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October 2008

[ Update: David Wilkins has just published an article W(h)ither language, culture and education in remote Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory? in the Australian Review of Public Affairs (October 2008) on the topic which is well worth the read as it covers some of the research into bilingualism, bilingual education and the cognitive advantages. Essential reading for people who want to base policies on evidence.]

Previous posts (here, here, and here) discussed the likely bad effects of the NT Minister of Education's proposal for Indigenous children to be taught English for the first four hours of every school day.

The Minister has now clarified this in Parliament. It's rather carefully worded, and doesn't mention the four hours proposal. It gives qualified support for Indigenous languages.

"Our schools will still be able to undertake Indigenous language and cultural programs and I emphasise strongly here that I am not removing the resources from our two-way schools. There will continue to be Indigenous teacher assistants working in partnership with the teachers in those classrooms in our very remote schools."

This is welcome, but it needs further clarification. Not "removing the resources" doesn't preclude "diverting the resources". An Indigenous teacher assistant could spend a lot of time photocopying English lesson plans, and no time explaining class material in an Indigenous language to children who don't understand English.


PARADISEC's director Linda Barwick has been raising the alarm for years about the way media are becoming obsolete because the machines to read them are dying.

So it was very sad to hear the death-rattle on the CHILDES list in this message from Brian MacWhinney

Dear Colleagues,
It appears that we are now just about at the end of the rope in terms of our ability to rescue by digitization any data from the 1970s and early 1980s that was recorded using the half-inch reel-to-reel video of that time. The problem is that the machines required to play these tapes are now virtually all non-functional. And there are no "new" units of this type that one can purchase. I have been working with Canaan Media in New Jersey to rescue old audio and video through digitization. The old reel-to-reel audio is not at all a problem and the machines that read these tapes will last still for decades. However, the Sony and Toshiba machines that read the half-inch helical tapes seem to be more sensitive. Canaan Media has three of the Sony AV-3650 machines, but none of them are operational. They have asked me to post a note to info-childes asking if anyone has operational machines like the Sony AV-3650. If so, we would be happy to pay for shipping costs to send these to New Jersey.....

Go to info-childes AT googlegroups.com for more information


Richard Trudgen of the Aboriginal Resource Development Service Inc (ARDS, working with Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land) has an interesting discussion paper on the Federal Intervention in the Northern Territory.

It's called 'Are We Heading in the Right Direction? "Closing the Gap” or “Making it Bigger”?[.pdf] [Thanks Greg for pointing it out!] He gave the paper [1] just before the NT Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, announced the plan to make all schools teach in English for the first four hours every day (see posts by Inge Kral and Felicity Meakins), but much of what he says is directly relevant to that policy.

One of his basic arguments is that in places like Arnhem Land much of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in areas such as education, health, etc stems from a failure of communication. Yolngu often don't understand what non-Indigenous people are telling them, and vice versa. But the consequences are much worse for the Yolngu who, so Trudgen says, are living in nightmarish confusion. Bureaucrats/teachers/police etc. are irritated by communication breakdown, but it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives so much.

The Minister's response to this breakdown is to tell Indigenous people "Learn English". That's what Governor George Gawler told the Indigenous inhabitants of Adelaide in 1840. Trudgen's response is to tell the non-Indigenous people who go to work in Arnhem Land "Learn Yolngu Matha" [or the relevant local language].

"All teachers, police officers, health personnel, administrators, miners, and contractors entering Aboriginal lands, should attempt to learn the language of the people, as does the Australian Army before sending soldiers into East Timor, Afghanistan and other non-English speaking places". [2]

Learning a language is difficult, hard work and takes time, so that it is unlikely that many non-Indigenous people will adopt Trudgen's approach. The Minister's approach,has behind it a kind of realism (for access to information the Yolngu must learn English), and above all the weight of the mass media (predominantly English-speaking) and the concerned but ill-informed opinionati (such as Helen Hughes). Unfortunately they mostly fail to recognise that the same reasons why the average Darwin journalist/NT teacher/bureaucrat doesn't bother learning Indigenous languages (difficult, hard work and takes time) apply to Indigenous people.


[from Eva Schultze-Berndt, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, University of Manchester]

This is to remind you of the upcoming Australianist workshop at the University of Manchester. As the interest seems to be high and 12 December was a better date for some participants, the workshop will start on Friday 12 December around noon and continue for all or most of the day on Saturday 13 December.

So far I received two abstracts (thank you!). I still welcome abstracts on the theme of "Prosody and information structure" but it looks as if many contributions will be on other topics, so feel free to offer a presentation on any topic of interest to Australianists (and possibly others!).

