Science


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)

My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

I’ve had a busy and eventful week, and right now appears to be about the only spare time I’ve had.

I attended the Australian Languages Workshop last weekend at Kioloa on the NSW south coast, an outpost of ANU. I didn’t present anything, but I managed to discuss the mobile phone dictionary with a number of interested people and got a fair amount of positive feedback.

I then spent the week writing a chapter for a forthcoming volume on language revitalisation. It’s been sent off to the editors now, after a very tightly packed Friday of drafting and proofreading and editing1. The chapter doesn’t go into many details with respect to specific dictionary projects, but instead discusses the future possibilities of integrated teaching resources for endangered languages, that is, using electronic dictionaries in the classroom, which will usually be equipped with a computer or two,  and installing mobile phone dictionaries on the students’ phones so they can access a smaller version of the dictionary whenever they like. Here’s the abstract:

Owing to the disproportionately high level of illiteracy in remote indigenous communities, especially in indigenous languages, printed books are perhaps not the most appropriate form of delivery of language learning materials such as dictionaries. Electronic versions based on computers may be more useful. However, the availability of computers, and consequently computer literacy, in remote Australian communities is still very low. By contrast, mobile phones are almost ubiquitous. Unfortunately, mobile phones generally only allow small applications, meaning that most content expected in a reasonable language learner’s dictionary must be jettisoned. We propose, and document, a method of dictionary delivery that takes advantage of the flexibility and usability of computer-based dictionaries, as well as the portability of mobile phones. This process entails maintaining a single dictionary file that can be exported to dictionary visualisation programs, to applications that can be installed on a mobile phone, as well as a number of other formats in various media. Computer based resources may contain as much information as is necessary, in a format that can be navigated easily, while a mobile phone based version will contain only a reduced version of the original content, although it will be available to the user without the need of a computer.

It was also an exciting week on the teaching front; I gave my first lecture on Wednesday, it was on phonemics for an introductory linguistics course, so I got to do all those problems like Fijian prenasalised stops, Tojolabal aspirants and Spanish lenition. By all reports, I did fairly well.


  1. Thanks, by the way, to Mic, my brilliant editor.

A situation came up during the week in which I used a word that I know from high school, and it appears that no one else is even aware of this word’s existence, let alone its meaning.

The word is snusted as you might guess from the title of this post, and it means ‘caught in the act’, ‘sprung’ or ‘busted’. I’d be interested to know if anyone else knows this word or if it was particular to my high school.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at pfed.info]


  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC.
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in.

Well, my time in the Territory has come to an end, almost. I’m sitting in Darwin airport waiting for my flight. Not a lot to do in Darwin, so I pretty much came straight here after getting dinner in town. Luckily, I stumbled upon an ethernet port that was obviously for one of those airport internet kiosks – the ones that charge 2 bucks per 8 minutes – that the airport has evidently neglected to disable, meaning I have free broadband internet for the first time in a month!

I’ve got plenty of time to make use of it too; my flight isn’t for another 4 hours1. I intended to studiously listen to my recordings and split them into individual sound files, one per word, for eventual insertion into the Wagiman Electronic Dictionary, but catching up on old email correspondences, reading old xckd comics and Language Log posts and downloading the latest Herald cryptic crossword file have sadly taken priority.

My work up here slowed down a little lately, owing to a bunch of meetings in the community this week, and the fact that my informant and I have been getting a little tired of covering tthe same territory. I actually got caught short this week and didn’t get to finish off the checking of the dictionary content, but I’ll be able to do some final checks the next time I’m up here, probably in the middle of the year2.

As far as the dictionary goes, it’s progressing nicely. I’ve been able to make some additions, and get rid of some words that were always dubious. The more recent ethnobiology research from Glenn Wightmann will need to be integrated at some stage, but I can do that from Sydney. The software for mobile phone dictionaries is also going steadily, and you can read all, or mostly, about that at pfed.info, the website we’ve created for this project. Demo dictionaries can be downloaded or tested online at pfed.info/wksite, although it’s all still in its infancy.

