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February 2010

Today is UNESCO's International Mother Language Day (IMLD) which is intended to "promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism". The UN have just launched UN Language Days, "a new initiative which seeks to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six of its official working languages throughout the Organization." There's a press release about IMLD here [.pdf] from the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD).02-19-mother-lang.jpg [ from http://www.un.org/News/dh/photos/2010/02-19-mother-lang.jpg].

The date was chosen to commemorate the deaths of Bangla students on 21 February 1952 who were protesting the then government's decision to make Urdu the only official language of East and West Pakistan. And the Bangla community continues to honour it - as Amar Ekushey day - in Australia through the Ekushe Academy.

Here are some ways it's being honoured around the world. In London, SOAS is running Endangered Languages Week, with talks, displays, discussions, films, lectures and workshops on the general theme of "sustainability: can the world's languages be sustained, and if so, which ones, and how?" In Melbourne, RNLD showed the film In Languages We Live — Voices of the World [.pdf] last Thursday, Kununurra is showing it twice, and we're showing it at Sydney University on Wednesday 24th (3.30 pm). [BTW, RNLD has an excellent set of links to news on endangered languages]. In Alice Springs, there's said to be a display of Indigenous language materials and posters thanks to the Town Library and linguists.

And in Canada, the Winter Olympics had commentary in several native Canadian languages including Cree, (see here) - but complaints about not enough French in the opening ceremony...).

As of 23:16 Saturday 20th, Google News had stories about International Mother Language Day from Armenia, Azerbaijan (a school contest whose title provides the blog post heading), Bangladesh, Canada, Dubai, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and the US. Not to mention Benetton's logo for IMLD, and IMLD the t-shirt.

Stories from Australia? Well, ABC Kimberley, good on them, have Vanessa Mills (19 February, 2010) on Celebrating and protecting languages other than English which involves discussion with a Nyikina speaker, Jeannie Wabi, and linguists Colleen Hattersley and Frances Kofod. A book of Nyikina stories is coming out, thanks to the Nyikina Language Hub in Broome.

Elsewhere... Good news is that Greg Dickson managed to get an article on the NT government's 'First 4 hours in English' policy published in "Green", the national magazine of the Greens party. There has also been a "money or monolingual mouth" story suggesting that the number of Japanese tourists in Australia is declining because we Australians are rude to them, and we stick to English, the mother tongue of most of us. In major public places we don't have enough information in foreign languages. (Against this, Tourism Australia goes for the money, not the mouth - countering that there are plenty of cheaper places than Australia for tourists, and the Japanese economy has suffered greatly in the GFC.)


For a beautifully organised site run by a small group, check out Sarah Colley's new site: the Sydney fish project. What fish have been found in archaeological sites in Sydney? What do the bits look like, what does the whole fish look like (i.e. a reference skeleton)? What fish did Aborigines eat at what period? What did settlers eat? How did they eat them? You need access to such collections to be able to interpret finds at different sites.

I so like having all the detailed information about the picture visible with the picture, seeing multiple images of different bones on one screen, seeing at a glance how many examples there are of a particular taxon, the hierarchical views of the taxa, different views of the bones..

The ability to access a collection by image on the web gives far more people access to the collection. This one's been done in conjunction with the University of Sydney Library, which has done a lot of interesting things making stuff accessible on the web. And because it is housed by a major library, the archive is more sustainable.


Further to the discussion of making online material discoverable (using standard metadata or via a more elaborate infrastructure proposed by ELIIP), other useful sources of free online grammars or dictionaries include 'Online Books' and the Project Gutenberg sites. These are 'free' as in unencumbered by intellectual property or copyright concerns, typically because the authors have been dead for over 50 years, not because they were placed in an open access archive. A sample of the files available follows, but wouldn't it be great to have a way of announcing these items using standard metadata terms so they could all be searched via a dedicated language service? For example, the entry for Sgau Karen below is followed by Sgaw Karen, so google searching on Sgaw will only give you one of these three items.

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A large corpus of recorded oral tradition can be created using two recording machines, one playing back the spoken texts and the other used to capture an oral annotation. Recording speakers who are commenting on earlier recordings is a method for providing annotations that bypasses literacy.

