Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Australian National Indigenous Languages Convention - a New England perspective

A map of New England's Aboriginal languages. It is not complete. Yaygirr spoken at the mouth of the Clarence is missing, for example. 
The first  was held on the Gold Coast in February 2018. The convention focused particularly on the way digital technology might be used to support language survival and revival.

Key note speaker Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), suggested Australia could follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced the Māori Language Act in 1987, thereby giving Māori official language status.

SBS reports (link above) that Craig Ritchie told the crowd that Australia needed to follow New Zealand's lead by bringing language into the public domain, making culture more visible in public spaces such as airports, and weaving simple greetings or words into news broadcasts or television programs.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded when they’re using Aboriginal language on Home and Away," he laughed.

While the role of technology was a major focus throughout the convention, there were counter views.

Armidale's Callum Clayton-Dixon, a founding member of the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, labelled himself a "cynic" when it comes to technology. In his view, while technology had proven useful to document language and raise awareness for programs, it shouldn't be relied upon as a teaching tool. He cited an example at a school in Armidale where he encouraged students learning Gamilaraay to download the language app: "they used it for a day, didn't touch it again".

"You don’t revive a language with an app, you revive language with people," he said. If it's a choice between online versus on land, the focus should be learning on land, on country, "embedding language through cultural activities".

Federal Arts Minister Mitch Fifield says while technology wasn't the answer, it is an “important part of the toolkit that we have” a government, we clearly recognise the erosion of language that needs to be addressed...Digital technology does have an incredible capacity to support the preservation and the teaching and the transmission of language.

Minister Fifield said the government's immediate priorities were to:
  • Develop career pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language workers and linguists;
  • Improve digital literacy in communities, and;
  • Identify projects that will best support and maintain language. 

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I have been interested in the topic of Aboriginal languages for many years with a special focus on New England..I am not a linguist, but came to the topic as an historian.

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of formal language recognition, but Australia is not in the same position as New Zealand where Māori is a single language if with some mutually recognisable dialects. This is a far different position from Australia with its many different languages each containing dialects.

Māori is also in a different position to most of the Australian languages because it is still a significant spoken language at a scale far exceeding any of the Australian languages. Even then, Māori is struggling to expand its reach, although the presence of Māori language schools does hold out longer term prospects.

Back in 2011 in New England Aboriginal life - process of language destruction I looked at the process of language destruction that had affected New England's languages. This was part of a bigger paper I had written on New England's Aboriginal languages. It's a sad story. One of the sad parts was my underlying feeling of lost opportunities.

In 2008, Peter Austin provided a history of research into the Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) language. The 1960s saw considerable interest in Aboriginal languages as part of a new interest in the history and traditional culture of Australia's Aboriginal peoples. Then there were still a few old people who could remember the original language, holding out the possibility of proper documentation for later use. This was not unique to Gamilaraay. Down on the North Coast there were many more speakers of local languages. Then interest dropped away as interest in Aboriginal studies shifted to the frontier and questions of subsequent black-white relations. By the time interest in Aboriginal language revival emerged in the 1980s, a considerable opportunity had been lost through the death of those who remembered.

Just scoping all this this, I did a quick scan through the 2016 census results. The numbers are iffy and I have found no consolidated data. However:
  • The most widely spoken NSW language is Wiradjuri with 355 speakers in NSW, 432 around Australia.
  • The most widely spoken New England languages ranked in order are Gumbaynggir (72 NSW, Australia 166), Bundjalung (NSW 81, Australia 106), Gamilaraay (NSW 61, Australia 92) and Daianggatti ( NSW 33, Australia 35). 
That's a very small base to work from, much diminished from fifty years ago.

As Cornish demonstrates, language revival is not an easy task even where you have official backing. Where you have dialects, what do you choose? How do you overcome internal conflicts? How do you encourage use and for what purposes? How do you manage language change even if it takes you away from the original, recognising that a living language must change. And how do you encourage use where, as is usually the case in Australia at least, each language is seen as a cultural artifact belonging to a particular group with the implicit message others keep out?

Language survival and revival depends upon use. Even a small language will survive if it covers all the domains of life. As usage contracts, survival comes into question even in larger languages. Language also depends on the number of native speakers, those who learned the language at home. Even today, Cornish only has 300-400 native speakers.

The problems faced by Australia's Aboriginal languages have been accentuated by official policies which have ranged from official discouragement to neglect to piecemeal and inconsistent interest.The problems are compounded because so much of the work on language revival has in the end depended on small local groups operating with minimal official support, making it hard to maintain continuity.I'm not sure that the Australian Government's latest initiative isn't just the latest extension of the past.

I will return to my biases. While I am interested in the general question of language revival, the bench mark I use is the Aboriginal languages of the broader New England. On this benchmark I award policy a present fail.

 I haven't checked back to find the posts, but ten years or so ago I argued that the most useful thing Governments could do was to create an official web site for each language group that could record and make available information about thst group. This would have required not just web costs, but also research and administrative support I did not deal with governance issues in making the suggestion.

I happen to agree with Callum's point that language revival is about people, not technology. Callum circulated the Gamillaray app with little effect. When the Gamillaray language website first came out, I circulated details around the Aboriginal organisation that I was working with at the time with considerable excitement so that those with connections could listen. There was very limited interest.

All this said, the proposed websites would have provided a base that people could draw from, one that could be maintained. The latest discussion of on-line apps and new approaches seems to me to suffer from three weaknesses: it ignores questions of infrastructure; it ignores people and demand; and most importantly, it ignores questions of continuity.  .  .    

In NSW we have had new initiatives such as language nests in schools. On the ABC we have constant hammering on the importance of language. At Federal level, we have the desire to marshal new technology to the cause. But what has been actually happening on the ground?

The Gamillaray website seems moribund. The Muurbay Aboriginal language and Culture Cooperative, an organisation that has played a major role in language revival, seems to me to be struggling a little. You can study one NSW language, Gamilaraay, at university level. I found a few TAFE courses. It all strikes me as very bitsy and messy.A poor base from which to build new approaches.

I now want to go back to Callum. He is an activist who want to bring Anaiwan back. This is no easy task because this was a small and distinct language. But it was activists who brought back the other languages.

At the moment language policy is top down, unstable, initiative driven. It seems to me that we are better off focusing on platforms that will help activists such as Callum do their thing, that will support them. They may fail, but we will still be better off. That's the only way i can see us really making progress, at least so far as New England is concerned.

Update 17 March 2018

Interesting website from the Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation about their work with the Yindjibarndi people from Western Australia's Pilbara region. While the site is still in development, it gives an interesting picture of working up from the base in cultural and language development.

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