Culture


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)

When collecting field recordings, always, always begin each audio file with a little blurb mentioning the date, the location, who’s present, and what language is being researched. It’ll cost you about 10 seconds of each recording and you’ll sound like a bit of a tool repeating yourself, but you’ll save yourself hours of work years later when you (finally) get around to archiving your recordings and you need to find all this information from other sources, like airline booking confirmation emails.

Oh, and transcribe your recordings while they’re fresh in your head, lest you find yourself devoting countless hours of unpaid work to do so when you have a brazillion1 other things to do.


  1. I’m alluding to a George W. Bush joke here:
    One of the president’s advisers rushes into the oval office and tells the president that there’s been a terrorist attack in Rio and that 2 Brazilians have been killed.
    “Oh my God!” Screams the president, to the astonishment of the advisor, who didn’t think the death of a mere 2 people would have fazed the president so much. “How many are in a brazillion?”

Over the weekend, David Nash drew my attention to a book that he found on Amazon, that purported to contain bilingual crosswords puzzles in English and Wageman1.

I was a bit perlexed by this, since, well, Wagiman doesn’t have much in the way of practical applications such as second-language learning, that is, of course, beyond the community of Wagiman people. It should be noted at this point though, that this book is not being marketed towards the small community of non-Wagiman speaking Wagiman people, but to a North American audience.

The book is published by a mob called Webster’s Online Dictionary, who I take to have no connection whatsoever to Merriam-Websters, given the look of their respective websites. Theirs appears to contain worldlists of hundreds and hundreds of languages, many of them minority languages, and it seems some of them have been converted to print, albeit in the bizarre form of bidirectional crossword puzzle books.

Here is the product description, as supplied by Amazon, and likely supplied by Philip M. Parker, the person behind Webster’s Online Dictionary:

Webster’s Crossword Puzzles are edited for three audiences. The first audience consists of students who are actively building their vocabularies in either Wageman or English in order to take foreign service, translation certification, Advanced Placement® (AP®) or similar examinations. By enjoying crossword puzzles, the reader can enrich their vocabulary in anticipation of an examination in either Wageman or English.

A translation certificate, Advanced Placement certificate, in Wagiman?  Really?

The second includes Wageman-speaking students enrolled in an English Language Program (ELP), an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program, an English as a Second Language Program (ESL), or in a TOEFL® or TOEIC® preparation program.The third audience includes English-speaking students enrolled in bilingual education programs or Wageman speakers enrolled in English speaking schools.

EFL, ESL, TOEFL or TOEIC programs being run anywhere near Wagiman country? Really?

However, I can see in this book a benefit for some eventual teaching of Wagiman language in the local school, to help increase literacy in Wagiman, but unfortunately, the book uses an outdated orthography and may actually undermine increased Wagiman literacy efforts.

I wouldn’t want to financially support someone who – it appears – has taken a wordlist published in the public domain2 and has created something proprietary, like a book, with the goal of profit in mind, but I think I might still have to have a Wagiman-English crossword puzzle book on my shelf, just for the fun of it.


  1. Wageman was one of the variant spellings. Others include Wakiman (Cook, Austin) and Wogeman (Tyron).
  2. I find it ironic, furthermore, that while the original wordlist was a public domain web-publication, Webster’s Online Dictionary prohibits automatic harvesting of any of their data. I doubt that they copy-pasted each and every entry from the wordlist.

Last night’s 7:30 Report featured a report on the origins of AFL footfall, and specifically that it may have been inspired by a game played by the Aborigines of western Victoria called Marn Grook.

The main proponent of this theory is Jim Poulter, a descendant of settlers who saw Marn Grook played at the goldfields near Warrandyte1 in the 1850s; several years before AFL was established. However, the historian interviewed for the report, Gillian Hibbins, disagrees on the basis that the celebrated inventor of AFL football, Tom Wills, never mentioned the indigenous sport in any of his writings, either personal or professional.

I personally like the idea that Marn Grook was the inspiration behind the game, but beyond mere contemporaneous probability – Wills grew up in the area in which Mark Grook was reported to have been played and, by all reports, was inducted into the local indigenous culture, making it unlikely that he never knew about it – the evidence is a little thin.

One aspect of the evidence that Poulter refers to is that the ‘Aboriginal’ word2 for ‘catch’ was mumark3. As the story goes, this became the ‘mark’ of the modern game. Although, using the term ‘mark’ to refer to an unequivocal catch and subsequent free kick had apparently been well attested in England for years already.

The word ‘mark’ comes from at least two public schools where they marked and ground and shouted ‘mark’ so that everybody would clear away and give them a free kick.

