Large or small, Indo-European or Inuit, endangered or killer, let’s celebrate our mother tongues on UNESCO‘s International Mother Language Day!
We don’t all die for language rights, like the Bangla-speaking students of the University of Dhaka who were killed on 21 February 1952, protesting the then Government of Pakistan’s decision to promote Urdu as the sole national language. But we CAN support this year’s theme which is yes! “Mother tongue instruction and inclusive education”.
On Thursday I had an interesting time in a sleek-looking conference room at Parliament House with the House of Representatives Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. The terms of inquiry cover learning English and learning Indigenous languages. Lots of people have put lots of time and thought into their submissions and appearances (available online). They are a fascinating snapshot of current concerns, hopes and dreams. (A couple contain not-so-subtle touting – gimme a gazillion and I’ll solve literacy/attendance/savethelanguage, but they’re the exception).
So I was answering questions about my submission [.pdf] on language learning in Indigenous communities. Here goes with points that I wanted to make, and then what I remember of questions asked by the Committee:
Continue reading ‘Hopes and dreams’ »
What a good decision in today’s Australia Day honours to make Laurie Baymarrwangga Senior Australian of the Year 2012! Read Claire Bowern’s post for an appreciation of her and her work documenting the Yan-nhaŋu language and getting it written down. She sounds a delightful person.
2012 is also National Year of Reading. Everyone with a reading-scheme in their revolver will be lobbying the government for funds to smelt and fire their silver bullets. Will the glitter of silver blind officials to the evidence as to whether they can hit the target?
How about for a change we read Yan-nhaŋu, Warlpiri, Enindilyakwa, Arabic, Vietnamese…? And for an even greater change, fund the production of reading material and decent language enrichment programs in these languages? Which brings me to a quibble about the description of Ms Baymarrwangga’s achievements:
Speaking no English, with no access to funding, resources or expertise, she initiated the Yan-nhangu dictionary project. Her cultural maintenance projects include the Crocodile Islands Rangers, a junior rangers group and an online Yan-nhangu dictionary for school children.
‘initiate’ is a slippery word, which then slithered into the ABC report as’establishment’.
Another is her establishment of the Yan-nhangu dictionary project, without any funding, resources, expertise or the ability to speak English.
This is a dangerous inaccuracy. Others were involved in the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary work who had access to resources. Ignoring their contribution lets governments off the hook. They want us to believe that love is all you need to maintain a language and create an online dictionary for it. Not schools, not interpreters or translators, not curricula or interesting stuff to read, not web-hosting or software, not linguists or programmers, nothing that needs paying for. Certainly nothing that would cost as much as some of the silver bullet reading-schemes.
Three things to think about/do..
1. Creeping towards constitutional recognition
Section 127A Recognition of languages
The national language of the Commonwealth of Australia is English.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage
This is what was proposed in a report on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution (You Me Unity. The report authors seem to think that many people will vote for this because they are worried about the loss of Indigenus languages. The national language bit is supposed to soften the doubters into accepting Indigenous languages.
And as well, the report authors want to add:
Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
Q. What is respect? A. Respect = Fine Words
Evidence from the report: “However, a separate languages provision would provide an important declaratory statement in relation to the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The Panel understands that a declaratory provision would be ‘technically and legally sound’, and would not give rise to implied rights or obligations that could lead to unintended consequences.”
Q. What are unintended consequences? A. = making Governments pay for decent education, translators, interpreters etc
Evidence from the report: “In relation to the second sentence of the first paragraph of the proposed ‘section 127B’, consultations with lawyers and State government officials indicated that an ‘opportunity’ to learn, speak and write English could give rise to legal proceedings challenging the adequacy of literacy learning. Similarly, the last paragraph in the proposal about recognising a ‘freedom’ to speak, maintain and transmit languages of choice could lead to argument about the right to deal with government in languages other than English. Such expressions would raise potentially contentious issues for all levels of government. The Panel has concluded that the potential unpredictable legal risks associated with these two sentences are such that they would not be appropriate for inclusion as part of a proposed constitutional amendment.”
Intended consequence: the language parsnips are not going to get buttered.
As a side-point, information distributed by the YouMeUnity mob [thanks Bruce!], include YouTube audios of a whole lot of translations into Indigenous languages and creoles of information attributed to Alison Page, a Panel Member, but read by language speakers:
“15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, namely Guringdji
The awful spellings of names of Indigenous languages in the report shows how little butter the parsnips are getting.
