Fluency in revival situations – John Giacon

[From John Giacon]
As noted in the blog post on John Hobson’s lecture, the Koori Centre has been one of a number of forces which have pioneered major developments in Indigenous Language education in NSW and other parts of Australia. I want to comment on two sentences in the review:
‘Indigenous children need qualified teachers who are fluent speakers of the language’
and ‘Majors in Indigenous languages just aren’t on offer [in Universities]’.
I will use my experience of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay to reflect on these. I started working in the languages 12 years ago. Sadly, I have not met anyone who has or had elementary fluency from ‘handed down’ language. For instance I have met a number of people who know that yanay is ‘go/walk’, but none who knew the past-tense form ‘yananhi‘ or the various continuous forms. Nor have I met anyone could productively use the locative suffix for meanings like ‘in, on, at’. Just two examples of the many elements you would need to know for even moderate fluency. People who have done courses now know these elements of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay, and much more. Fluency is growing, slowly.
So, the fluent teachers necessary for language teaching are not there, ‘in the community’. However the rules for forming past tense and the forms and meaning of the locative suffix, and much more, are in Corinne Williams’ Grammar of Yuwaalaraay (1980). And there is much more information that she did not have time to process in tapes and other Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay sources. So if those sources are used, then resources and courses can be developed: for instance the Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay Yuwaalayaay Dictionary, the ‘Speaking Gamilaraay‘ course at the Koori Centre/University of Sydney and the TAFE Certificate 1 in Gamilaraay and Gumbaynggirr courses.

Different languages are at different stages in their readiness to develop courses. The readiness depends on many factors. One is the amount of traditional material available. Another is the extent to which this has been analysed and agreed upon, so that there is a standard grammar and dictionary for the language. The quality of the linguistic work is also important, and it is essential that there be someone, or preferably more than one person, with a good working knowledge of the language. Languages also need ongoing development, so that the amount of material available increases, if they are to be used in new contexts.
There have been major changes in language education in NSW. There has been a gradual move away from the assumption that language revival is easy, something that people with little or no background can do in their spare time, with dribs of finance, and as part of a highly localised group. However there is still need for more planning. John’s paper looks at planning for the preparation of teachers. I am thinking about the preparation of the language the teachers will learn and the preparation of those who will teach the teachers. A major need is more research positions – full time and postgraduate researchers, with some of these people being ones who do a lot of ‘teaching the teachers’. An associated need is scholarships and other incentives for Indigenous people to begin or stay in the path that will make them key members of this core of researchers. There is little evidence that the basic planning for good language work is taking place.

Williams, Corinne, 1980, A grammar of Yuwaalaraay. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. B-74.

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