Paul Keating was Prime Minister in Australia 1991-1996. He was leader of the Australian Labour Party. This a moving speech.
I spent the last week or so visiting the American Indian Language Development Institute in Tucson, Arizona. It was beautiful and hot out there in the desert. AILDI is an Institute at the University of Arizona that runs for four weeks. It offers a series of courses for developing the skills and networking of people interested in American Indian languages. The courses are intensive but from what I saw extremely useful. Included are courses on Language Policy and Planning, Grant Writing for Indigenous Languages, American Indian Language Immersion and more. It was inspiring to be part of it and speak with the participants and teachers.
I gave a talk on my work in Australia, as a community based linguist and as a researcher, the next day I had a chance to visit some of the classes and talk with more details about different aspects of those two jobs. I am still thinking through many different aspects of it, it would be amazing to see its parallel in Australia.
It was so wonderful to walk around and hear the different languages being spoken, and to hear about what is happening in different communities in the USA.
There was also a visitor there from a company called the ‘Phraselator’, who were selling a small handheld device, meant as a tool for recording Indigenous languages, using voice activation.
The last day I was there there was an excursion with the Tohono O’odham Elders to pick ‘bahidaj’ the fruit of the saguaro (cactus), we walked in the morning sun and used the long ribs of the saguaro tied into poles to push the fruit from the top and catch it in a bucket. There were lizards scuttling about and prickly cactus plants everywhere. The fruit tasted sweet – a bit like fig. It was beautiful!
About two weeks ago our entire group attended the Workshop for American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) in Santa Barbara. There are 8 linguists on our team and 4 community language activists, making ‘our entire group’ a rather overwhelming, but nonetheless easy-going crew.
We gave a group presentation on collaborative linguistics. What our presentation stressed was the necessity of forming a collaborative partnership between academics and communities in efforts to maintain and revitalize endangered languages.
Our talk was the last one of the session on the last day of the conference. Now of course, the audience was hardly impressed with the linguists on the team, but the community language activists were literally pummeled with questions after the talk was over.
One woman asked the language activists something like, “What one aspect of linguistics has been crucial to the development of your project?” She said she wanted to know because she was interested in teaching linguistics to community activists and would like to know where to start. (I know that she was looking for an answer like, ” Oh it was morphology! Once I understood the morphology and how to break words apart into meaningful units everything else made sense!” I know that she really wanted to hear what part of linguistics was actually useful to people doing language work.)
However, the answer she got form our community language activists was not like this at all. Instead they responded by mentioning how enthusiastic the linguists always were about doing language work (they said something like, ” they keep showing up”), and how much they enjoyed meeting with us, and ultimately how much they trusted us. Later on at the party I heard someone fondly summarize their answer as “Trust and love. What are linguists really good for? Trust and love.”
At first, after hearing this, the academic in me was disappointed. There has to be something from my discipline which is more useful to language revitalization, right? I mean, I’ve been studying linguistics for over 5 years … was it all a waste of time? But then I got to thinking about how many negative things linguists have done throughout history … when it comes down to it, I ought to be overjoyed that there is a community that likes me and thinks I’m a trustworthy academic. In fact, in the end, maybe it’s not so bad to be known for that.
But the question still remains: what are linguists good for? I’m interested now to hear from other community language activists. Is the best thing we have going for us not so much our knowledge of language structure, but rather just our enthusiasm for language, and our willingness to assist in some way?
And what do the linguists think? Did you ever think you would be appreciated merely because you showed up? How does this influence the way you work on language projects?
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few weeks now and I’d really like to hear from everyone.
It was nice seeing you… in Santa Barbara… next place is Australia!…. right…
I have just heard that the United Nations has declared 2008 International year of languages.! Nice one. They say:
“It will aim to promote unity through linguistic diversity. The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world’s languages and requested the Secretariat to appoint a coordinator for multilingualism.
Representatives from several States made contributions. The Andorran representative said, “Protecting languages is one of the fundamental pillars of cultural diversity”.
Meanwhile, there was refreshing news for our Breton, Basque, Occitan and Corsican readers when the representative from France said, “The right to use your own language, the capacity to communicate and, therefore, to understand and be understood, the preservation of an inheritance that dates back centuries or even millennia, should be of prime importance to the United Nations”.
The idea of devoting a whole year to languages was proposed by Austria two years ago at the 33rd UNESCO General Conference held in Paris. (Eurolang 2007).”
On the one hand the UN is putting its money where its mouth is and actually implementing its beliefs by making sure that all of the six official languages of the UN (Spanish, English, Chinese, Arabic, French, and Russian) have all documents and services in these languages, and that linguist diversity is important.