The official history of the ALF maintains that Wills invented the game with direct inspiration from English Public – that is, Private – schools, and not from the indigenous people of the area in which he spent much of his time. However, the AFL today appear quite happy to capitalise on its purported Aboriginal roots, which presents an obvious paradox as far as another writer, Martin Flanagan, is concerned:

If the official history of the AFL is true, the AFL has got no more claim to having a connection with Indigenous culture than Rugby Union does and so all these big games it has like the Marn Grook Trophy and ‘Dreamtime at the G’, what are they? Are they just marketing exercises?

I don’t have anything novel to add to this debate, though I lean, probably as a result of romanticism, toward the indigenous roots story.

If anyone knows of any more conclusive evidence either way, then by all means, let me know in the comments.


  1. Spelled Warendight in the transcript
  2. That he can’t name a language is a bit of weak point in his argument, if you ask me.
  3. Mumark is the 7:30 Report‘s transcription, but Poulter clearly pronounces it [məma:k]

Long term readers of this blog would probably know that I occasionally like to mess around with Google Earth and to try out new things to do with languages and so forth. It began with an exercise in mapping some known and established place names in the Sydney Metropolitan Area, mostly concentrated in and around the Harbour, and then it moved on to a small project of mine to map the region of the Northern Territory with which Wagiman is traditionally associated¹.

Another project I began, and finished, a while ago, was to take the divided segments of the AIATSIS map of Australia’s Indigenous languages, and overlay them as images onto Google’s Earth. When I say ‘finished’, what I mean is, I’d posted it to the Google Earth community as a downloadable file, but I didn’t know that I’d screwed it up and made the images too transparent to see the language boundaries clearly.

Just the other day though, Jungurra expressed some interest in using it for the Australian Languages course that he’ll be teaching from next week, which prompted me to go and fix it up and make all the images fully opaque. So now, the whole thing can be made transparent so that the images don’t necessarily block the satellite images beneath. The new file can be found here.

Preparing this made me realise just how much of a problem the curvature of the Earth actually is. The further south you get, the more the images have to be contorted into place, and therefore the larger the discrepancy in location at some points. Some of the maps are displaced by anything up to about a hundred kilometres.

I don’t know how receptive AIATSIS are to this sort of new-fangled technology, but I think it’s something that they, even in collaboration with Google, could should think about, and eventually produce a Google Maps or Google Earth package of files that show languages and language boundaries. I envisage a situation where the language names and boundaries are treated as place names and borders like any others, and not as images that become blurred the further in you zoom.

At the end of the day, this is a bit of fun, but perhaps there are practical applications to such widespread popular things like Google Earth such that linguists, and others, can put them to (more) good educational use.

~

<update>
Here’s a screenshot, which I wasn’t able to do earlier. This is with the opacity of the AIATSIS map overlayed images turned quite far down, otherwise, you’d just be looking at the overlay, and it wouldn’t be very interesting. You can also see here how imperfect the fitting together of the original segments is, as there’s quite a lot of overlap, and boundaries that don’t quite match. But you know, I did the best I could. Click on the image for the larger size.

screenshot

You can even see Wagiman in the middle there.
</update>


¹As opposed to ‘where Wagiman is spoken’, for clear sociolinguistic reasons.

In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

On Wednesday, February 13, Kevin Rudd will add the federal Parliament to the list of parliaments who have apologised. Rudd has been light on the details and the wording of the apology so far, only giving the occasional clue about the rough scope of the apology. Yesterday for instance, he revealed that it “will be on behalf of the Parliament, not the Government, and will make reference to not only the members of the Stolen Generations but to their families and descendants.”

The opposition, under Dr Brendan Nelson, has given its in-principle support, but wants to see the exact wording before it goes to parliament, adding that “It’s essential that the Australian people have the opportunity to understand what is going to be said by their Parliament on their behalf.” (Update: the opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?)

As an aside, this entire issue must be a bit of a test for Brendan Nelson, who won the leadership of the opposition over Malcolm Turnbull largely because the latter announced his support for an apology. Just how Nelson will balance the pressure from his über-conservative party-room backers with the vast weight of popular opinion in favour of an apology, will either see him in strife, or will herald much needed reform for the Liberal party.

I think it’s entirely reasonable that the opposition should see the text of something they are expected to vote for or against before they are required to do so. That’s democracy. It’s just a shame that this opposition, when they were the government, all but refused this crucial aspect of parliamentary debate with respect to the legislation covering the intervention into Northern Territory communities.

On the other hand though, the Coalition had 11 years in which to shape the apology however they liked. Instead, the best they could muster was an insipid statement that:

acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national history,

and

reaffirms the central importance of practical measures leading to practical results that address the profound economic and social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians.