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Sydney University students - your chance to study an Indigenous Australian language this semester!

KOCR2605 - Speaking Gamilaraay 1 - University of Sydney

Gamilaraay is an Indigenous Australian language from the mid-northwest of NSW that is currently undergoing revitalisation. This unit of study will provide students with a basic competence in speaking, understanding, reading and writing Gamilaraay sufficient to recognise and construct simple utterances in the language, and to understand its relationships with other languages. Classes will take the form of three-hour intensive oral workshops that progressively develop each students abilities in the language. Assessment will be by short written assignments based on lesson content and an appraisal of individual oral/aural performance together with a short essay on Gamilaraay culture or a related topic.

Unit coordinator: Br John Giacon

Classes: (1 x 3hr seminar)wk

Assessment: Homework sheets (35%), Oral performance (45%), Essay (20%)

In Australia, there's been a lot of downplaying recently of the fact that young kids understand what's happening in the classroom better if they hear it in their first language - from the NAPLAN tests which don't factor this in, to the MySchool comparisons which ignore it, to the English literacy push expressed recently by Margot Prior.

Writing about MySchool I whinged that we needed more numbers. Well, Brian Devlin has done a lot with existing numbers.

Using the MySchool site, he's revisited the claims of the NT Department of Education in November 2008 that bilingual schools were doing a lot worse than non-bilingual schools on the NAPLAN tests. At the time, problems of comparability were raised (why were some high performing bilingual schools omitted? Why was a secondary school included? Why were schools included where the children spoke a creole rather than a traditional language?). But we had trouble getting numbers on the allegedly comparable schools. MySchool gives it. Brian's put his findings in the files section of the Friends of Bilingual Learning site. You can download Brian's paperlets "Year 3 performance data for 2008 'bilingual' and 'non-bilingual' schools compared.pdf" and "2008 attendance comparison.pdf".

Here are the highlights. Based on averages in 2008,

  • Bilingual school children win out on Year 3 numeracy, and, for what it's worth grammar/punctuation [the questions in this part of the NAPLAN test have so far had little regard for staging, difficulty, or even the kinds of mistakes that second language learners are likely to make]
  • Bilingual school children also do as well, or better, on reading and spelling, as children in the non-bilingual schools.
  • They do worse on writing.
  • Their attendance is the same or better depending what comparison set is used.

And of course on top of all this, in bilingual schools, the home languages of children at bilingual schools are being strengthened and valued; they have Indigenous teachers who act as role models. [cracked record, me].

As Brian points out, the numbers aren't good for the remote schools generally in the NT, bilingual and non-bilingual. And a lot more needs to be done with the numbers - comparisons over time, across years and so on. The 2009 numbers are bound to be weird, because the schools were floundering trying to implement the Department's "Talk English" policy , and many communities with previously bilingual schools were demoralised by the disregard of their wishes. So a quick check suggests that the Year 3 figures in Lajamanu and Yirrkala worsened substantially in 2009 from 2008. Most importantly, the NT Department of Education has a lot of work to do with communities and schools to improve the results in future years.

Devlin's figures show that the Department's stated rationale for getting rid of bilingual education in 2008 was flawed. And since partnerships with communities are essential for getting good results from schools, why not support those communities that want their children to understand what's happening in the classroom?

We have until 28 February to make submissions to the National Indigenous Education Action Plan.

On Ockham's Razor (24/1/2010) a psychologist, Margot Prior, talks about the need to do something about Indigenous children's literacy. There's some good stuff in it - the need for more Indigenous teachers, for partnerships between schools and communities, for teachers to be sensitive to the differences between non-standard English and Standard English (note that this is NOT limited to Indigenous children - there are plenty of other children in Australia who don't speak Standard English as a home language).

Prior's overall solution?

If preschool education at a minimum of 15 hours per week was universally available, and every child had at least a year of programs which focused on enhancing language and pre-literacy skills, provided by committed preschool teachers, many more children would begin school well prepared for reading and writing.