On the other hand they offer very little about the state of indigenous and minority languages of the world explicitly. But I hope putting the idea out there will help get it on governments agendas…
Some other good news is that the:
NATIONAL ALLIANCE TO SAVE NATIVE LANGUAGES
NATIVE LANGUAGE REVITALIZATION NATIONAL SUMMIT
In Washington DC, for more details about this click here.
The health of Australian Aboriginal people is in a dismal state, as the latest Oxfam report indicated, often comparable to ‘people in the world’s poorest nations’. Check out this article published in the ABC news online:
Last Update: Monday, April 30, 2007. 11:35am (AEST) Australia
Underlying history a factor in Indigenous health: academic
The co-author of a report to the World Health Organisation (WHO) says acknowledging the wrongs done to Aboriginal people would significantly improve their health.
The report by University of New South Wales researchers says while the past 100 years has brought overwhelming improvements in health for the western world, Aboriginal and Torres Strait people continue to suffer problems like leprosy.
Co-author Lisa Jackson Pulver from the university’s Indigenous Health Unit says social factors stemming from colonisation are very significant, including the Federal Government’s refusal to apologise for the past.
“One of the things that we’re looking at in the inequity picture is the ongoing intergenerational grief, if you like, an intergenerational problem that seems to be stemming because of a lack of acknowledgment,” she said.
Dr Jackson Pulver says social factors underlie the differences in health.
“You have to marry an increase in resources and very targeted programs along with other things that have a more emotional and other impact,” she said.
“Such as acknowledging what has gone on and acknowledging that we do need to mobilise some specific resources for for this population.”
This discussion is a constant undercurrent in Australia. But usually it is insinuating something like: why can’t Aboriginal people get it together..?
I am very pleased to read something that cuts to the heart of the issue. It also implies that there are underlying issues that need to be acknowledged and resolved in Australian to help us all move forward together. One of these issues is acknowledging that Aboriginal people had, and continue to have, a legitimate social and cultural world view that is different from mainstream Australia.
I think that reports like this also lend weight to the argument that language and culture are integral to the state of indigenous peoples health in Australia. It is amazing how difficult it is to ‘justify’ to the Australian government (and people) that Aboriginal languages are well worth investing time, money and expertise in, over the long term.
Here is an article a friend just forwarded me, it is from The Australian (Newspaper) 10th March; The always insightful Langguj Gel has some interesting comments on it too:
March 10, 2007
Noel Pearson: Native tongues imperilled
IN 1973, a linguist doing field work on Aboriginal Australian languages
realised he had met the last speaker of Yaygir, a language once spoken in
present-day northeast NSW. The custodian of this invaluable piece of
Australian culture, Sandy Cameron, was living in obscurity and had not
spoken Yaygir for several years. He was, however, eager to work with his
university-educated guest to record and preserve his ancestral language.
The linguist decided to return to Cameron’s home in a couple of months to
finish the recording of this national treasure.
But Cameron died before the linguist returned. A region of Australia lost a
large part of its heritage.
Such tragedies happened in many parts of Australia in our lifetime, and are
still happening. Our nation’s culture and history is needlessly
A few years ago my old friend, Urwunjin, died as the last speaker of his
people’s language from Barrow Point on the southeastern coast of Cape York
Urwunjin’s knowledge was at least recorded to a large extent. In the late
1960s and into the ’70s an organised effort was made by many young
anthropologists and linguists, urged by an indefatigable sponsor, Peter
Ucko, then director of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, to describe the country’s cultures and
languages before it was too late. Their salvage operation was dubbed Before
It Is Too Late or BIITL. Many of today’s senior ethnographers of Australia
were involved in this push.
The original BIITL preserved a large amount of information, now archived in
Canberra. Much of this record is inaccessible to laymen, however. When I
was a boy starting primary school, an American linguist, John Haviland,
came to live with a local family two doors away from us, and in the
following years he compiled a grammar and dictionary of Guugu Yimithirr –
the language that James Cook encountered in 1770 and which gave the world
the name kangaroo, after the Guugu Yimithirr word for a species of wallaby
Haviland accomplished an astonishing feat in his mastery of classical Guugu
Yimithirr. His grammar is a great work of scholarship, that is a necessary
but by itself insufficient, foundation for the maintenance of our language
long into the future.
It is hard enough for privileged people to learn languages. It is near
impossible for dysfunctional people. Few of my people can learn anything
from Haviland’s published grammar, though it is an invaluable resource.