Some might contend that the 1999 expression of ‘deep and sincere regret’ – which was occasionally more of an economic rationalist manifesto – was better than nothing, and they’d be right. But what irritates me about the whole affair was the government’s behaviour when Kim Beazely moved to amend the Prime Ministers motion so that the focal paragraph:

[The Parliament] expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices,

would be replaced with:

[The parliament] unreservedly apologises to indigenous Australians for the injustice they have suffered, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to suffer as a consequence of this injustice [and] calls for the establishment of appropriate processes to provide justice and restitution to members of the stolen generation through consultation, conciliation and negotiation rather than requiring indigenous Australians to engage in adversarial litigation in which they are forced to relive the pain and trauma of their past suffering.

The motion was opposed and the Prime Minister’s politically impotent statement was passed without dissent.

I look forward to seeing the full text of the apology that will go to parliament next week and will certainly offer up an analysis, provided I’m not too busy engaging in just one instance of the plethora of practical reconciliatory efforts that go largely unnoticed.

~

¹Apologies from all state governments, as well as the federal Government’s infamous expression of deep and sincere regret, are available from the HREOC website.

Today, Friday January 25th 2008, marks the 219th anniversary of the last day that Australia’s indigenous population had full and unchallenged sovereignty over their lands, and is therefore the day that I think should be celebrated as Sovereignty Day. Tomorrow, Australia Day, marks 220 years since Arthur Philip, by mere speech act, decreed that the entire continent belonged not to its inhabitants, but to the British Empire instead.

In commemoration and acknowledgement of this, I’d like to share a sentiment demonstrated two nights ago by Björk at her concert in Sydney, which I was lucky enough to attend.

During her encore, she dedicated a song to Australia’s Indigenous people, which I thought was a nice gesture, though one which was probably lost on the majority of the crowd. It’s not very musically adventurous, but when I heard the lyrics I was amused, especially in the context of the NT intervention. So here it is:

 

In case you’re wondering what that awesome instrument is, it’s called a reactable. It’s basically a synthesiser with a very cool visual method of input; manipulating perspex blocks to alter the properties of the modulation, all of which happens in a computer and is translated to the surface via a camera and a projector underneath.

It’s very cool and I want one. Pity; only two exist.

It’s a busy time for indigenous arts and culture, as long as you live in the South-East of the country, that is.

In Sydney, as part of the Sydney Festival, the Belvoir St Theatre in Surrey Hills is showing Ngapartji Ngapartji, a story about a Pitjantjatjara man’s life that doubles as a language and culture course. Indeed, the audience is invited to learn some Pitjantjatjara beforehand, to fully appreciate the performance.

More on the Ngapartji website, or also check out the Ninti Ngapartji online Pitjantjatjara language course.

~

If you’re in Canberra however, you would normally receive my condolences. But not today, since you can go down to the National Gallery of Australia to see the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial, titled Culture Warriors (which I wrote about back here). It’s a collection of indigenous art produced in the last three years from thirty artists, and comprises both traditional works and modern art from right across the country (only Tasmania is unrepresented, it seems).

One artist that features prominently in this exhibition is Lofty Bardayal Nadjamarrek,  a prolific artist from western Arnhem Land. The work below, Dulklorrkelorrkeng and Wakkewakken, which depicts two evil spirits associated with Bardayal’s dreaming, is featured on the NGA website with an audio recording of the story that inspires it.

 

Wakkewakken, the legless women, is associated with the ancestral honey in areas around where Nadjamerrek lives – his country Kabulwarnamyo. Dulklorrkelorrkeng has legs, arms, an ‘arse like a monkey’ and the pushed backed face of the ghost bat.

In conjunction with Culture Warriors, the NGA is holding an indigenous film festival, comprising some 20 short films produced in the last two-to-three years, all being shown for free. There’s also be a screening of Ten Canoes, one of my personal favourite films, at 6pm on the first of February, although this will cost you $20/$15, but if you haven’t seen it yet, this is a golden opportunity to see an amazingly shot film on the big screen.

Culture Warriors has been on already for three months, but will close on the tenth of February. I, for one, am going to take a weekend off sometime soon and drive down to Canberra, despite my instinctive aversion to the place, to see it.

In blogging, if you haven’t posted for a week, there’s a slim chance someone might consider you defunct. If you were a word, the OED might feel inclined to put an innocent looking (Arch.) next to you, or worse, (Obs.).

I feel then, that I should post something to keep the bloggospheric undertaker at bay and, quite fortuitously, there’s lots going on to discuss.

During the week, Australia observed another milestone in the gradual struggle for equality of Aboriginal people, when Marion Scrymgour became the first Aboriginal person (Tiwi) to lead a state or territory. As Deputy Chief Minister, Scrymgour became acting Chief Minister when Paul Henderson, who succeeded Claire Martin, took a holiday.

