This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.

  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so. []
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research []
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press. []

In the last few weeks, the topic of bilingual education in Australia has been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream media. Last week, I happened upon an article in the Herald, echoing earlier reports in voicing the widespread opposition from educators and academics towards the Northern Territory government’s policy of English-only education for the first four hours (leaving only a single hour of tuition) each day. The article quotes Patrick McConvell, co-author of the AIATSIS discussion paper1 that effectively brought the debate to the forefront of Australian politics.

The coverage of this issue continues tonight at 8:30 (EST) on ABC1, as Four Corners looks at the history of bilingual education in remote Australia, which they also covered way back in 1986, and dissects the policy decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008, before she quit her portfolio as Minister for Education. Our very own expert in this field, Dr Jane Simpson, was interviewed for the program several weeks ago, so I suggest watching it.

In other news altogether, I have finally had my honours thesis published online in The University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository. It was just under three years since it was marked in October 2006, but better late than never! You can access the pdf version here2.

  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery (2009) Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory Canberra: AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24. []
  2. Wilson, A. (2006) Negative Evidence in Linguistics: The case of Wagiman Complex Predicates. Honours Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney. []

As Jane announced last week at Elac, a Research Symposium on Bilingual Education was held on Friday at AIATSIS, at which their 24th discussion paper was launched by Mick Dodson.

Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t even enter the consciousness of the population, and would soon slip into the æther. This symposium, however, and the discussion paper, made it onto ABC’s online news, twice.

The paper is Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory1 and is co-written by Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell (and edited, partly, by me).

It addresses the issue of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, describing its history, beginning more than 25 years ago, up until late 2008, when the decision was made to force all Northern Territory schools to teach at least the first four hours of English per day out of five hours of lessons, leaving a single possible hour per day for tuition in a language other than English. This decision, made by prominent Tiwi woman, Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour shortly before being moved from the Education portfolio to the role of Attorney-General, will take effect in time for the commencement of the 2010 school year.

The theory, of course, is that children learn a language most effectively through what’s known as immersion; a child surrounded by language X will pretty quickly become proficient in language X. But placing 30 kids who speak Kriol or Warlpiri as their first language(s) in a classroom with a single teacher who speaks only Standard Australian English and has no training in ESL/EFL can scarcely be considered ‘immersing’ the poor children in a sea of English.

I can personally attest to this paper being a very insightful discussion of the topic and, perhaps along with dozens of other interested people, have sent it on to Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Education, Malarndirri McCarthy, and the Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, asking them to take the hour or so to read it.

If the 2010 school year begins and the 9 remaining bilingual schools in the Northern Territory are forced to teach what is effectively English-only, I believe the consequences will be detrimental not only to the few remaining healthy indigenous languages, but also to the children who will be thrown into the deep-end of an education system that is entirely foreign to them.

  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24) []

I read in this morning’s Herald that a school in Victoria has been trialing the use of iPods for facilitating school work. iTouches1 are being used to research and submit assignments, to download music and for students to communicate with their teachers over email. The results so far suggest that students are much more likely to interact with school work over the medium of an iPod than more traditional methods, and are more likely to use the iPods than laptops.

This story ties in with James and my work over the past year, which will continue throughout this year, into the use of mobile phones for the maintenance of endangered languages. It also overlaps with the government’s ‘education revolution’ promise of the last election, in which each student receives a laptop.

So far the government’s plan has been marred by cost blowouts – although I’m almost certain this is due to the ‘Government letterhead’ effect2 – and concerns about the long-term technical support of the computers. The iTouch wins hands down on both counts, as they’re much cheaper – about 300 bucks as opposed to a grand at least – and they can be easily supported by Apple’s existing technical support infrastructure, especially if the iTouches come with the extended warranty.

Another issue raised here is the future of personal technology – though this is getting considerably geeky of me. I’ve long thought that there was too much increasing overlap between personal portable computers and mobile phones. More and more, mobile phones are internet enabled (although costly, as you have to go through your telco), support more data, can run programs, and generally operate like mini-computers. My prediction has been that mobile phones will get bigger and more functional, and laptops will get smaller and more portable, until they meet in the middle with personal PDA-style touchscreen computers with phones in them. Obviously such things have already been created, like Blackberries, iPods and, until recently, palm pilots, but the market is only beginning to catch on.