Please let me know as soon as possible if you are interested in presenting, or just attending as a participant. If you would like to present a paper, please send me a title and abstract ASAP. I will then get back to you with a preliminary program and accommodation information by the end of October.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you in Manchester soon.

Eva Schultze-Berndt
E-mail: eva.schultze-berndt AT manchester.ac.uk


[From our kartiya in Washington, Barry Alpher]

In a query to David Nash's posting (4 October) on munanga 'white person' in languages of Arnhem Land, Joe Blythe asks "So what about kartiya [the term for 'white person' in a number of Ngumpin-Yapa languages]? Any ideas?"

Here are a couple.

At least three languages attest kartiya: Walmajarri, Gurindji, and Warlpiri (in the form kardiya). Mudburra attests kardiba in the same meaning, and Gurindji attests kartipa as a variant of kartiya. (Note that in view of the Gurindji change *rt > r [Pat McConvell, pers. comm.; see under *kartu below], both of these Gurindji variants must be reckoned as loans.)

6 comments |

Following on from Jane's announcement during the week of all the great news regarding successful grant applications, I have another bit of good news to share: James McElvenny and I recently applied for, and even more recently received, a grant from a philanthropic foundation to support our current work in compiling dictionaries.

3 comments |

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
19 October 2008

In celebration of the International Year of Languages and the diversity of London's languages and cultures, East Gallery in Stratford (home of the 2012 London Olympics) is hosting an exhibition called Living Language.


1 comments |

[ from Inge Kral, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University ]

On Tuesday October 14 Marion Scrymgour, the Northern Territory Minister for Education and Training, announced a greater emphasis on teaching English in NT DET remote community schools. Why? Because she is ‘committed to making the changes needed to improve attendance rates and lift the literacy and numeracy results in our remote schools’ as the literacy results in remote schools are still ‘unacceptable’ while the results being achieved in Darwin, Alice Springs are comparable to schools in similar parts of Australia. So what is the aim here? To improve English oracy, literacy and numeracy, and to increase the employability of Indigenous youth in the real economy, one assumes.

For those of us who have worked in Indigenous education on the ground in remote areas over the past few decades, it is clear that these policy decisions are not evidence-based. Yes, English is important, however a critical flaw in the argument is that more ‘teaching’ in English will not necessarily equate to better ‘learning’ of English. Rather, the best path to increasing remote Indigenous students’ English involves increasing the relevance of what is offered to students and communities, and paying more attention to the provision of meaningful post-school contexts that allow for application of the learning. To assume that increasing the requirement in remote schools to spend more hours of the day teaching English, in English, by non-Indigenous teachers who speak English only will increase school attendance and lift literacy and numeracy rates is way off the mark. Furthermore, literacy levels are comparable whether a school teaches in English or the children’s own language for the first four hours of the day – only 10 out of 55 remote schools are bilingual, and there is considerably more community commitment to the children’s education in the bilingual schools than in non-bilingual. Communities want bilingual education [1] – why is this government not listening to them?


[from Felicity Meakins, 2009 ARC recipient]

The bad news about Australian languages continues with the announcement by the NT Minister for Education and Training, Marion Scrymgour of a NT schools restructure which will place the emphasis on English and will essentially wind back two-way education.
“... I’m ... announcing today that the first four hours of education in all Northern Territory schools will be conducted in English,” Ms Scrymgour said.
"Ms Scrymgour said she recognised the requirement for all schools to teach all classes in English for the first four hours of each day would be contentious. I support preserving our Indigenous languages and culture – but our Indigenous children need to be given the best possible chance to learn English.”

This announcement follows the results from her Department's 2004-2005 Indigenous Languages and Culture in Northern Territory Schools [.pdf] report which showed positive outcomes for children taught in the two-way model.

How does it help children who don't understand English, to spend the first 4 hours of every day listening to English? Most NT schools are already English-only schools, and there's no sign that it improves children's written English more than in bilingual schools - indeed the evidence from Scrymgour's own department report is that the outcomes are marginally better in bilingual schools.

Consultation this year for the Regional Learning Partnerships between communities and schools also showed that most communities wanted language taught in the school either through two-way learning or an ILC (Indigenous Languages and Culture) program.

But it's not about research, results or education even, it is all about ideology as usual.

How about having a look at the 2004-2005 report, and the press release by the Minister for Education, and if you feel moved to send her informed agreement or disagreement, e-mail her at Marion.Scrymgour AT nt.gov.au.