2. New resources
- From Claire Bowern
Claire has posted a call for material for the Australian part of ‘ElCat’, a new catalogue of endangered languages that will be launched (late February). She’s calling for links to sites about language programs [photos, videos, links to you-tube channels too!], “or if you’d like to include something about your language and what it means to you”. Hop over to Anggarrgoon to read the call and add your bit.
2. What I wish I could hop over to
- From Candide Simard
7th European Australianists workshop 2012
3-4 April 2012
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London
The European Australianists are happy to announce their seventh workshop to be held at SOAS, University of London, on 3-4 April 2012. The purpose of the workshop is to provide a venue for the presentation and discussion on current research on Australian languages. As in previous workshops a theme is suggested: “Contact phenomena in Australian languages”. However, participants are free to present papers not related to this theme, we welcome contributions relating to any aspect of Australian languages, from any perspective.
Wednesday brings New Zealand and Australia together with the combined mega-conference of the applied linguistics associations of New Zealand and Australia (ALAA-ALANZ) at the University of Canberra
Thursday sees a session on Indigenous language revival and revitalisation at the start of the Australian Linguistics Society conference and shared with ALAA-ALANZ at the University of Canberra. Then we whiz back to ANU for ALS’s first poster session which contains several posters on endangered languages, followed by Canberra’s first Linguistics in the Pub session.
Friday is a big day on Language and the Law at ANU – language rights of different types. ALS has heaps of papers on endangered languages. And our workshop on Kids kriols and classrooms. And Jenny Green and Barb Kelly’s workshop on Current issues in non-verbal communication research. That was the trigger for getting sign language interpreting for some sessions on Friday and Saturday – very professional interpreters, and brings home the cost of language rights. It’s easy enough to ask for Governments to pay for language rights. But it makes us much more aware of what we are asking when societies like ALS and ALAA and conference attenders realise the cost to themselves of language rights.
And, and, and, Saturday has a class on learning and teaching Gamilaraay. AND a workshop on Modality in the Indigenous languages of Australia and PNG, as well as other papers on endangered languages (perception in Avatime?, fronting in Mawng, voicing in Gurindji Kriol). Sunday has lots of papers in the general session and workshops from telling who intentionally does what in Sherpa, to body-parts in Kriol and Dalabon, to Topic Continuity of Subject and Non-Subject in Squliq Atayal Legends: Evidence from Statistics. There’s also a special audio workshop run by David Nathan.
And, completely breathless by now, we down the last arvo tea, and head to Kioloa for master classes – Joan Bresnan on Probabilistic syntax (up to us to think how can we do it with small data sets as we normally have for endangered languages) and Fiona Jordan on Cultural phylogeny. Others stay on in Canberra for a workshop on tone in New Guinea languages.
The Australian Society for Indigenous Linguistics (AuSIL) has done a wonderful thing. They’ve put on the web:
- dictionaries of Australian languages that SIL staff worked on with speakers [currently: Burrara, Iwaidja, Warlpiri, Tiwi, Wik Mungkan, Walmajarri, Martu Wangka, Yinjibarndi, Kriol]
- bibles that SIL teams have translated, linking to the Bible site [so far Burrara, Djambarrpuyngu, Kala Lagaw Ya, Kriol, Wik-Mungkan, Yumplatok]
- scans of the many working papers SIL staff have published over the year, ranging from WP-A-1 Five papers in Australian Phonologies to WP-B-14 Adha Gar Tidi: Cultural sensitivity in Western Torres Strait.
AND they have the media releases etc from their advocacy work, as in their dedicated and comprehensive advocacy for mother tongue medium education.
The failure of language revivalists to get people to accept a standard language (here the Swiss language Romansh Grischun) is the topic of a sad little article by Deborah Ball in the Wall Street Journal. (Reprinted in The Australian 3/9/2011 but without the interesting graphics). Google led me to an earlier article on the same topic by Terence MacNamee in swissinfo.ch.
There are apparently five dialects of Romansh spoken in Switzerland. It is the usual insoluble problem. The number of speakers of the 5 dialects are small, so that it doesn’t seem economically viable to provide teachers and teaching materials for all 5. Not to mention the small pool of people to chat with and visit on holidays.
