Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Australian Indigenous Languages

at the time of the first white settlement were many and varied. Some estimates go as high as 750 distinct languages. Other estimates are much lower. Many of those languages have been lost. There are perhaps around 20-25 which are not "endangered" - that is, spoken by so few people on a daily basis that they are not likely to be lost.
Even those languages which are not endangered might not be recognisable to the people who spoke them when white settlers first came to Australia.
Yesterday I had one of those brief, unsatisfactory Twitter "conversations" with someone about indigenous languages and the teaching of them. I am, still very briefly, enlarging on it here for his benefit. I hope other readers might find it interesting.
I heard Pitjantjatjara spoken when I was a child and then at university - where it is a subject of study. I have also heard Kaurna spoken at a funeral. Apart from that I have not heard indigenous languages being spoken in urban areas. The vast majority of indigenous Australians living in urban areas do not speak an indigenous language. It is likely most do not even know for certain which indigenous language their ancestors spoke.
At the same time we have no less than 17 schools in our state which use indigenous languages. Some of those schools are very small and, like many schools for indigenous children, attendance is erratic. Other schools use the indigenous language only part of the time. The teaching of indigenous language and efforts to preserve them are surrounded by fierce debate, issues of political correctness and - if we are to be honest - an awareness by some that what is being "saved" may be far from accurate because indigenous culture may not encourage the sharing of something so personal with people of non-indigenous backgrounds or even with one another. 
In one case a language was spoken by just two people - a brother and sister - but it was taboo for them to speak directly to one another. The language has been lost. 
In another cased an aboriginal elder told me that her father and other elders had deliberately misinformed missionaries about words and meanings. They saw it as none of the white men's business. Some of the work of missionaries is now being used to try and revive the language but the question has to be asked, what is really being revived and taught? 
There are also aspects of indigenous language that sometimes make it difficult for teaching to take place entirely in the language in question. Some indigenous languages do not have a means for counting - as we know it - beyond two or four. That does not mean they do not have a means of indicating other numbers - they are normally indicated in relation to parts of the body - but the way in which the numbers are used is conceptually different. It makes no sense to them to add their thumb to their wrist or their wrist to their collarbone. 
There are other concepts which simply do not exist either. They either have to be imported or taught in other ways. 
Add to that the fact that some parents would prefer their children be taught in English because they see it as the way forward and the key to better jobs and the push to teach indigenous children in their own  languages has not always been successful. There are of course good schools and good teachers but even they have limited resources compared with the resources available in English. There is still the question of the need to learn English unless you are going to isolate the community. There is no written tradition to keep the languages alive and there are still cultural taboos about usage.
When we lose a language we lose a way of thinking. We lose a way of seeing the world and of creating within it. We somehow have to balance the need for preservation against the need to live in the world. It is very difficult and there are no easy answers.


Philip C James said...

Interesting. Agree re some ways of thinking are untranslateable (though I'd disagree with the commentator who said the Germans have no word eqivalent to the English word "fair"). Ultimately, people must want and not be forced to speak a language and the needs of those alive now must be paramount not those of their ancestors.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, especially the bit about counting. I thought they could not think about about anything except something being more than two or four or whatever. I can see I am wrong and that it is much more complex than that.
Some of their words seem very long. Do they mean what would be a sentence in English? Bob C-S