The reaction to the mobile phone dictionary that I’ve been showing off up here has pretty much been universally positive. Everyone I’ve shown it to has been interested in it, even the adults in the community, although the teenagers took a particular liking to it. Not only does this stand to reason, but it bodes well for what we’re actually trying to achieve with this project; increased access to a dictionary of one’s language in a format that’s easy to use. I haven’t wasted any time in showing it to the linguists up here and they too have shown interest, so much in fact that we’ve gone on to wunderkam3 dictionaries of a further two languages: Dalabon and Bilinarra.

We have a couple of other ideas up our collective sleeve that would potentially aid in the wider use of electronic dictionaries of minority languages, but I don’t want to give anything away just yet4.


  1. Actually it’s only 3 by now, such is the time it takes me to write a post these days.
  2. So that I can escape the bitterst of Sydney’s winter, as well as having inadvertently escaped the worst of summer this time around.
  3. This is a backformation from Wunderkammer, the name that James came up with to cover the mobile phone dictionary software. So, what else does a Wunderkammer do if it doesn’t wunderkam? My intended meaning for this word is ‘to convert a dictionary into a mobile phone-ready format’. I felt I needed a new word, since a default ‘do’ would imply that we had a hand in producing the content, which would clearly detract from the hard work of the researchers, language workers and speakers.
  4. More accurately, I don’t want to promise anything that real-world constraints, such as computational impossibility or pecuniary limitations, would prevent me from being able to deliver, but ‘not spoiling the show’ sounds much better.

I reckon I chose about the best time to come to the Northern Territory, given that this weekend in Sydney is meant to be swelteringly hot, 44 degrees odd, while up here it peaks at about 30 degrees before bucketing down with rain in the afternoon.

The work is also going relatively well, given the constraints of working in the rain, and with informants who are increasingly old and decreasingly mobile. I’ve been working with one speaker on clearing up a number of words that have been left out of the dictionary so far due to a lack of data, and we managed to get about half of them back in.

Everyone who has seen the mobile phone dictionary now has been interested in it, most of all the younger adults who predictably use their phones more than anyone. There has also been some interest in the mobile phone and Kirrkirr dictionaries from the Northern Territory Education Department, a representative of whom saw a demonstration of the software yesterday. This would mean, provided we can get permission from the various people involved, that we’ll be producing a Kirrkirr instance and mobile phone dictionary for Dalabon, a Gunwinyguan language from southern Arnhem Land.

The other main task I have over the next few weeks is to sit down with my speakers, when they can, and systematically go through the list of headwords in the dictionary, and procude clear, audible recordings of each for insertion into the dictionaries.

I can now confirm that I’ll be back in the territory in a little over a week’s time. It’s my first time back there in over 18 months, and it’ll be my first experience of a Northern Territory wet season, so I can’t wait.

The reason I’m going is to do some work for the electronic dictionary of Wagiman that James and I are producing, including a mobile phone version, using generously donated funds from the Hoffman Foundation. I’ll just be going over the revisions that need to be made to the current dictionary, record sounds and possibly take photos for inclusion into the dictionary, and discuss with the community how they’d like it to work.

For one thing, there are plenty of words that I know the older speakers don’t particularly want the younger kids to know about, so I’m guessing they’ll want such words ‘hidden’ from the kids’ version of the dictionary. However as James pointed out to me, the first words younger kids look up in dictionaries are swear words and taboo body parts, and having them there for them to gawk over provides a means with which the kids can relate to the dictionary matter.

Also, we’ve decided that it’s about time to set up a website and blog for the project, except we haven’t yet got around to installing the wordpress software. The site will contain information relating to the project, new releases of software, instructions on how to convert toolbox databases into other formats, and extensive documentation of the whole process.

<update>
The PFED website and blog is now up and running!
</update>

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.

A couple of months ago, I received a phonecall from a journalist from the Herald, who’d seen my appearance on SBS World News, and was interested in writing an article about the mobile phone dictionary project.

A few things have happened between then and now, including conferences, holidays and a didjeridu performance by Nicole Kidman on German TV that seems to have absorbed all local interest in indigenous affairs for a few days1, but on Friday morning, two articles appeared in the front page section of the Herald, based in part on an interview I gave a little while back.

