Author Archive

Who gives a Gonski for Indigenous education?

Who gives a Gonski for Indigenous Education?

Answer: three Australian states and the Australian Senate which yesterday passed the Australian Education Reform bill, aka the Gonski plan.

This is a wonderful achievement. Funding based on children’s needs. At last, schools with lots of disadvantaged Indigenous children can get funding by right and not by favour. We owe great thanks to Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett for making this happen.

The Opposition doesn’t give a Gonski in theory, the Labor leadership spillers didn’t give a Gonski in practice. Five states and territories haven’t signed up, violating Paul Keating’s maxim “Never stand between a premier and a bucket of money”? Why? Cynicism suggests that they don’t want to commit to transparent spending of state money on disadvantaged schools, when they could be pork-barrelling constituents in other ways and in other electorates.

The Australian Education Reform Bill is the visionary policy that should [have won/win] the Labor Party the next election.

Light Warlpiri hits the news!

Wow! Light Warlpiri has hit the news big time. Carmel O’Shannessy just published a paper in Language on it. And it’s been taken up as news: The Atlantic, and you can see it and other renditions in Google News. And the Atlantic makes use of the material on Carmel O’Shannessy’s research page. OK – they don’t focus on the fascinating auxiliary, and maybe it isn’t the world’s newest language, (though it must be a contender).. but isn’t it a wonderful thing that more people are realising how interesting this work is!

Supporting language use and learning

In the midst of Endangered Languages Week there is the good and the bad. The good was the delight of reading Rob Munro’s post on what his company Idibon intends to do for NLP for endangered languages. The company is advised by Chris Manning, and I learned today that his wonderful Warlpiri dictionary presentation tool Kirrkirr was being used by a new generation of Warlpiri. Good things echo – and NLP can build a place for small languages in a digital world.

At the same time in Australia we are reinforcing English monolingualism by reducing the opportunities to learn languages at university. The fees and Government support don’t pay the full costs. So yesterday yet another Australian university announced it is giving up teaching languages – Spanish, Chinese and Japanese at the University of Canberra. This follows on Curtin University announcing it was thinking of similar cuts.

The argument is that students can always study languages on the web/in another university. But the reality is that language learning is hard work, speaking another language requires intensive oral practice, students are doing part-time work, and the time and effort required to go to another university make languages just all too hard (and cross-institutional enrolment is a world of pain). SO, do it on the web? Sure – but it COSTS real money to put courses online and make them interactive enough and attractive enough to overcome the inherent problems of learning a spoken language on-line. And money to do that is exactly what universities don’t have.

The reality is that, as more universities close down languages, fewer students will learn languages, and there will be a shrinking pool of Australians who understand the societies where those languages are spoken.

At ANU we are experimenting with teaching Portuguese – 240+ million speakers, but barely taught in Australia. We can only do this thanks to generous support from the Embassy of Brazil and a Portuguese language endowment we have set up. That’s scary.

But then so is a fund-starved university education system where law has become more attractive to students than pure maths, agriculture and physics. No wonder we are falling behind in educating primary and secondary school students – if we don’t teach science and languages at universities, where will the next generations of science and language teachers come from?

Farewell Darrell Tryon, farewell Kim McKenzie

This week we mourn the loss of two ANU colleagues, whose deaths have ended their different and remarkable contributions to documenting societies, languages and ways of life.

Darrell Tryon

Darrell Tryon

Darrell Tryon documented new and old languages in Vanuatu, the Solomons and Australia, helped speakers work on their own languages, and wrote about the history of languages. Initial short obituaries have appeared: in Tahiti Infos. Malcolm Ross’s short obituary is republished here. Uri Tadmor’s (Mouton de Gruyter) is on Linguistlist, and ends with “We will all miss Darrell’s kindness, charm, and humor as well as his great scholarship.” To which, add his practical low-key attitude to solving problems and getting excellent ventures underway.

Kim McKenzie

Kim McKenzie

Kim McKenzie was a widely loved and admired ethnographic film-maker who made a number of collaborative and innovative documentaries and multi-media projects about people in remote Indigenous Australia, ranging from the amazing People of the Rivermouth: the Joborr Texts of Frank Gurrmanamana, made with Les Hiatt, to documentaries made with Murray Garde and Bininj Kunwok people: Fragments of the Owl’s Egg (2005), Kun-wok, kun-bolkken: The Language of Land (2006), and, more recently work on climate change and Indigenous people: Fighting Carbon with fire (2009). He’d worked in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies before moving to ANU and helping get the Digital Humanities Hub underway.

