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On a mother of a day, bureaucrats dither, native languages wither

Today is the UN’s official International Mother Language Day, a day to recognise the importance of indigenous languages. But writer and linguist Greg Dickson says that for Australia’s indigenous communities, those languages are being erode — and will never return.

Happy International Mother Language Day! It’s one of those UNESCO/UN labelled events, like last year’s International Year of Quinoa, that has a noble goal but very little in the way of actual recognition. International Mother Language Day has been around since 2000 and is aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism — and it is especially important in Australia, where our indigenous languages are under threat.

My home is in the Northern Territory, where English is spoken in proportionally fewer households than any other state or territory in Australia. I love the linguistic diversity here in my hometown of Katherine. Just today, a Warlpiri woman I know asked me if I was well in her language, and I mumbled back the two words I know in Warlpiri. There’s the popular lunch spot run by an Australian-Croatian family, whose matriarch runs the kitchen speaking mostly Croatian. And I smile when one of the girls who makes me coffee at my regular cafe is visited by her family, who bundle in and speak to her in Kunwinjku.

But languages other than English generally have a hard time in Australia, especially indigenous ones. Many have already disappeared, and most of the remainder are endangered. Northern Australia has been classified as a global hotspot for language loss, and the original languages of this land are still trying to work their way into our constitution. Languages don’t disappear just because parents decide not to speak them to their kids; there are always significant historical, political and social forces at play. In Australia, some of those forces impacting upon indigenous languages have been massacres and frontier violence, explicit denigration and discrimination, lack of adequate policy to protect or promote their use and the prestige of English in media and mainstream society.

The use of indigenous languages in school is also a perennial hot topic. It seems that in our country the stronger an indigenous language is, the more politicians and policymakers want it gone, seeing it only as an impediment to things like scoring well on NAPLAN tests and getting the sorts of jobs that white people think indigenous people should have. The Northern Territory Education Department’s recently commissioned review of indigenous education is copping criticism for its approach to Aboriginal languages in education; the review suggests Aboriginal children can be taught English in the same way as non-Aboriginal children, even if they don’t speak English at home. I wrote about this issue on my own blog, and others are pointing out similar issues.

At a recent public meeting, the report’s author, Bruce Wilson, spoke movingly of the rights of children to a good education and to become literate. I reminded him that they also have the right to be educated in their own language. He said he “didn’t think that was true”, but Australia’s support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (see article 14) means they do. Having such people who are ignorant of language issues creating our language-related policies means International Mother Language Day is an important day, personally, socially and politically.

… there is no more intimate relationship than the one between your own thoughts and ideas and the language in your head that helps form and articulate those thoughts.”

For the Australians who have English as their mother tongue, there’s plenty to celebrate, and we get to do so pretty much every day. But also spare a thought for the other languages spoken in Australia — there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. I had an interesting conversation with a cab driver who emigrated from Poland decades ago and we chatted about how much he still uses Polish. My next cabbie was a guy who arrived from Bangladesh a few years before and spoke Bangla as a mother tongue, which incidentally is the language mentioned on the UNESCO site for International Mother Language Day: 62 years ago, Bangla-speaking students were shot and killed in Dhaka while protesting plans to use Urdu as the official language of what was later to become independent Bangladesh.

That’s how important a mother tongue is — there is no more intimate relationship than the one between your own thoughts and ideas and the language in your head that helps form and articulate those thoughts. It’s a shame that pressures exerted by Australian society have ruptured that relationship for so many people, especially indigenous Australians.

So today, give International Mother Language Day some thought. If you speak something other than English, today, more than any other day, use it. Or if you speak only English, try finding out what languages your office mates speak. Or your classmates or students — you will definitely be in for some surprises. As for me, I’ll be listening out for what other languages I hear on the street/bus/TV/radio and try to not be shy about taking an interest in what languages are spoken by people I talk to today. And I’m going to try to remember to speak as much and as many of the other languages I know, even if it’s just to annoyingly make the point that we don’t need English for everything, all the time.