[From Andrea L. Berez, University of California, Santa Barbara]

A few weeks ago in Uppsala, Nick Thieberger and I gave a talk on the need for digital standards and training in language documentation. During the Q-and-A, a distinguished member of the audience asked us, "How do you suggest we go about making communities do all the things you've been talking about?"

He was referring to the examples I had just been discussing regarding Alaska, where local (i.e., non-university) efforts at documentation and archiving are underway in several villages. He wanted to know how we, as linguists, can convince speaker community members to take up arms in the race for documentation and revitalization. After a moment's consideration, I could only reply, "I've never had any luck making the community do anything."

Although it may have seemed like a flippant response at the time, it was also a true one: any time I have been involved in proactively bringing technological standards and digital language-related activities to Alaskan communities, the result has always been different from what I expected.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge proponent of local training in language technology, and I've actively participated some of that training myself. I believe knowledge is power, and I don't subscribe to the notion that technology is somehow harmful or hegemonic. I consider it my responsibility to pass on my technical skills to anyone who wants to know. What I'm saying is that in my experience, attempts to introduce academic ideals about the "proper" way to do language documentation into the speaker community when nobody's asked for it has led to frustration.


[Update! See the comments! Darkness is lightened! How I overlooked Nick Thieberger's QE2 I don't know, but it is FANTASTIC news for PARADISEC! And on the computational linguistics side, good about Tim Baldwin's project]

It's Poverty Action Day. Whaddya know, speakers of small endangered languages are usually the poorest of the poor, and often don't have the time/money to work on their own languages. That work gets done in partnerships with linguists and others from rich countries like Australia. No joy for this in the Australian Research Council funding results. This must be the worst year for funding endangered language work for a very very long time. (I whinged in 2006 about the ARC lottery results - but that was a FAR better year).

After wading through piles of .pdfs, I could only spot two grants for endangered language work - both for work on new languages in the Northern Territory, [plug! stemming in part from the Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition Project]. Congratulations to

  • Caroline Jones, (based at the University of Wollongong) Phonological development in child speakers of mixed language
  • Felicity Meakins (based at the University of Queensland) Life after death: Exploring the birth of Gurindji Kriol, a new Aboriginal mixed language.

Also connected to Indigenous languages and cultures are:

  • PARADISEC's Linda Barwick, who is a CI on a Linkage grant (Sustainable futures for music cultures: Toward an ecology of musical diversity [.pdf], first CI Prof Dr H Schippers, Griffith University)
  • Paul Burke's ANU anthropology project Indigenous Diaspora: a new direction in the ethnographic study of the migration of Australian Aboriginal people from remote areas. Dead relevant to the Intervention...

Please lighten my gloom by noting if I've missed any projects of direct relevance to Transient Languages readers.

3 comments |

Wow! Sally Dixon has just pointed me to Wangka Maya (the Pilbara Language Centre)'s free downloadable interactive Pilbara language dictionaries for the following languages: Bayungu, Burduna, Jiwarli, Martu Wangka, Nyamal, Nyangumarta, Thalanyji, Warnman, and Yulparija.

"These may be downloaded and used for personal use at no cost."

What a fantastic resource! And what a good way of ensuring that the material isn't lost.

Lucky PC users, unlucky Mac users - they're made in Lexique Pro, and so they run under Windows only. Off to the Windows emulator sigh.., as the LP people say firmly that they have NO plans to make Mac or Linux versions.

7 comments |

[from Ana Kondic at the University of Sydney]

I have just spent eight months doing field work in Mexico where I used a Nagra Aress BB+ (with a Sony ECM-MS 957 Microphone) for audio recording that I borrowed from PARADISEC at Sydney University.

I worked with a highly endangered Mayan language, South Eastern Huastec. It is spoken in the region of La Huasteca, in the municipality of Chontla, in the North of Veracruz, Mexico, where the majority of the population speaks this as their first language, alongside Spanish.

The area of la Huasteca is tropical, with high temperatures and a very high humidity. I chose the "cold" period from October to May, with pleasant months of December and January (about 20 C during the day, and gets to low 5 C or so during the night), but very warm April and May (up to 35 C). The humidity is very high all year, mostly 85-95%.

3 comments |

[from John Avery]
It's inevitably guesswork, but I reckon munanga is one of those spirit-connected words - not far off devil or ghost. It is used widely in the central NT Gulf of Carpentaria and Tablelands.

Another word for white people is mandaji - the feminine is mandanga. You can hear these words at Elliott, especially from Gudanji, Wambaya or Nanka (Ngarnji). Aji/anga (also f. -ana) are personal suffixes. So -anga also could be a personal suffix attached to mun-.