Farewell Darrell, farewell Kim.

Imagine … a world without PARADISEC

Imagine … a world without memories is the evocative and chilling title of a project organised by the National Committee of Australia for the UNESCO Memory of the World.

Memory of the World event

Memory of the World event 14/5/2013 Adelaide

Through the Australian Memory of the World Register, the Committee, mostly volunteers, are building public awareness of the importance of maintaining records and objects associated with events important to many people. It’s harder to burn down a library if the people who see the flames believe the burning contents are valuable to them. [burn down = de-fund].

In 2001, the first items were added to the Australian Register: James Cook’s Endeavour journal, the Mabo case documents, and landmark constitutional documents. Not a bad balance. This year, 11 items were added, bringing the total to 49.

The event of inscribing these items in the register took place on 14 May 2013 in the splendid Mortlock Chamber of the South Australian State Library with its vaulted ceiling and storied galleries of books. Before the ceremony, I wandered past the Treasures Wall, looking at nineteenth century collections of things and their representations: birds’ eggs, illustrations and classifications of beetles, plants and mushrooms, geological maps, diaries, and J B Cleland’s notes from the Taman Shud case.

Master Henry Gilbert's bird egg collection

Master Henry Gilbert’s bird egg collection

These South Australian realia collections made a good frame for thinking about the parallels between them and the kinds of documents inscribed in the Australian Register. Some of the 11 new items were as curious as the pie-dish beetle, others as well organised as the fungus collection, others as decorative as Fiveash’s wildflower paintings, still others — like the records of indentured labourers and convicts — promising stories as sad and sinister as Taman Shud.

Jared Thomas, a Nukunu writer and researcher gave a short speech saying how helpful and important the documentations of the past was — and he mentioned the Norman Tindale collection, one of the 11 new treasures. This has been important for him as a writer, and for him as a Nukunu given the Nukunu native title claims. People could take or challenge the representations given in the early documentation, and could move to the future equipped with a strong understanding of the present and a very strong understanding of the past.

Almost all items come from large state or national institutions with recurrent funding. The items range from sound recordings, the John Meredith folklore collection* of the National Library, to the Holtermann collections of glass negatives taken by Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the Hill End, Mudgee and Gulgong goldfields (State Library of NSW) and F E Williams’ photographs of Papua New Guinea (National Archives and South Australian Museum), to individual items like Colonel William Light’s plan of Adelaide (State Library of South Australia), Thomas Burstow’s eyewitness diary of the bombing raids on Darwin (Northern Territory Library), and three diaries of the goldfields (including Edward Snell’s lovely illustrated diary) (State Library of Victoria), to particular types of records (Convict Records of Western Australia 1838–1910 (State Records Office of Western Australia), and Queensland South Sea Island Indentured Labourer Records 1863–1908 (Queensland State Archives)), to the comprehensive records of the first 50 years of the University of Adelaide.

2013-05-14 22.51.12

So it is pretty wonderful that, only ten years after its beginning, and without recurrent fundng, UNESCO has recognised the importance of PARADISEC’s collection through inscribing it on this list. And it follows on PARADISEC’s inclusion in the ‘UNESCO Register of Good Practices in Language Preservation [.doc]’ in 2005. This recognition is a tribute to collaboration — to Linda Barwick and Nick Thieberger and their team, to their universities, and to how much they have achieved on shoestrings. (Note: you can strengthen PARADISEC’s shoestring by sponsoring them — and it’s tax-deductible).

* This award was accepted by Kevin Bradley, and it was a great pleasure to thank him once again for all the help and advice he gave PARADISEC when it was still an egg.

Workshop: Phonetics and phonology of Australian Indigenous languages

Workshop Website
University of Western Sydney/Bankstown Campus
13-14 June 2013

Sponsored by the Australasian Speech Science and Technology Association (ASSTA), the MARCS Institute (UWS) and the School of Humanities and Communication Arts (UWS)

This workshop has a thematic focus on the phonetics and phonology of Australian Indigenous languages. The aim is to bring together specialists in this area to discuss current theoretical issues in order to produce outlines for concrete research projects involving interdisciplinary collaboration on a regional and international level.

This two-day event will involve a first day of presentations and discussions focused specifically on circulating and disseminating ideas and topics that are in need of collaborative investigation as well as initiating possible collaborative projects. Six invited specialists in the field will outline strategic initiatives of priority research in the phonetics and phonology of Australian Indigenous languages. On the second day, these leads will be taken up by smaller project groups with the specific aim to generate viable outlines of proposals which will then be further developed for submission to national and international funding bodies within the following year/funding cycle if possible.