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  • 1
    Draco Houston
    Posted Friday, 21 February 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Ideally schools would teach the local language in addition to English. In school I learned one word the Butchulla nation used, something like ‘budoo’, meaning penis. So basically I know dick all about their language. I learned some Mandarin that I will never use instead.

  • 2
    wbddrss
    Posted Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    in regard to @Languages don’t disappear just because parents decide not to speak them to their kids; there are always significant historical, political and social forces at play. In Australia, some of those forces impacting upon indigenous languages have been massacres and frontier violence, explicit denigration and discrimination, lack of adequate policy to protect or promote their use and the prestige of English in media and mainstream society.@

    I was wondering, Greg, if you or anyone, have any URL’s which provide a brief critique as to why ENGLISH is the most successful language in the world today.

    I look at Wikipedia every day and their home page always has languages like tetum, down the bottom in number of pages in content.

    To be fair how hard is it to translate a few pages from English to another language at say the rate of one page a day.

    I have been watching with a critcal eye for years as my wife has some indigenous ancestry.

    How much responsibility must or should be placed on indigenous peoples to improve the content in Wikipedia in their own mother tongue.

    wbddrss

  • 3
    Posted Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi wbddrss,

    Good question! I’m not sure about a *brief* critique on why English has become so dominant, but I’d recommend having a look at David Crystal’s excellent book ‘English as a Global Language’: http://www.uncubed.org/files/ebooks/David%20Crystal%20-%20English%20as%20a%20Global%20Language.pdf

    Your other question relates to how to increase the amount of internet content in minority languages. It’s a tricky proposition and various major websites are a bit different. Wikipedia is great in that it is not hard to start translating pages and building up content in whatever language you want. The difficulty with wikipedia is that you need to amass a pretty significant amount of pages before it become useful as a working encyclopaedia. So, say for instance even though some dedicated Hawaiian speakers have written nearly 2000 Wikipedia articles in Hawaiian (which is quite a lot) there is still heaps of information you can only access in bigger languages (esp. English). The hegemony is very hard to break and so I can see why speakers of minority languages would prioritise their language maintenance efforts in other ways.

    Twitter on the other hand is great. You can jump on there and start communicating in whatever damn language you like. To get an idea of how popular twitter is in various small languages, check out: http://indigenoustweets.com/

    Facebook (the world’s 2nd most popular website after Google) is similar to Twitter in that you can communicate in your language of choice with no fuss, and certainly many do use Facebook in their own language. However, Facebook’s interface is a lot more text-heavy than Twitter’s, so using Facebook with an English interface, with English menus and English ads streaming through your feed, gently persuades you to write in English too. Facebook is proving to be quite stubborn about making their product available in a wide range of languages. A contact of mine developed a script that can translate some of the interface into whatever small language you speak, but apparently Facebook’s coding makes it very difficult to do so and they don’t make obvious attempts to be linguistically-diversifying their product themselves.

    These difficulties are exacerbated when your minority language has low levels of literacy and/or its own script. Cherokee, for instance, has its own script and has made huge gains in having their script widely recognised on the net. You can now use Gmail and Google with the Cherokee script and Windows 8 is available in Cherokee. (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_language#Computer_and_smartphone_usage). However, these feats are pretty rare among minority languages and require a lot of advocacy, money, skill and will. Don’t doubt for a moment that there are plenty of strong-willed, hard-working people out there working tirelessly and thanklessly to strengthen their minority languages. It’s just a really big battle.

    Hope this is helpful! Cheers, Greg.

  • 4
    wbddrss
    Posted Monday, 24 February 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Yes very helpful, thank you
    I note the point you made which is very relevant to Tetum. copied below

    ”. The hegemony is very hard to break and so I can see why speakers of minority languages would prioritise their language maintenance efforts in other ways.”

    regards

    wbddrss

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