In addition to mobile phone applications for dictionaries of endangered languages, we think we can probably make downloadable programs for other devices, like iPods, and mobile phones that run Android (Google’s open-source and free answer to Apple’s iPhone). And we dont just mean dictionary viewing programs, but dictionary creation tools as well.

Imagine, for instance, if students of outback schools were equipped with iTouches pre-loaded with bilingual Kriol-English learning programs, and were pre-configured with a Kriol language pack, so that the iTouch’s menus and options started out in Kriol, until such a time as their English literacy reaches the point where they can switch it over to operate it in English.

  1. I’ve written right to the end of this post and realised that I’ve said ‘iTouch’ way too many times. I should point out right from the start that the device may as well be any of this new breed of mobile phone – though preferably something developed by the Open Handset Alliance and running Android. But for ease, I’m just going to refer to ‘iPod’ and ‘iTouch’ all the way through. []
  2. The Government letterhead effect is when a private contractor increases their prices exponentially when they receive a quote request with a government letterhead. Remember the guys that wrote ‘No War’ on the Sydney Opera House in red paint? It cost $100,000 to clean.

    As if. []

or, On the Grammar Wars1

Over the weekend, and extending into the week thus far, a debate has been steadily growing in the blogosphere, both here and in the US, about a controversial set of guidelines for teaching English published last year by the English Teacher’s Association of Queensland (ETAQ).

Before I go on, I might say that the breadth of this debate is such that I barely know where to begin, so logically, I might try beginning at the start.

The model upon which ETAQ’s guidelines were based is called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a framework of textual analysis devised by M.A.K. Halliday back in the 60s, that focuses on the interpersonal and ideational functions of language; language as its used in a larger social context. The name indicates that it is concerned with ‘systems’, i.e., texts of indefinite size, and entire communicative practices, and with ‘functions’ as opposed to ‘forms’. This is important and I’ll come back to it.

The terminology of SFL is quite specialised, and for a good reason. Since it concerns functions and not forms, overall meanings rather than constituency, SFL had to create a whole new set of terms that differed from formal categories, so as to not have the same terms meaning something different to someone who uses a different framework. SFL is, in my opinion, commendable for this, otherwise things would certainly be confusing.

The author of the guidelines, Dr Lenore Ferguson, took a rather confused version of SFL’s already specialised terminology, and went on to write it up as the definitive model for English structure teaching. This has resulted in serious formal errors that have led critics, such as Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, to describe the guidelines and other related publications as Not just a little bit ropey, but absolutely incompetent, full of utter howlers2. Here is The Australian‘s description:

A TEACHERS’ guide to grammar circulated by the English Teachers Association of Queensland is riddled with basic errors, leading an internationally respected linguistics professor [Rodney Huddleston] to describe it as “the worst published material on English grammar” he has seen.

What sort of ‘utter howlers’ are they talking about?

Here are a couple of the now well-publicised errors that Huddleston took as exemplary and vocally objected to:

  • Won’t in The boy won’t eat his lunch is labelled an adverb; it is actually a modal auxiliary verb,
  • Capable of in The boy is capable of eating his lunch is also described as an adverb; it is really an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase headed by of, and
  • A set in A set of bowls is called an adjective; it isn’t even a grammatical unit at all. It’s half a noun phrase – the rest of it is a prepositional phrase of bowls. A set on its own is just a noun phrase, or a determiner followed by a noun.

These are pretty indefensible errors, one might assume, and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone even rudimentarily trained in linguistics making them. But I’ll show later that, although they’re still indefensible, they’re completely explicable based on what Dr Ferguson was trying to do. I’ll also hopefully conclude that SFL has been copping too much flak in the whole debate.

Okay, just a little on the rest of the debate. Language Log caught onto the issue early on when Geoffrey K. Pullum posted this summary of the controversy, and he and other LanguageLoggers have since posted several follow-ups, the last of which is brilliant. Closer to home, Larvatus Prodeo, one of Australia’s most widely read political/social/cultural blogs, had this post, which has solicited a massive reader response; 163 comments and counting.

As you might expect, most of these comments, as well as the various letters to The Australian in response to this issue, and much of the other online coverage this issue has received, comprise people crying fowl of prepositions at the end of sentences, conjunctions at the beginning, blah blah blah. Apart from that, there have been some slightly more informed people arguing the differences between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar, which is totally irrelevant to the ETAQ’s teaching guidelines, Huddleston’s response or anything3.

