The languages of reconciliation

Who wrote this?

… we will have true reconciliation when millions of Australians speak our Australian languages from coast to coast. It is then that we will have the keys to our landscape, our history, our art, our stories. The Australian languages, and the literatures and cultures that live or have lived through them, are the most important things we have in Australia. Their revival, growth and use in all social, political, educational, commercial and cultural domains are the most important matter for Australia’s future.

Answer over the fold.

Noel Pearson in today’s Australian.

Pearson goes on to say:

We do need economically and socially sustainable lives; but it is our cultural link with the past – a link that would break without language – that makes our lives spiritually sustainable as members of a conquered people. What we need more than anything else is to see that our tongues are not dying languages spoken only in a few homes but languages with a future: growing, officially recognised languages of Australia.

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Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Don’t worry, Don, only lefties know what Abbott really means. Don’t be fooled by what he says, apparently, and utterly amazingly, he sometimes changes his mind or says things that he does not wholeheartedly believe.

This extremely rare syndrome has been analysed as ‘not-another-stupid-lefty-pol’ syndrome and is believed to affect a small number of people whose names are Howard and Abbott.

Generally, I understand that other politicians mean what they say, always, and don’t change their mind.

On topic, I partly agree, but I don’t think it will happen. I also think it has been obvious for some time now that on aborigine issues, Labor has folded to its new base and decided to be the party of empty gestures, and the Liberals are the only party offering substantive solutions (albeit far from wholeheartedly or unanimously).

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

Don,

Abbott’s political strategy on the matter seems to be to align himself with Pearson – to ‘try to channel’ him as he once said I think. So as I read what he says he is not trying to offend Pearson and so he agrees with him. But it’s a gesture, not a position.

” Now, I think this is a very lofty goal that Noel has put forward, but if you look at people like Alison Anderson and Bess Price, they are fluent in many Aboriginal languages. They are people of law and culture and language, but they are also extremely capable of operating at the very top of the general Australian community. Now, that’s got to be the aspiration that we have for Aboriginal people.”

On another related matter, we seem to be moving towards recognising aborigines in our constitution. I wish I understood what that would achieve.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Given how fast Australian languages have disappeared (and indeed, how fast they are still disappearing), I imagine the first step would be for the actual speakers of those languages to bother to learn and teach them to their children, and then there might actually be people that others could learn them from if they wanted. Looking at the numbers on Ethnologue, only around 1/3rd of Aboriginies have _some_ knowledge of an Aboriginal language, which means 2/3rds don’t, so it looks it should be quite possible for them to start with themselves (if they want). The Maoris over in NZ have managed to make this important, so I don’t see why that’s impossible (and they’re certainly not the only ones, other examples of language revival include Yiddish and Irish Gaelic).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Since my main research area is language, and since Aborginal languages are linguistically really interesting for a number of reasons (not that I’ve worked on them), just out ot self interest alone I want the Australian government to help (although trying to get white people to learn Aboriginal languages, as Pearson suggests, seems like an exersize in futility to me).

It also isn’t the case that the Australian government does nothing (look through the ARC grants in the linguistics category, for example). However, most of what is done on ARC money at least is done by a bunch of white people documenting what will often die out, which isn’t really helping the underyling problem. Thus, it seems to me that the only real way to preserve rather than just document the languages is for the cultural groups that know those languages to use them in daily life and actually have pride in using and learning them so they start getting passed on more — this is why the Maori revivial worked, not simply because the NZ government was happy to support it. Basically, some of the Maori community at some point decided that they were sick of the way they were headed and part of the turn-around involved being proud of their culture and learning Maori, and everyone is the better for it (at least that’s my rather simplistic impression — I’m sure sociologists interested in NZ history could give a much better run-down of this than me!). Given this, I’m not sure what the solution here is, since it is obviously not a simple question and thus there is obviously no simple or immediate solution, i.e., I don’t think you can just look at language use by itself out of it’s cultural context and I’m sure if the average Aboriginal was rich and middle class then they’d have no trouble learning their native language.

