You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field – MLIP blog March 2017

MLIP blog March 2017

Ruth Singer recaps the March Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub (MLIP) a monthly discussion group.

On 1st March 2017, Alex Marley (ANU/Wellsprings) led a discussion on promoting language diversity in the field. The announcement for the discussion session looked like this:

You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field

As linguists, we are occasionally called upon to provide professional advice and consultation to government or community organisations. However, how our advice is received, implemented or interpreted can be disappointing and frustrating.

Given the experience collectively held by linguists engaging with a variety of communities, organisations and policies, I want to engage in a discussion on how to, 1) achieve a better success rate in getting organisations and programs to follow through with their language-related goals, and 2) develop in the broader community language-positive practices.

This session intersects a little with one held in November 2015 ‘Here to help? – balancing research aims and community-oriented efforts in the field’.

Having done fieldwork in Arnhem Land over the last 2 years, as part of a PhD project looking at sociolinguistic variation in Bininj Gun-wok, Alex has been enthusiastic in engaging with various government institutions and projects. They have sought her help in supporting local languages and cultures in the workplace. Alex has been asked to run workshops that bring local Indigenous people together with staff at local organisations focussed on health and education. While these organisations want to become more ‘Indigenised’ or culturally sensitive, it seems that the suggestions that Indigenous people make, are not actually being taken on.

After the experience of being asked back, to participate in a second workshop, without any changes to workplace practice being effected, Alex is wondering whether her voice as an expert consultant is being heard. One example is that of ‘skin names’. Also known as subsection terms, these local terms group people into 8 kinship groups and are a more polite way to refer to people across Arnhem Land, instead of using personal names. In a number of workshops, Indigenous participants identified use of skin names as the most important thing for White people to learn (see also Carew et al. 2015 for similar findings). Alex pointed out that skin names are a key part of local communication. It also seems like a relatively easy first step for organisations to take. However, even this small step, seems to be too much for most of these organisations, which although sometimes technically run by local Indigenous peole are usually managed on a day to day basis by predominantly White staff. The organisations make many other adjustments to local Indigenous ways of living, through for example great mobility of services, etc. but adapting to local languages seems to be difficult. Whether through lack of time or lack of motivation, learning and using people’s skin names is not part of even the most committed White staff of these organisations.

Alex is committed to promoting language diversity and wants to contribute to more cohesive workplaces where both White and Indigenous language and cultures have currency. Many other linguists also want to help in raising language awareness in the field, but if we’re not being effective we are wasting our time. The question is what is the best way to respond to requests for help like these? Should we just say no or is there some other way we can more effectively work with local organisations where we do our fieldwork? As Kowal (2015) notes in her study of health workers working for Indigenous health organisations, staff are getting many different conflicting messages and trying to reconcile their position as people who mean well with pressures from above and limitations to their effectiveness. While staff may support the Indigenisation of their organisations, they may also be pushed in many other directions by other forces in their organisations. The fact that most staff working in Indigenous health and education do not stay in one community for long, also prevents most spending out of hours time learning about local languages and cultures.

The passion that many field linguists have for the local languages and cultures that they work with can make it difficult to understand that others who apparently have the same opportunity, do not really engage with local languages and cultures to the same extent. A large part of learning to be in the field, in Australian Indigenous communities is learning to work with local Whites and White institutions. Since most of us come down South and have no background in working with government, perhaps we need to expect just as big a learning curve in engaging with White institutions in the field as we have with getting to know local Indigenous communities and their cultures.

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