> May 2010 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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May 2010

Once upon a time SBS was a wonderful thing - bringing news and television programs in different languages to Australia, allowing speakers of languages other than English to access information and entertainment on TV, and introducing Australian English speakers to other languages. They ran Australia's main subtitling service.

But worldly powers in Australia are profoundly monolingual, and now multilingual television is under threat. I quote from a message I just received today:

Last week, the Managing Director, Shaun Brown, of SBS Television announced that more than one-third of the staff of the SBS Subtitling Unit will be made redundant. On top of the marginalisation of unique multicultural content, the introduction of mid-program advertising, and the programming of the station to render it thoroughly mainstream, we are now left fighting for the survival of a distinctively Australian resource.

The Subtitling Unit was at the very heart of SBS when it was set up, and is the one part of SBS that has remained as a centre of excellence and regarded as producing the highest quality subtitled programs in the world. Yet the desire to maximise advertising revenue from English-language broadcasting has pushed all foreign language content to the margins of the SBS schedule and made SBS a pale imitator of other TV broadcasters. For what little non-English content remains on the station, the Managing Director has said he will buy programs with inferior subtitles overseas, because they are cheaper.

The SBS Subtitling Unit has been acknowledged for decades to be the best in the world. If it were a football team, it would be regarded as a national treasure and promoted, marketed and funded accordingly. Instead, it will now be the victim of a rationalisation to save a few dollars, and in the process, the jobs of a team of specially skilled Australians will go offshore.

If you valued what SBS once was and believe that it is important to retain this unique and best subtitling unit that Australia is proud of as part of its multicultural heritage, please take a couple of minutes to email Senator Conroy, the responsible minister, senator.conroy AT aph.gov.au and copy in your local MP (their email address can be found here ) to protest at the latest attack on what was once a unique and valued cultural institution.


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The NT Government is going to draw up a policy [.pdf] reported as "to save indigenous languages in the Northern Territory".

If the policy involves reversing the decision on stopping systematic mother-tongue medium instruction (aka bilingual education), great! If the policy involves doing something intelligent and well-grounded on developing teaching skills, materials, and curricula for strengthening Indigenous languages, also great! But it will be VERY expensive. Actually, building on their original mother-tongue medium instruction would probably cost less. Unfortunately, nothing the current NT Government has done so far on education and languages gives one confidence that they know what's involved in helping speakers pass on their language to their children.

First they stripped mother tongue instruction from the schools with children who came to school speaking Indigenous languages. They said they'd be helping Indigenous teachers teach their language after school, or later in the day. In reality, in some schools, this has come down to half an hour a week, preferably on a Friday afternoon when children are most likely to be tired and fed-up. This sends loud and clear the message that Indigenous languages are unimportant.

As far as I can see, the NT Government advisors don't realise just how hard it is to develop a staged curriculum which actually develops the children's speaking and listening abilities in their mother tongue, strengthens their vocabulary and helps them use sophisticated language. This is a seriously difficult task. There are few models of how it could be done well. Lots where it's done badly.

And there's no quick fix. You can't develop one curriculum and expect it to work for all the languages, because their grammatical structures are often radically different. Language teaching is a skilled job, and most language teachers have the benefit of lots of materials and solid curricula. Ain't the case in most Indigenous communities. Each language requires skilled speakers, linguists, and language teachers working on it to develop a curriculum. The NT Education Department has enough linguistically trained staff to cover perhaps 4 languages in the NT. It is an absolute cop-out to think that Indigenous teachers can do this on their own. It is setting them up to fail.

The policy is being developed with the NT Government's Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, some of whom are first language speakers of Indigenous languages and/or experienced teachers. Speakers of Indigenous languages are obviously key people to be involved in developing a policy. But I would like to have seen some reference to language-teachers, teacher-linguists, and linguists. Not involving specialists is like saying you can develop a health policy without consulting health professionals.

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Last Saturday was the launch of Aboriginal Placenames: Naming and re-naming the Australian landscape by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, at University House, ANU. You can find the details on this excellent book, (edited by Harold Koch and Luise Hercus) here, although not, alas on the publisher (Aboriginal History)'s website. Facebook friends of Julia Miller can see rather good piccies. And there's a little bit about it in the news.