Despite my continued efforts, I have been unable to force the debate back on track, and before I give up, the rest of this post is how I might characterise the main issue and add my perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

As I mentioned earlier, SFL deals with language as it’s used in society and larger contexts, and it deals with its function in those contexts; not, crucially, its forms. So instead of dwelling too much on nouns, noun phrases, prepositions, clitics, perfect participles, structural categories and so on, SFL talks about participants, processes and circumstances as the basic sentential units.

That is, sentences are analysed in SFL as to who is being talked about, the participants; what is happening, the process(es); and optionally, any other adjunctive information such as location, the circumstances. SFL still has formal units at the heart of this; sentences and the constituent words are all labelled (mostly correctly) as to their parts of speech, but the main priorities are the  discourse functions of language that operate at level different from the parts of speech. It assumes that a structural analysis of the individual sentences using ‘traditional’, or generative grammar in this context, has already taken place.

To emphasis one important point already made, central to SFL, and many models of language, is the independence of form and function; the difference between phonological shape and meaning. This is one thing that Ferguson’s English teaching guidelines, based heavily on SFL, omitted, and it would thereby be regarded by probably every practicing linguist today as an inadequate theory of the structure of language.

Since form and function were collapsed, and since SFL prioritises the function of language, the result is a framework that, when applied as a structural analytical tool for parsing sentences, mislabels parts of speech. To take an example from those cited above, the sentence The boy is capable of eating his lunch would have a well-defined structure that many linguists would easily be able to draw for you. Here’s the bracket notation (simplified) that you can insert into the Syntax Tree Generator to see it4:

[S [NP [DET The] [N boy]] [VP [V is] [AP [A capable] [PP [P of [VP [V eating] [NP [DP his] [N lunch]]]]]]]]

SFL would then go on to analyse the sentence as to its functional aspects. Taking for instance the complex adjective phrase capable of eating his lunch, SFL would see the actual process as ‘eating’, while the beginning of the adjective phrase in which it is embedded, would be seen to contribute an adverbial element, since it arguably modifies the way in which the boy’s eating habits are seen.

Thus, SFL would defensibly analyse the words capable of as having an adverbial function. Dr Ferguson, in collapsing forms and functions, has therefore attributed capable of to the formal category ‘adverb’. In essence, when form and function are collapsed and functions take priority, then functional categories erroneously become formal categories.

That is how I would explain the ‘utter howlers’ that Huddleston identified; the logical result of using a functional analysis to identify forms, and I believe it also may explain all the other aspects of these guidelines – or at least those that I’ve come across, I haven’t been able to see a copy yet.

I should add that these differences are not mere differences of terminology; the approach suggested by ETAQ gives ‘grammatical unit’ status to strings of words that cross boundaries between phrases, such as, again, capable of, which is not a single unit at all, but a fragment of an adjective phrase.

The issue then, instead of how these guidelines managed to come up with these monstrosities of formal analysis, should be what purpose SFL, or even this corrupted version of it, can serve as a structural analytical tool. My response to that question would be something along the lines of ‘not much’, though I do think it has a reasonable place in education as a textual criticism tool. That is, the focus on interpersonal interpretations, ideational content and context would help students to critically evaluate actual and intended meaning in prose, performances, plays, speeches and the like. However, before such contextual criticism takes place, students must be able to analyse a sentence into its constituent phrases, their interactions with each other, and the individual grammatical and lexical units, words, that form the syntactic basis of a language like English – all using terminology that is at least internally consistent, but consistent with the standard set of terms used by just about everyone else.

I don’t intend any of this to be a defence of, or an apoogy for Systemic Functional Linguistics, that’s another debate altogether, but I do think that as a framework for literary criticism, it is being grossly misused in this educational context, and the students who will not learn to correctly identify parts of speech and structurally analyse sentences because of it, will potentially be at a disadvantage later in their schooling.

SFL cops enough flak already; it shouldn’t have to defend itself here, when the real culprit is Ferguson’s awful corruption of it.