On the federal side of the political toast however, Rudd and his ‘team’ have been disappointing in just about every respect, right after a strong start last month. Gillard’s warning of legal action to halt industrial action strikes me as odd, given that it comes from a party whose existence is (or should be) based on employee’s rights.

Macklin’s assertion that there won’t be any compensation for those indigenous children who were taken from their family – even though she meant in virtue of the apology alone – clearly sends the wrong signal and has solicited criticism from Aboriginal people.

Also, Swan has gone further down that well-trodden path that Keating macheted back in the 80s, and that Howard, complete with green ‘n gold track-suit, continued to tread up until November 23 last year. I’m talking about the further politicisation of the economy (or the further economisation of politics, whichever you prefer) by criticising independent banks’ decisions to raise interest rates irrespective of the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate.

But not everything has been politics. I’ve been busy lamenting the loss of our Transient Building at the University of Sydney, a temporary structure built after World War II, almost entirely of fibrous asbestos. Its recent renovations (to the interior only; the cost of insurance renders any work to the asbestos exterior fiscally indefensible) mean that the building is well and truly permanent. It has now become the Intransigent Building.

I’ve also been busy applying for grants here and there (well, really only here), and doing some peripheral work for a dictionary project in an Australian language, all of which has kept me too busy to take on silly projects of my own.

Which reminds me, I’ve just taken on a silly project of my own; I’ve recently acquired an antique Terra Cresta table-top arcade game, not at all dissimilar to the one pictured beneath, which I intend to restore with all the bits and pieces from a not-so-old laptop, an arcade-game emulator, and linux.

Finally, congratulations to Jane, whose post from July last year, Gunboat Lip-Gloss, was announced last week as one of On Line Opinion’s best blog posts of 2007. Readers of On Line Opinion are invited to comment, and several people have taken the opportunity to lambaste Jane with some old chestnuts, the least surprising of them being anti-intellectualism:

Is that what they teach at Universities these days? It would have been a “Fail” on any paper to misrepresent sources like that when I went to uni.

Gobsmacked

I shall return to regular-ish blogging soon!

This is a piece that Phil Cash Cash wrote for the Indigenous Languages and Technology list (ILAT). With his permission I am posting it here in full.

As we enter 2008, we are reminded to reflect on the unique status of human languages in the world. Never before has our humanity witnessed such a dramatic decline in our linguistic and cultural diversity.

“The loss of local languages and of the cultural systems which they express, has meant irretrievable loss of diverse and interesting intellectual wealth. Only with diversity can it be guaranteed that all avenues of human intellectual progress will be traveled.”

Ken Hale, 1992. (source)

At the same time, we are also witness to the resurgence of indigenous/aboriginal activism with its emphasis on language revival, language maintenance, and the creation of new speakers. Around the world, linguists, linguistic anthropologists, and film makers are steadily embarking on documentation projects to record what may possibly be the last words of a uniquely spoken language.

In 1996, it was estimated that at least 6,703 separate languages were spoken in the world¹. Elsewhere, it was also estimated that in every two weeks time, a language was known to lose its last speaker and thus become extinct². Let’s do a little math here. Every year 26 languages will go extinct. Every decade 260 languages will go extinct. So, in 2008, at least 312 languages have gone extinct since the 1996 census. This estimate leaves us with at least 6,391 viable languages yet existing in the world. Understandably though, these numbers are only estimates and the realities of language loss are relatively unknown.

The looming threat of losing one’s language, however, is very real and for many indigenous/aboriginal communities the future is uncertain.

Undeniably, most all of us – indigenous/aboriginal communities, linguists, anthropologists, students, & interested observers – recognize that our language(s) and culture matter. Further, UNESCO recognizes that our cultural diversity is closely linked to linguistic diversity.

So “How can one help?” you ask. Become an everyday language activist!

  1. Get the message out concerning language endangerment. Create awareness.
  2. Become an expert on the suppression of linguistic and cultural diversity.
  3. Create your own web site, blog, and/or listserv supporting an endangered language.
  4. Get media coverage and tell a dramatic human story on language endangerment & revitalization.
  5. Raise money and contribute to foundations supporting language endangerment (ELF, FEL, ILI, etc)!
  6. Raise money and contribute directly to community-based language documentation/revitalization projects.
  7. Donate material resources or in-kind contributions directly to endangered language communities.
  8. Devote part or all of your scholarly/graduate career on documenting an endangered language.
  9. Support community advocacy and grass-roots efforts on language endangerment issues.
  10. Organize a sponsored event supporting community advocacy or language endangerment issues.

Take this moment in time to reflect upon the unlimited possibilities for change in the way we think about language endangerment and linguistic/cultural diversity. Can you make a difference? Yes, absolutely!

¹Linguistics Society of America website

²Living Tongues website

~

Happy New Year, and may your 2008 be better than your 2007.

-Jangari

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