The main article is about Phil Parker, the marketing guru who’s recently delisted his ‘books’ on Australian languages (including dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books) after his dubious publications hit the virtual shelves, and after a small but vociferous group of linguists complained. The other article is about this mobile phone dictionary project that James and I are getting more and more involved in, and (very quickly) how this sort  of project can prevent the theft of data in the first place.

I feel that the article on Philip Parker makes me look like a bit of a whinger. Here’s the operative quote:

Aidan Wilson, a Sydney University linguist who wrote an honours thesis on the Wagiman language spoken north-west of Katherine, said Professor Parker had used the wrong spelling on the cover of his publication Webster’s English To Wageman Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

Yes; it’s true that Parker had the wrong spelling, but it’s clearly not the reason I’m annoyed at the publication of these books. I’m more annoyed that the entirety of information within them is publicly available at locations that properly explain the data, the language, and cite sources, while these dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books omit all of this information. In short, they are lossy2 versions of dictionaries already freely available.

The article also makes it sound like we, speakers of indigenous communities and linguists working with them, have hindered the publication of useful educational resources due to our collective sensitivities. It doesn’t help the situation that Parker probably had his heart in the right place in wanting to further disseminate information relating to critically endangered languages.

A dyslexic, he collects lists of words and publishes dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzles at a loss, he says, in the interests of education. His work has been heralded as a way to create paper resources for resource-starved Third World students.

That’s all well and good, but perfectly good materials already exist – those that the linguists have produced and made freely available in full consultation with the language community. It surely isn’t helpful to convert these into forms in which the information is distilled and compressed such that it no longer conforms to even the minimum standard required for the most basic dictionary. All information apart from the name of the language, the headword and a single gloss has been omitted. That truly is lossy. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an entry from the Online Wagiman Dictionary:

ngal-gawu-mang

nominal

1. grandmother (mother’s mother)

Ga-ngotjje-ji-n ngal-gawu-mang-gu. Ga-ngotjje-ji-n gahan warren yerdeng-nga ya-nggi, ngal-gawu-mang warle-na. ‘He is scared of his grandmother. That kid ran away and hid because his grandmother growled him.’ (LM)

2.grandchild (from a woman to her daughter’s children)

see also gawu, ngal-gawu.

You can see that there are no less than 6 tiers of information here; a headword, part of speech, glosses divided into multiple senses, illustrative sentences, their glosses and importantly, the speaker responsible for that illustrative sentence, as well as related words. Parkers dictionary merely has this:

ngal-gawu-mang
grandmother
grandchild

I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the latter is more useful than the former, or even that it is good for it to be around in addition to the original. I would even go as far to say that its existence in this form is potentially harmful and outweighs any possible benefits of it as an educational resource.

There is another issue that stems from this that deserves attention. Suppose you found one of these dictionaries for a language you’ve never heard of. Let’s say it has some pretty extraordinary stuff in it and you’d like to know more, or even go to the sources and do some fact checking. How do you go about doing it? There’s no citations given anywhere,  no examples have made it through the distillation process and no speakers are referenced. We’re in a different situation as we know the original is a good quality publication due to Stephen Wilson’s work, and can pretty much trust that the ‘distilled’ version will more or less be correct. But if Parker gave the same treatment to a highly dubious dictionary, Urban dictionary, let’s say, then the output looks just as authoritative as something that derived from a reputable source in the first place. This clearly makes it very difficult for readers of dictionaries to make informed decisions about the quality of what they’ve got.

I should reiterate that I think Parker had the best of intentions; to further disseminate information about as many languages as possible, something I naturally admire as a linguist. Yet he fails to recognise that lexicography is not easy work; it can’t be done just with a data-harvester, a spreadsheet and a bunch of automatically generated Amazon.com comments and reviews. It takes linguists and lexicographers years to compile the information and resources necessary to create dictionaries. Producing very low-quality dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books of some 600 worldwide languages does nothing but undermine their efforts.


  1. And that’s a whole nother post in its own right.
  2. To borrow an audio term.

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