  1. Thanks to Jane Simpson and Mark Harvey for the translation. []
  2. Pullum at Language Log, Queensland grammar brouhaha []
  3. As an aside, it appears that as linguists, we haven’t yet achieved our tacit aim of convincing the masses that our profession is not about telling them how to write. I fear we have many more years of putting up with misplaced Grammar Nazi over-sensitivity. []
  4. I’ve heavily simplified this. Especially when it comes to the analysis of ‘his’, which I’ve just left unanalysed as a determiner phrase (DP). Merely calling it a determiner would be too simplistic. []

I’ve been at Sydney University now for over six years, including five years as a full-time student with full voting rights whenever any elections were held. So I’m not exactly new to the phenomenon of the stupid election slogan, but I still can’t help but wince any time I see fresh paint in the graffiti tunnel advertising the newest slew of pseudo-political hopefuls.

Sometimes I wonder why they do it. Friends tell me they’re usually politics students who want to catapult their post-graduate career straight into being a staffer in DFAT, or even being fast-tracked through the totally democratic factions of the Labor Party. I should point out that this last point is more characteristic of Labor than Liberal. Liberal party hopefuls tend not to be electable at uni – unless it’s for the editorial team of Honi Soir – their trajectory normally takes them through the Young Liberals instead. Predictably, I would just ask for the Greens affiliated candidate and be done with it.

Anyway, here’s a sample of this year’s contenders for the election to the board of the USU:

I Dig Doug1

Alex: A Union Revolution

K2 is Good for U3

Bec On Board

There are also a bunch of contenders that consider their mere name adequate to be a slogan in itself. First names4 are spray-painted, chalked, and emblazoned on walls, roads and footpaths, and even the highly visible vertical rise of outdoor staircases all over the uni, hoping to impress themselves on the consiousness of the undecided, or more likely, apathetic voter. I wish I could exemplify their effectiveness in making me want to elect them, except ironically, I can’t remember any of their names.

My favourite from the list above is K is Good for U, as it uses a highly considered pun on “U” – being a homonym for an English pronoun on one hand, and the initial of the point of the election, the Union, on the other – but it also effectively plagiarises pays homage to a breakfast cereal, using the (likely registered trademark) typeface and colour-scheme of Kellog’s Special K5.

So, what is the stupidest election slogan you’ve ever heard?

  1. Better would have been Me Doug. You Dig? []
  2. Stands for Karina and is written like the K in Special K cereal []
  3. U presumably stands for Union []
  4. They only use first names, it seems []
  5. I have no financial interest in using a brand name or product. In fact, Special K has to be one of the most odious cereals I know of []

An noteworthy discussion has been brewing in the letters section of my favourite broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald, over the past few days. It’s about that same old question of whether or not adolescents with their “technology” (that’s supposed to be uttered with vertical fist firmly shaken) are murdering – or better – bastardising the English language.

It all began with a report last week than Australia’s literacy rates – as measured by standardised testing on 15 year olds – have been steadily falling since we were ranked second in the world back in 2001.

Six years ago, Australia was ranked second behind Finland for reading. But in the latest study it has also been outstripped by South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand.

Of course, the current government blames the former government, who would doubtlessly have blamed those evil union-stacked state governments, who blame everyone else. But that aside, the report seems to have sparked a resurgence of the debate over how destructive texting and emails are to our impeccable tongue.

This letter appeared in the Herald the next day (for all these letters page links, you’ll have to scroll through, as individual letters aren’t permalinked, or you can just trust my ability to faithfully copy-paste from the original):

I was not surprised to read that our teenagers are reading less (“Australia slides down the reading list”, December 5). Rarely do I see one of them reading a book on a bus or train. Mostly they pass the time talking or texting on mobile phones. This unfamiliarity with the written word is reflected in their conversations, which seem to be bereft of grammar and comprised almost entirely of code. Mobile phones are not entirely to blame; peer pressure must share some of the guilt. Our youngsters converse, I suspect, out of a desire to be accepted rather than any need to communicate.

Garth Clarke North Sydney

Bereft of grammar? Comprised entirely of code? The fact that Mr Clarke has trouble understanding the sub-cultural lect of Sydney youths does not render their speech ungrammatical.

The following day saw a more considered argument about what literacy entails.

Australian teenagers are not necessarily reading less, Garth Clarke (Letters, December 6), it is the kind of reading they are doing that has precipitated drops in literacy.

The hours teenagers spend reading and writing SMS messages and keeping their blogs and MySpace pages updated indicates a form of literacy. These activities reflect the mutating face of language at the point at which it moves quickest; in the shared patois of the young.

An older generation schooled in the previous incarnation of proper grammar may not like it, but that construct of English is drifting into history. Should we castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English they are no longer using?

