Feb 21, 2014

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.


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4 thoughts on “On a mother of a day, bureaucrats dither, native languages wither

  1. Draco Houston

    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

    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 [email protected]

    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.


  3. Fully (sic)

    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’:

    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:

    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: 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

    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.”



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