The social inaccessibility of the scientific work compiled through the
BIITL period has not been answered with effective language transmission
efforts such as has occurred in New Zealand through indigenous language
nests. The multitude of Australian languages compared with New Zealand
means that our challenge is so much more vast and complex, but we should
learn from the strategies adopted across the Tasman.
A new BIITL is urgently needed in Australia, because we risk losing our
country’s languages as spoken tongues. Intergenerational transmission of a
large number of Australia’s languages is declining or has ceased. This is
not the result of Aboriginal Australian’s choice to abandon our culture.
As almost everything else in our communities, it is a result of our
desperate disadvantage. Social dysfunction disables cultural and linguistic
Our country must understand that a new BIITL effort is an indispensable
part of reconciliation. It will be difficult to save our languages if the
gap in transmission becomes much wider than it already is. Other than the
work undertaken by AIATSIS in Canberra, the single most important (and more
promising in terms of providing a solution to the challenge of inter-
generational transmission) effort has been undertaken through the
translations of the international subsidiary of the Wycliffe Bible Society,
the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Two languages of Cape York Peninsula,
Wik Mungkan and Kuku Yalanji, have been the subject of magisterial
translations of the New Testament by SIL, along with a number of other
languages across the country.
The SIL website (www.ethnologue.com <http://www.ethnologue.com> ) provides an estimation of the vitality
of each of Australia’s remaining indigenous languages, and the number of
languages that are on the brink of extinction should be the cause of
national consternation and urgent response.
But, notwithstanding the richness of this country’s linguistic heritage,
there is almost no public recognition of this national priority. To find an
eloquent expression of the preciousness of this heritage you would need to
go back to W.E.H. Stanner’s Boyer lectures of 1967. Since Stanner there
have been no prominent voices, the last being that of the American
ethnographer and author, Jared Diamond, in his 2001 Centenary of Federation
address. Reading Diamond’s lecture I was struck by how it is that the only
prominent advocate on behalf of Australia’s original languages is an
Let me make some points about language policy. A first step is that
Australia must recognise its languages. It is ridiculous that Australia is
behind Europe in this respect. The European states have signed the European
Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The status of minority
languages varies greatly, but a large number of European minority languages
are now official in the provinces where they are spoken. But Australia has
not even adopted an official listing of its languages.
Second, the purpose of preserving and maintaining Australia’s indigenous
languages is not just that these languages serve a communication purpose
within indigenous societies (for many communities they often do not), but
because they are inherently valuable as part of the country’s rich
heritage. And these languages comprise the identity of their custodians and
are the primary words by which the Australian land and seascape is named
and described. These languages are intimately related to the nature and
spirit of the country that all Australians now call home.
Third, indigenous people must understand that indigenous language
transmission must move decisively from orality to literacy if there is to
be long-term maintenance. This means that indigenous children must be fully
literate in the language of learning – English – in order to be literate in
their own languages. Reliance upon oral transmission alone will not work in
the long term.
Fourth, there must be a separate domain within indigenous communities for
cultural and linguistic education from the Western education domain.
Schools are not the places for cultural and linguistic transmission, and we
must stop looking to schools to save our languages. This is because the
primary purpose of schools is for our children to obtain a mainstream,
Western education, including full fluency in English. Schools will never be
adequately equipped to solve the transmission imperative, and all we end up
doing is compromising our children’s mainstream education achievement.
Indeed, without full English literacy our children are then illiterate in
their traditional language.
Fifth, language learning must start in earliest childhood, and this means
both English and traditional languages. Children must have access to both
domains from the start if they are going to become properly bilingual.
Communities that delay the learning of English to late in primary school in
favour of traditional languages in the early years, end up disabling their
children because they remain far behind in the language required for them
to obtain a mainstream education.
Sixth, a new generation BIITL must integrate the newest technology. It is
the information technologies that provide the bridge between the scientific
record and its application to the transmission imperative between
generations. There are many breakthrough demonstrations around the
countryside of how information technology provides solutions to cultural
transmission, and these need to be brought together as part of a concerted
Finally, the basic infrastructure for this national project needs to be
developed and supplied as a national responsibility. There should be room
for a lot of regional and local adaptation, but there must be a range of
off-the-shelf technical solutions developed by people with necessary
expertise at a national government agency such as AIATSIS.
There needs to be a generous government funded campaign for the maintenance
of each indigenous language employing full-time linguists and other expert
staff. Private, not-for-profit and public organisations should work
together, but language policy and adequate funding must be provided by the
Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and