The workshop is open to ASSTA members free of charge. A limited number of PhD student travel awards are also available: For more information please email

Strategic initiatives presented by:

Prof. Andy Butcher (Flinders University)
Dr. Brett Baker (University of Melbourne)
A/Prof. Janet Fletcher (University of Melbourne)
Dr. Mark Harvey (University of Newcastle)
Dr. Erich Round (University of Queensland)
A/Prof.Marija Tabain (La Trobe University)

For further information please email to
See also

OCHRE and NSW languages

NSW Ochre [.pdf] was released on 5 April, and has a pretty amazing set of goals for Aboriginal languages in NSW schools. I quote some relevant passages:

“Language Nests in Schools aim to provide Aboriginal students and their families with a continuous pathway for learning from pre-school to Year 12 and into tertiary education (TAFE and universities) and to offer Aboriginal students a new opportunity to consider language teaching as a vocation.”

“The Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs recommended that Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests be trialled initially in one location each from five Aboriginal language groups: Gamilaraay; Gumbaynggirr; Bundjalung; Paarkintji/Barkindji; and Wiradjuri.”
“based on various pre-conditions for success, including:
• The number of language speakers
• The availability of language teachers
• The availability of language resources
• The level of commitment and activity around language revitalisation within local schools
• Proximity to the resources, infrastructure and support available through local communities and regional AECG networks, TAFEs, universities and schools.
Lessons learned will then be shared with other Aboriginal language groups to support communities aspiring to rejuvenate and revitalise their local Aboriginal language.”

“The Language Nests initiative will serve as a springboard for both school students and community members to access language learning pathways, beginning as early as pre-school and continuing into high school and further education. To achieve this, we need to grow the number of teachers of language – both in the community, at home, in the classroom and at TAFE or university. The NSW Government believes that if we invest in both people and the development of resources we can increase the number of language teachers and speakers.”

International Mother Language Day 2013

Yesterday was UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day. Theme: Books for mother tongue education. Interesting, engaging, pleasurable, informative written material in people’s mother tongues. A great hope, a great challenge.

And Jeanie Bell got to be interviewed on ABC Radio National Drive – they had a lovely peacful lowkey conversation, covering lots of ground – and punctuated by some snippets of different languages, which allowed the interviewer, Waleed Aly, to express pleased surprise that someone was talking about savings accounts in an Indigenous language.

Update: a few other IMLD stories:
in PNG, in South Africa (nice graphs but sad to see the San relegated to “Other”), in Ghana, in Belarus, and in a Crikey post by Aidan Wilson in Australia.

Kalam Language Dictionary Launch

Check here for an account of the launch of the Kalam dictionary – what a feat! 48 years on..there’s hope for all of us with dictionaries in the bottom drawer.

And another new book and conference

Moving from Nigeria to Australia… We in Australia owe thanks to Maïa Ponsonnet, Loan Dao and Margit Bowler, who have shepherded the Proceedings of the 42th ALS Conference – 2011 to publication online on the ANU Research Repository in close to record time. Papers on lesser-known languages (old, new, created) include:

On Australian languages (old and new)
Taking to the airwaves. A strategy for language revival, by Rob Amery

Grammar rules, OK? What works when teaching a higly endangered Aboriginal language versus a strong language, by Mary-Anne Gale

Body-parts in Dalabon and Barunga Kriol: Matches and mismatches, by Maïa Ponsonnet

On created languages
I can haz language play: The construction of language and identity in LOLspeak, by Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan

The morphosyntax of a created language of the Philippines: Folk linguistic effects and the limits of relexification, by Piers Kelly

On other small languages
Simplifying a system: A story of language change in Lelepa, Vanuatu, by Sébastien Lacrampe

Non-referential actor indexing in Nehan, by John Olstad

The expression of potential event modality in the Papuan language of Koromu, by Carol Priestley

And language and music
Musicolinguistic artistry of niraval in Carnatic vocal music, by Mahesh Radhakrishnan

And the problems L1 speakers of Australian creoles face
Sad Stories. A preliminary study of NAPLAN practice texts analysing students’ second language linguistic resources and the effects of these on their written narratives, by Denise Angelo

Editing proceedings is an arduous task, but wonderful for the discipline – the world gets to see papers early, people are more inspired to go to the conference, and so there are more opportunities for fruitful collaboration: a virtuous cycle which repeats again at this year’s Australian Linguistics Society conference being held in Perth. Check out the presentations and abstracts – some fabulous-looking papers!