Pierre Mol Pymble

I tend to agree; like it or not, language changes. The observed drop in literacy levels (of roughly 7000 15 year olds as compared with an analogous number 6 years ago, with respect to the literacy levels of similar numbers of teenagers in 56 other surveyed countries – sorry, but we should qualify these broad statements) is possibly an artifact of the form of literacy being surveyed.

I don’t want to say that literacy – in the traditional sense – is not important, I think it’s absolutely important to adequately survive in a world that judges people superficially on how they hyphenate their noun compounds noun-compounds. What I’m saying is that as language changes, so does the written representation of it, and the form that literacy takes will inevitably change as well.

Moving on, things got no less heated the next day (I think we’re up to Saturday by now):

Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7) questions whether we have the right to “castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English”. Yes we should¹.

The idea that words mean whatever you want them to robs English of its power of accurate description and explanation.

Losing our language means losing its most basic function: communication.

Peter Lloyd Trevallyn (Tas)

The idea that questioning the benefit of encouraging archaic forms of education is synonymous with such an extreme postmodern position, that words are meaningless and reality is constructed by the individual, is nonsense. No one is saying that ‘words mean whatever you want them to’, rather that there isn’t some objective semantic reality that is accurately encoded in lexical representation, in words. Instead, there are regions of rough semantic space peculiar to the individual, of which their own words are a mere attempt at approximation. In the act of communicating, the goal is to have both interlocutors find the same semantic idea inside their own mental conceptual space.

Anyway, this debate has moved considerably further away from the original drop in literacy levels and threatens to border on some serious cognitive semantics. But before that happens, today’s Herald has two more additions, one of which was very interesting:

Despite the rosy views of Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7), the “form of literacy” evident in SMS and blog messages is a restricted literacy in comparison with that associated with the “archaic form” he despises.

There have always been linguistic forms associated with different age groups, cultures and occupations, but it was generally accepted that a standard, more complex version of the language existed, available to and understood by all, which, because of its structural and lexical nuances, was capable of expressing more complicated ideas.

Its relative constancy also allows access to the thoughts and feelings of millions of people from different times and cultures. The deficits in thought associated with the stripped-down English of informal electronic communication are all too evident to me in my interactions with undergraduate students.

There will always be a place for an alternative “patois”, but genuine literacy is ultimately the key to the world.

Dr Paul Foley Randwick

Dr Foley’s letter sums up the position that I belittled earlier, that the English-speaking world judges people’s worth on the basis of their largely irrelevant ability to, say, punctuate appropriately. Before I read this I’d have scoffed at it, but on reflection it’s a very good point. We shouldn’t disregard the value of a standardised register of English and the benefit of being fluent in speaking it and literate in reading it. However, it’s not the case in my view, that not being literate or fluent in a particular dialect of English renders you any less intelligent. I would also contend his point of view that sub-cultural registers and lects of any language are less complex in any meaningful way, than a standard.

If I were any more enthusiastic an epistolographer, I’d have chimed in. Instead I’ll keenly read on, until such time as the letters editor decides it’s no longer an issue.

On the original point of literacy rates, I mean really, we’re ranked sixth in the world, behind countries like Finland (where common sense was invented, just look at that nominal case system), Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Should we really be mortally worried that out kids are getting stupider when it’s really a matter of other countries’ kids improving faster?

Also, we’ve just ousted the most conservative, Thatcherite government this country has ever seen, who pulled more federal money than ever before, out of public education to fund wars, offshore prisons for foreigners and comfy ministerial chairs. What do we expect – a nation full of genii?!

Another lengthy post – I thank you for persevering, and congratulate you for making it through unscathed.


¹Ironically, a bit of a stylistic error there; ‘yes we should’ should have had an antecedent clause headed by a ‘should’ modal, but instead the previous sentence was framed in a ‘do we have the right to…’. So it should have been either Do we have the right to castigate… Yes, we do or otherwise should we castigate… Yes, we should.

I’m picking nits, I know.

Today’s Herald contains an encouraging story about the place of indigenous languages in public high schools. Year 8 students at Bourke High School were compulsorily taught Wangkamurra this year, and the results have been positive enough that the State Government is planning on extending the program to more state schools with large enough populations of aboriginal students.

Since Aboriginal language was made compulsory at Bourke High School in year 8, student attendance rates and retention of students to year 9 had improved, [NSW Director-General of Education, Michael] Coutts-Trotter said.