The government could of course help around the edges via the organization of language classes in schools, working out how to centralize resouces such as dictionaries and so on, but if no-one cares about them, then the kids still won’t learn anything. There is also a problem in that many Aboriginal languages have very few speakers left, so it’s not even clear how you would even teach kids the languages in many instances — You often can’t just find outside speakers in many places given the dispersed nature of Aboriginial languages, so the only real option you have is to somehow get people in the often quite small communities who speak the local language to teach the kids (obviously money would help here).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Actually, if you want to see the extent of the dispersion problem and thus how hard it will be to keep current Australian languages, you can look at all the Australian languages and the number of speakers here. As you can see, most Australian languages have speakers that number in only the hundreds and many have less than 100. I remember once seeing a sad but good talk from some guy at UWA who was documenting a language with only 1 speaker left. He asked this last speaker who he spoke to in his language and he replied:”I speak to God”.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

Don Arthur at 5- which agency of the Australian government should be doing this?
I live in the Dunghutti nation and as a person who likes learning languages I asked at the local TAFE were courses in Dunghutti available?
Nothing – they seemed shocked that I asked.
There was a local co-op which was based in Nambucca and it had started to compile a dictionary of this language some years ago .They also ran a few language classes but they then disappeared , possibly funding ran out.
In the two years since I first enquired the only other feed back I received was a slightly confusing response from a land council member who wondered if it was appropriate for non indigenous persons to learn indigenous languages.
As Pearson explains the language is the key to understanding the culture and is this a suitable knowledge for all people to have?
This was a consideration I wasn’t aware of when I first asked but as of now I only know I need to keep asking and hoping the interest converts into a local attempt to offer classes.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

Oh I’d have a stab at saying the last 200 years hasn’t ever helped the maintenance of a healthy indigenous culture( including the languages ) and as a necessary corollary that includes the current governments – federal, state and local.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
10 years ago

I think Noel Pearson might have lost the plot on this one. As first suggested at a meeting of uni student Education Officers in 1966 the priority is to get primary and secondary education up to the point where indigenes can leave school on even footing with eveyone else. Some wanted affirmative action because there was only one Aboriginal uni graduate at the time. Some decades later I thinkthat was a fair call (not the call for affirmative action).

Given that objective for basic education, what is the point of diverting efforts into sideshows? It would probably do more good to teach the kids Latin than to have hundreds of different languages taught to some level which would not produce communication from coast to coast but something like a tower of babble (to coin a phrase).

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

There is significant (if equivocal) evidence that bilingual education (teaching kids English literacy through the vehicle of the native language they speak at home) is more effective than teaching wholly in English at least in the early primary school years. Thus, advocating this makes sense on purely pragmatic educational grounds, leaving aside more contestable issues of reconciliation or rights to maintain language and culture

Looked at more widely, Noel Pearson is attempting to achieve major changes in Aboriginal culture through engineering a “ladder of opportunity” mentality among Aboriginal parents i.e. sending kids to school and training and creating aspirations towards productive employment. That also involves fostering ethics of saving, postponed gratification, moving away from welfare dependence etc. Pearson’s engineering of welfare quarantining and education and support programs towards family saving/budgeting in Cape York are part of this, as are his plans for sending kids away larger centres to boarding school and for training and jobs (with provision for frequent return to maintain extended family connections). All this will mean quite profound changes to traditional Aboriginal culture.

However Pearson does not aim at some form of latter-day assimilation approach. He aims at adapting Aboriginal culture not destroying it. There are some critical aspects of Aboriginal culture that are inimical to adaptation to the dominant western capitalist one, but there are quite a few that can and should be preserved and nurtured. Aboriginal languages, where they haven’t already died out, are among those (as long as there is strong emphasis on teaching English, which Pearson himself emphasises).