Solution (1) Choose 1 of the dialects and use that as the standard Romansh language – BUT no one will agree to accept someone else’s dialect.
Solution (2) Create a hybrid from all 5 – BUT everyone hates the hybrid as a bastard.
If language planners can’t keep a small language going in a country as multilingual and rich as Switzerland…
First there was (and still is, if you move quickly) the Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities being held by the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, discussed here.
Then came the National Cultural Policy. This shouldn’t just be for visual and performing artists. It includes Cultural heritage of which they say:
In parallel with core arts and creative industries there will be a strong recognition of Australia’s cultural heritage, and in particular, Australia’s Indigenous culture which is the oldest living culture in the world. Australia’s Indigenous culture is unique, and comprises both dynamic, living systems and expressions which must be supported to develop, and endangered systems and expressions which must be protected and where possible, revived.
And now today, what the NT Government has decided to do about Indigenous languages in schools. They commissioned a report from the Menzies School of Health Research [pdf 2.6 mb].1 The report deserves a serious reading and analysis. All I can say for the moment is that it doesn’t seem to distinguish clearly between programs in communities where the dominant language is the target language, and those in communities where it is not (as in many remote Indigenous communities). The initial conclusion seems to be that while mother tongue medium instruction may be good, well wouldn’t you know it, there aren’t the resources to run decent bilingual education programs in the NT schools (silence over how & why the resources were run down). What’s the answer? You guessed it, those communities can’t have bilingual education programs.
In communities where these circumstances do not prevail, the literature suggests that ‘English as a Second Language (ESL) strategies’ are the best approach to achieve improvement in student educational and language outcomes and to support community retention of Indigenous languages and culture – providing that they are delivered within a culturally responsive framework.
This may not have been the intention of the authors, but this is what the NT Government has made of it.
What ‘culturally responsive’ means to the Menzies researchers may be different from what it means to the NT Government. Their new ‘culturally responsive’ policy is “first four hours in English” in a frilly black, red and yellow skirt.
Frill No.1 The Department of Education and Training values home language and culture and will support communities in this endeavour through the use of school facilities after hours for cultural and language activities.
Somehow or other this is supposed to be part of EAL programs that are “inclusive of the students’ language and culture”
Newspeak: inclusive = exclusive
Frill No.2 Home language may be used to support quality teaching, including introducing concepts, across all year levels, particularly in the early years.
No mention of how they will ensure that Indigenous teachers have the support they need to explain the “quality teaching” – just that the schools need to “recruit and develop staff”.
Newspeak: quality teaching = all teaching?
Frill No.3 Oh, and you can seek special special approval from the Director of School Performance for in-school language activities (code for biliteracy, but it could be ANY language activity).
BUT the Director of School Performance can only approve it if the community can show that the School will jump through many many hoops:
- committed support from the community for this instructional approach in the initial years of school education.
- there is a sufficient number of instructionally and culturally competent staff to properly implement the approach
- the school‘s ethos and learning programs aim to promote positive and active representation of children‘s (and families‘) first language and cultural heritage.
- suitably adaptable and culturally responsive curriculum, teaching and learning resource materials are available or could be produced at reasonable cost.
You achieve this? Wait….
- the school leadership team is committed and able to take a proactive role in engaging community and family resources to support the approach.
- there is a commitment to professional support of the approach to the specific community/school.
A let-out for any principal who doesn’t want a bilingual program.
You wanna comment on this? They don’t want to hear from anyone except schools and their communities. But you could try anyway. And you could tell the Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities.
[ Update; I've just been alerted to [ Thanks Mary!] some highly relevant Garma Forum material on the Indigenous Stock Exchange. Quite a different take.
If you go to Lincom’s web-page, you’ll see they’ve just issued some PhD thesis grammars of (mostly) Australian languages as books. Published in facsimile, I gather (no editing) and for around 70 to 80 euros in your Warenkorb.
Lincom does a service in getting the stuff out. But it could be so much better… Lodge them in your home university’s e-repository, and they’ll be picked up by wonderful Trove – which — functionally — subsumes the old Australian Digital Theses program. Lodge them as .rtf as well as .pdf and you make fancy searching sooo much easier. Lodge your sound files as well…
It is a true and crying shame that there is STILL more academic reward for publishing theses as facsimile books than in distributing them online, even in an e-repository with permanent URLs. This’ll change, and the change can’t come soon enough.