Rudd started with his favourite rhetorical structure: Why am I launching this book? He answered himself: Three reasons. First, Harold and Grace Koch are Decent Human Beings. (Wild applause at this point). Second, interest in Indigenous studies. And third, appreciation of scholarship.

All good reasons*..

Scholarship shines through the book -- lots of papers stuffed with interesting data, from careful linguistic reconstructions, to fine observations of attitudes to introducing names, to details on the stories behind names, to methods for studying placenames. It's interdisciplinary: Indigenous owners of places, linguists, historians,geographers, pastoralists, archaeologists, anthropologists all have ideas to share. Workshops and meetings of the Geographic Names Boards have provided places for this sharing. And, as so often, Luise Hercus's paper brings us back to the places themselves, with photographs that show us why people wanted to give them names.

More will be done - Rudd noted a reason why another book on place-names is needed - the table of contents reveals Only One Paper on Queensland placenames - Paul Black's paper on Kurtjar.

The lovely thing was celebrating unusual achievement - in this case, intelligent, modest people gathering and interpreting information in sensible and enlightening ways, and producing a book whose wealth of material will make it last.

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The first bilingual education program for children speaking Indigenous Australian languages ran in Adelaide around 1840. A hundred plus years later, the first university position in Australian languages was offered at the University of Adelaide, held by the Arrernte-speaking linguist T G H Strehlow - albeit combined with English literature at the start... [The other competitor for firstness would be Arthur Capell at the University of Sydney but that was in Anthropology and Oceanic Linguistics].

And now.. Australia's first chair in the "Linguistics of Endangered Languages" is being offered at the University of Adelaide.

Job description here. Closing date: 25 June 2010

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The Economist 24/4/2010 p.76 has a moving obituary for Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, and someone who did an extraordinary amount of practical good against extraordinary odds. She co-wrote Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (2004) with Vine Deloria, Jr., and Gloria Steinem.

The obituary doesn't mention her involvement in the Institute of Cherokee Literacy (where apparently Sequoyah's orthography was taught). But it does note that the modern equivalent of the Trail of Tears forced relocation of Native Americans was the attempt to persuade Cherokee like Mankiller's father that they could find a better life off the tribal lands in a "drab violent housing-project" in California. Wilma Mankiller thought the Cherokee had been most damaged by the loss of commonality and interdependence caused by the 1907 breakup of tribe land into allotments. At a time when the worldly powers in Australia are pressuring Aborigines into something quite similar - change common title to individual title, move to the cities, we should think about the costs that Mankiller observed.

On 14 April, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1237 honouring her life.

UPDATE: check out Greg's post on the new Crikey language blog Fully (sic)

Greg Dickson has done a great service by looking at the figures on attendance rates in NT schools with large numbers of first language speakers of Indigenous languages - you can find his discussion on the Friends of Bilingual Learning website.

One of the few schools with good attendance is Areyonga

2008 - 95%
2009 - 89%
2010 - 93.6%

Pitjantjatjara teachers there, Peggy Gallagher and Daphne Puntjina, and the teacher-linguist, Leonard Freeman, were doing terrific work. But Areyonga school is in the news again: Schools boss seeks solution to bilingual anger. Areyonga people have consistently been pushing to maintain their program of education through the children's first language - and were supported by their principal in 2008. The CEO Of NT Education says there has been confusion about the policy. But surely he must have been misquoted:

"We want people to speak their home language for the first four hours but we want it predominantly done in English."

Hammering the point home about the importance of first language, the Australian Council of TESOL associations has useful links on Indigenous issues and on the place of first language in children's learning. They state:

The Australian and international TESOL fields argue that the maintenance and ongoing development of a student’s first language (L1) provides learners with a solid base from which to acquire an additional language.

Awareness of the positive influences associated with supporting L1 development is particularly important for young learners. Older learners actively draw on knowledge of their first language and its structure, conceptual and content knowledge held in this language and their L1 literacy skills when learning a subsequent language. However younger learners do not yet have this depth of knowledge to draw on and without appropriate support they are at risk of failing to acquire full proficiency in either their first language or the main language of school instruction.

The upshot of Greg's calculations on attendance is that most of the former bilingual schools are not like Areyonga. They seem to have given up - attendance has dropped in many schools. My guess is that this relates to a poisonous sense of powerlessness in communities faced with the introduction of the 'First four hours of English' against their wishes, the loss of community control to the Shires and the relics of the Intervention.

What a mess.

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