I tend to agree with Rafe, however, at least to the extent that Pearson is advocating that “we will have true reconciliation when millions of Australians speak our Australian languages from coast to coast. … If you don’t know an indigenous Australian language, learn one.” It isn’t going to happen nor should it. Given that Pearson is anything but stupid, you’d have to think that he knows this. He may be just sending a somewhat overwrought, hyperbolic message to senior traditional Aboriginal leaders that he’s on their side despite occasional suggestions to the contrary flowing from his association with Howard government policies. The role of a cultural change agent is a very tricky one indeed.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“as are his plans for sending kids away larger centres to boarding school and for training and jobs (with provision for frequent return to maintain extended family connections). ”

If you want to destroy Aboriginal languages, then this is the way to do it. In fact, since most languages have so few speakers, I would think that essentially any policies that break up communities for significant amounts of time are likely to do it.

john malpas
john malpas
10 years ago

Some people might regard greek , italian , vietnames and sudanese etc as australian languages in view of the number australians that speak these languages.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

The idea perhaps is that non indigenous people will learn to appreciate or understand the indigenous culture through language learning and this will lead to greater involvement in helping change occur.
As a sign of making an effort to go towards acceptance and even reconciliation greater knowledge of language is a useful first step.
“It isn’t going to happen nor should it.” Why the “nor should it”?

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

When he talks about the great Anglophone Empire vs the existential struggle of a conquered people, you have to scratch your head a bit. Angles, Jutes, Celts, Picts, Germani, Gauls, Greeks, Romans — all have in common that they were conquered at one stage or another (many of them repeatedly conquered). Only recently our good Queen made a tour of Ireland, as a gesture of reconciliation for centuries of beatings going back to her namesake.

Mind you Tony Abbott would understand the value of keeping a dead language alive for thousands of years… but he maintains the language of Julius Caesar, first pan-European warlord and world-renowned butcher. Now that brings me to an idea. The Aus government would be well advised to take a leaf from the Catholic book and operate internal government business using Aboriginal languages.

Work with me here.

We are at an important governmental turning point, facing the creation of DHS (presumably designed to be our equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security) which combines all government databases into the uber-knowledge repository (or as the Catholics call it, Omnibus Databus Maximus) so what better time to convert that entire database over to a myriad of tribal dialects? Pass a law that insists no government data and documents may ever be stored in English, and that a fair and representative spread of Aboriginal languages must be maintained at all times over the span of government data. It would be a great boon to privacy, and it would protect valuable Australian secrets from evil foreign spies. Most importantly, it would provide valuable job opportunities and probably improve national efficiency by reducing the ability of government to interfere with the lives of regular working folks.

This has got to be the ultimate win/win suggestion ever put forward on Troppo. It’s like a stack of $300 notes just sitting on the pavement waiting to be picked up.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

Tel, I think the most practical suggestion on this thread is the one for bilingual education for aborigines – English and Latin ;)

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

On another related matter, we seem to be moving towards recognising aborigines in our constitution. I wish I understood what that would achieve.

Perpetual and arbitrary segregation of course, what else would it be designed to achieve?

It’s a fact of history that the eclectic culture always wins out over puritanical cultural conservatism. A smart conservative is willing to slow down the pace of change but eventually embraces that change and moves on to stand in the way of something new.

Adaptability is the all powerful human trait.

ennui
ennui
10 years ago

As Tancredi said in “The Leopard”
“Change evrything just a little so as to keep everything just the same”

Is there really anything further that needs to be said that’s not simply hot air?

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

If you want to destroy Aboriginal languages, then this is the way to do it.

Empirically false, conrad. My high school Kormilda College has been a boarding school for aboriginal students for decades, yet the two dozen or so languages spoken there haven’t died out.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

as Rafe and Ken say, it is hard to believe Noel believes any of this. Ken tries to see some kind of political need for the charade. Whilst I can envisage cases where a political leader has to advocate the exact opposite of what he believes in order to get there, I find it hard to see that need in this case. Noel is not Bischmark. To me, it smacks of desperation.

MikeM
MikeM
10 years ago

conrad @ 4

The situation of Maoris in NZ differs from that of Aborigines in Australia in several key respects. Firstly, there is a single, common Maori language so if an indigenous language is to be taught, there is no debate as to which one, or ones. It also meant that it was feasible (in 1987) to declare Maori the nation’s second official language. Secondly, the Maoris are proportionately far more numerous than Australian’s indigenous people and are able to create a great deal more political noise. Thirdly, Maori tribes were able to prevent their country from being completely confiscated by arriving white settlers, so they are economically in a more powerful position.

There may well be common lessons that can be drawn from the relationship history of indigenous peoples and arriving white majorities in Australia and New Zealand, and indeed in the US and Canada. But there are substantial differences too.