and Gamilaraay, and we plan to work on a Spanish translation of my public lecture for wider distribution. There was also quite a bit of discussion when I talked about Paul Keating's "Redfern speech" and Kevin Rudd's apology on behalf of the Australian parliament -- Argentina has a complicated and tragic recent non-indigenous history that has an impact on how relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples are worked out there in a way that is quite different from Australia.

It is impossible to get a proper understanding of the range of endangered and indigenous language issues in such a short visit, but I hope to be able to visit again, possibly next year, and ideally including trips to regions outside Buenos Aires.

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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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