I expect politicians will welcome this solution. Why should we treat it with caution?
First, for Prior "language" = "English". But her talk shows some basic misunderstandings of languages and how children learn languages and reading and writing. The distinction between speaking a traditional language and speaking a non-standard variety of English are treated as if they presented the same difficulties for children attempting to learn standard English. They present rather different challenges - the methods of teaching English as a second language have to be different from those of teaching English as a second dialect.

As worrying are remarks such as the following:


Boa Sr was apparently the last speaker of the Great Andamanese language Bo (or Aka-Bo, described as extinct in the Ethnologue). According to Survival International there were around 5000 Great Andamanese in 1858 , when the British invaded the Andaman Islands. Now there are around 50 - killings, diseases and forcible resettlement having caused the decline. See Vanishing voices of the Great Andamanese (VOGA).

Boa Sr died in January, and her death has made headlines in many newspapers - there's an article about her in the Guardian [thanks Simon]. Survival International has more information, including a short film clip with her singing in Bo - other songs are listed at VOGA. They also have a campaign on to support other Andamanese groups, especially the Jarawa, whose survival is under threat from settlers, poachers and loggers. The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island have resisted contact, and Survival International urges the Indian Government to respect this, and to put a stop to poaching.

Check out Nicolas Rothwell's article in Saturday's Australian. It's about yes well maybe after all it wasn't such a good idea the way the Intervention demoralised Indigenous people and engendered a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of Government and its bureaucrats. So, which newspaper has hammered Indigenous people for incompetence and dysfunctionality over the last 4 years? Which newspaper has been applauding itself for triggering the Intervention?

And thinking of other misusable data, the My School Site was launched recently, showing how students across Australia performed on the NAPLAN tests of English literacy and numeracy.

I'm all for numbers, but I do share Bruce Petty's concern about how these are being used. The numbers we've been given are seriously flawed for understanding what's happening in Indigenous schools in the NT.

These are ENGLISH literacy tests administered in ENGLISH. So if the kids start monolingual in a language other than English it's kinda obvious that they're going to do badly in reading and writing English in their first years at school. And they'll continue to do badly if they don't get good ESL teaching and if they get so bored at school that they stop attending.

Lots of the remote NT schools (bilingual and non-bilingual) do really badly. What is unforgiveable is the comparison with so-called "statistically similar" schools. They do not seem to have factored in first language. So, among the schools compared to Yuendumu (majority of children speak Warlpiri as a first language) are schools where most children's first language is English, Aboriginal English or an English-based creole. Here are some (there are probably more but I don't know all the communities).

Borroloola School, Borroloola NT 0854
Camooweal State School, Camooweal QLD 4828
Goodooga Central School, Goodooga NSW 2831
Moree East Public School, Moree NSW 2400
Wilcannia Central School, Wilcannia NSW 2836

Even if you speak an English-based creole rather than standard English, you'll still do better than a child who only speaks a traditional language - just as English-speaking children find it easier to learn French than Chinese. There are so many similar words.

Who could be surprised that these children do better on English tests?

And, the information one really wants isn't there on the site. You can get mission statement blah. So the Feds have said they'll give more information - what parents think about schools.... Brilliant, what blame-avoiding PR person thought that up?

I bet parents would be MORE interested in the following sets of numbers, which the State and Federal Departments could provide MUCH more cheaply than by conducting an expensive survey of parents:

  • How much do the State and Federal governments spend per child in the school?
  • how many students per teacher?(see a nice opinion piece (1/2/2010) in the Sydney Morning Herald)
  • how many first year out teachers are there in the school?
  • what's the teacher churn in the school?
  • in schools with high numbers of children who don't speak English, how many properly trained ESL teachers are there? (and I don't mean ESL training via a day's workshop with a department trainer)
  • how long has the principal been there>

Throw those into the statistical blender and see how that changes the "statistically similar schools" clumping.

Apparently the Federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, wants us to use the My School website to 'hold schools and teachers to account'. Give us the numbers ON THAT SITE so we can hold Governments to account.

On the other hand, take the much maligned bilingual education programs. Last year the NT government demoralised communities with bilingual education programs by unilaterally abolishing those programs, against the communities' wishes. All in the name of improving NAPLAN scores.

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