It had also helped improve English literacy and numeracy.

It’s also been especially positive for Bourke High’s indigenous population, who normally finish year 12 at half the rate that non-indigenous students do.

It also helped Aboriginal students identify with their culture, which improved their confidence and sense of identity.

“All this can then lift student confidence in approaching other study areas,” he said.

This is clearly a good program and I would personally like to see it adopted by all state and territory governments. Surely most would agree.

Except there’s seemingly never a piece of good news about indigenous issues in this country without some bad news alongside it…

Howard has defended the government’s choice to not ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed on Thursday by an impressive 143 to 4, citing its implicit legitimisation of customary law and the possibility of “separate developments inside one country” as his key points of dispute. I wish he’d elaborate on the latter, because it doesn’t appear to me to be all that bad.

Mr Howard says the decision was an easy one.

I bet. He also attacked Labor for their support for the declaration, claiming it is at odds with their support for the NT intervention. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if you ignore the politics, it isn’t the case that supporting paternalistic action to reduce rates of abuse in aboriginal communities requires you to oppose rights for indigenous people. The fact that Howard appears to think so is perhaps not unexpected, but worrying all the same.

Interestingly, in that article it paraphrases Howard as saying:

…there should not be special arrangements for special groups in the Australian community.

Yet, this is precisely why the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow the NT intervention legislation to pass, because it makes special arrangements for special groups within the Australian community. The only difference with that and the UN Declaration (apart from the fact that the latter is legally impotent) is that Howard’s ‘special arrangements’ are detrimental to aborigines.

Every day reveals more blatant hypocrisy from this increasingly desperate autocrat.

Canada elected a new government 18 months ago and it appears that they’re trying to prevent the UN Human Rights Council’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from being approved (adopted, in the official terminology) by the general assembly. To put this into perspective, the decleration and resolution, avaliable from here, took 24 years to negotiate.

I went and had a look at the resolution to see what could have been so odious that Canada would want to prevent it from becoming bound by international law, but it seems reasonable to me. Here’s an interesting excerpt that is especially relevant in a current local debate in Australia.

Article 13

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

Article 14

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.

3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.

I draw particular attention to the last sentence, the one that orders States to provide education to indigenous people in their own language. So if Canada aren’t successful in hindering this declaration any further, bilingual education could become a matter of international law. Interesting.



It appears that Howard may have had a slight helping hand in Canada’s change of heart, rather than it being due to merely a change in government.

The newspaper is quoting unnamed political sources as saying Mr Howard convinced Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his visit that the declaration would be “problematic.”

Although, ‘unnamed’ sources are always a bit sketchy, the timeline is curious:

Mr Howard visited Ottawa and the Toronto Globe and Mail says things began to happen within days.


Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log has weighed in on the debate over the role of English in Aboriginal communitues in Australia, and the return to the days of the White Australia policy and assimilation, perpetrated by the most conservative government in our history, under the subterfuge of ‘allowing aborigines to integrate into the mainstream economy’.

For some more background, I wrote about this here, Carmel O’Shannessy and Jane Simpson did so here and Kim Christen also wrote on it here.

I need not point out that Pullum is not an Australian and is therefore somewhat more insulated from calls of political bias (I assume he has no stake in whether or not the current government wins the next election). It is particularly encouraging to read such scathing denouncement of this policy from Pullum, which includes several points that I had somewhat euphemised, specifically, that we in Australia have an awful lot to be ashamed of, and need to stop procrastinating and start making up for it, beginning with an apology for the settlers’ treatment of the indigenous population up until just over 40 years ago (and even right up until today).

Brough continues that English-by-force tradition, urging that aborigines to be required to learn English so that they can be absorbed into the mainstream of Australian culture — in other words, so that aboriginal languages and cultures can die and aborigines can become just a dark-skinned under-privileged substratum of English-speaking Australian society.

Zing! I wish I’d said that!

I might point out though, since contrary ideas appear to pervade throughout all the discussion of this issue, that learning English is already compulsory for all children in every Australian school (see here). So Brough’s motivation, in my opinion, is designed to draw attention away from, and perhaps even rationalise, the government’s appalling record when it comes to adequate education funding in remote areas.

I am confident this issue won’t die anytime soon.


This from Claire:

…one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to education in, and the right to use one’s own language. Australia is a signatory of this Declaration.

Bob Brown has also demonstrated he is considerably more versed in the issue than Brough.

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