Mun by itself means to curse or place a deadly curse on someone. The usual motive is jealousy. For example, a long time ago a devil from Manda waterhole on Beetaloo went up to Tanumbrini station which was the home of another devil. The Manda traveller was turfed out by the Tanumbrini devil who was jealous for the country. The Tanumbrini bloke 'bin mun' the Munda fella, so old Tanumbrini station is called Mun-min. The mun bit is more like muyin in Muyinmin, but by itself my informants say mun (i.e. shortway).

2 comments |

[ From Nick Thieberger, PARADISEC and University of Hawai'i ]

A workshop on Language Documentation and Language Description was held at Uppsala University (30 September - 1 October 2008) as part of the 23rd Scandinavian Conference of Linguistics. Uppsala University was established in 1477 and the town has grown around the university, famous also as the place where Carl Linnaeus taught in the late 1700s.

The keynote speakers for the workshop were Michael Noonan and Donald Stilo, and the list of presenters can be found here. Of interest to ELAC readers will be the paper by Michael Riesler and Jacquelijn Ringersma on the software tools used to annotate Kildin Saami lexical data. They are using LEXUS, a lexical database created by the MPI for their DoBES teams. It has lots of nice features if you want to create various kinds of lexicons and if you don't want to gloss texts (this team is using Toolbox to gloss texts), but it is only an online tool at the moment. It conforms to the Lexical Markup Framework (LMF) also incorporates ViCOS (Visualising Conceptual Spaces) which provides for semantic domains and for navigating a word-net through the lexicon.


David Nash

The (in)authenticity of accounts of early Sydney have been in the news recently. The fictionalised account of Lt William Dawes and his pioneering documentation of the Sydney Language in Kate Grenville's new novel The Lieutenant has had mixed reviews, but the concurrent story about a possible 1770 boomerang has gripped me more.

Ten days ago the Sydney Morning Herald reported

A boomerang claimed to have belonged to Captain James Cook appears to have been withdrawn from sale on the eve of a London auction after advice from the National Museum of Australia that it was probably not the real thing.

The Times reported bluntly that

Arthur Palmer, an Australian ethnographer who independently appraised the boomerang, described it is [sic] an “unsaleable bent stick” which hails from about the 1820s — 40 years after the explorer's death.

The colourful Arthur Beau Palmer's sizeable bucket of cold water can be hefted here; it is worth consulting for the view of early Sydney weapons. The story began in The Times of 21 August (with a photograph) and here in The Age on 22 August; there was an update in the SMH on 10 September.

8 comments |

David Nash

Munanga, 'white person' is widespread among the languages of the Arnhem Land region

as Jay Arthur (1996:161) notes in her compilation of written Aboriginal English, supported by citations from the northern NT 1977-1995.1 This extends to the present, as Wamut that munanga linguist can testify.

I was intrigued to learn recently that scholars don't have much of an idea of the origin of the word. The AND (Australian National Dictionary 1988), now available online, has the earliest written citation

1912 Bulletin (Sydney) 15 Feb. 13/2 There is the much less widely known aboriginal term ‘myrnonga’. The myrnonga is a person of more promiscuous habits [than the combo] who … prowls with furtiveness when the moon is young.

but this is under the obscure headword murlonga 'A white man who sexually exploits Aboriginal women', with etymology

[Poss. a. Yolŋu sub-group munaŋa a white person.]2

10 comments |

Last Wednesday, at the eResearch Australasia 2008 conference, PARADISEC was announced as the winner of the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) eResearch Prize (Humanities and Social Sciences category) for 2008.

In the words of the judges: “PARADISEC is an outstanding application of ICT tools in the humanities and social sciences domain that harnesses the work of scholars to store and preserve endangered language and music materials from the Asia-Pacific region and creates an online resource to make these available."

As blog readers will know, PARADISEC primarily aims to preserve records of small indigenous languages, and has used current best methods to convert analog materials, describe them and make this description available on the web. As of October 2008 PARADISEC contains 5,432 items made up of 29,064 files totalling 3.7 TB, with just over 2,060 hours of audio data. Many of the collections are digitised from field-recordings made since the 1950s. The provision of this service requires ongoing support and negotiation with depositors. It also highlights the importance of training new fieldworkers in the use of appropriate tools and methods.

AND.... PARADISEC has been cited as an exemplary system for audiovisual archiving using digital mass storage systems by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and has also been included as an exemplary case study in the Australian Governmet's NCRIS Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure .

The prize is a Dell PowerEdgeTM 2950 rack mountable server, (RRP $26,207.50). So, now to translate glory and respect and high-end machines into recurrent funding!


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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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