Australian linguistocide, and antipodeal approaches to aboriginal education

I have a Google News alert set up for, among many other things, the word “aboriginal”. Yesterday, two contrasting stories dropped into my inbox.

First, ABC News (Australia) reports that it’s indigenous people’s own darn fault if they’re unemployed and sick, because they don’t talk proper Queen’s English. They’re just like those pesky ghetto-forming immigrants, y’know? And the proposed solution? It takes into account the complexities in the situation, right? Addresses all of the concerns in the Bringing Them Home Report, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody? Recognises the fallout from massacre, dispossession, erasure, removal and bondage, and the government’s absolutely appalling record on indigenous health, education and welfare?

No. Instead, we should ban “those” people from “our” social safety net until they pony up and learn.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough says too many Aboriginal children have only a basic understanding of English, reducing their chances of getting jobs and contributing to health and social problems in Aboriginal communities. Mr Brough says the Government is considering quarantining welfare payments to ensure Aboriginal children go to school.
Prime Minister John Howard has strongly supported the push, telling Southern Cross Radio that Indigenous children should learn English, just as the children of migrants have to.

“They were all born in this country. In that sense they’re different from migrants,” he said. “The children of Chinese and Vietnamese migrants are forced to learn English because they go to school. Equally, it’s reasonable that Aboriginal children should learn English because they should be required to go to school.”

Linda Burney, New South Wales’ first Indigenous MP, responded:

“I think that he needs to understand that culture and country is incredibly important to Aboriginal people and they will be protected at all costs,” she said. “Aboriginal kids do need to be bilingual but it’s a bit rich coming from a person who actually is part of a Government that took away funding for bilingual programs in the Northern Territory.”

Ms Burney says one of the biggest tragedies is losing traditional Aboriginal languages, a problem that is not being addressed.

Contrast this with these stories out of Canada.:

U of W to launch aboriginal college

The University of Winnipeg hopes to attract more aboriginal students and reduce their dropout rate by creating an aboriginal college within the university. […] “It would provide a home and a place and a setting, but would also be tied in to the larger curriculum of the university,” he said.

First Nation creates prep school for college students

The transition course will be based on an existing one for mature students, focusing on life skills, academic upgrading and career counselling. “It’s about developing the skills that they need to survive and succeed in the workplace or in the educational system,” said Kirkness. Students will also spend time in Winnipeg to prepare for the transition to urban living.

Colonisers of Australia may have given up on literal genocide, but linguistic genocide attempts are very much ongoing. At the time of first European contact, there were over 200 Australian languages; estimates range as high as 700. Not “dialects”, a term used to downgrade and trivialise indigenous language, but full, complete, rich languages. In 1980, there were maybe around 50 languages still “alive” – still being spoken as first languages by a critical mass of children. By 1997, this number was down to 20. Here is Ethnologue’s list of nearly extinct languages.

These numbers are highly controversial, as the definition of a living language is open to interpretation. Aboriginal English incorporates a number of aspects of vocabulary and morphology/syntax from Australian languages, a fact recognised by the Queensland Court system which has produced some basic guidelines on communication within the courts between English and Aboriginal English speakers.

Here are a few words from Lester Irabinna Rigney, from Building Stronger Communities: Indigenous Australian Rights In Education and Language:

The Northern Territory’s bilingual education programs, in which local Indigenous Australian languages and English were used side by side in a minority of Aboriginal primary schools in remote northern Australia, came into being in 1973 under the broader policy language of ‘self-determination’ for Indigenous Australians. Twenty-five years later, in December 1998, the Northern Territory Government dismantled these unique programs in a top-down decision, without consultation with the affected communities. Axing bilingual education programs in Aboriginal schools in the NT was replaced by ESL (English as a Second Language) which could be interpreted as the return to English only education. The programs’ closure was effected on the recommendation of a Review Panel made up of four government appointees from outside of those communities, and against the stated and often-expressed wishes and cries of protest of the Indigenous community members.
The rate of extinction of languages and cultures far exceeds that of fauna and flora. And Australia has one of the worst records. Indeed, Indigenous activists argue that if our languages were like animals under threat of extinction there would be global outcry. The silence is deafening.
Education is a sacred activity and must be done with extreme care. There can be no development without human beings or the education of human beings. Bright futures are only possible from strong pasts. For being strong is what it means to be Indigenous.

Ngaito Yungadalya Yakkandalya (thank you)

From Aden Ridgeway:

The original language of a land holds the stories, the key to identity and belonging to the land. It’s the stories themselves that play a large part in the way we pass on values and customs from one generation to the next.

Jeanie Bell, linguist:

It is a mistake to dismiss our languages as part of history, and long gone. They’re not. They are alive and vibrant. They are in a new phase of growth. They’re part of us as the Indigenous people of the land. Our languages are the voice of the land, and we are the carriers of the languages.

And from an anonymous Arrernte speaker:

Dreamtime stories in English are nothing; it’s gotta be in language.

And, because this post is a book already, I’ll add a favourite poem of mine, this time not from Australia, but from a Cheyenne person, Richard Littlebear:

Repatriated Bones, Unrepatriated Spirits

We were brought back.

We were brought back here
to a place we don’t know.

We were brought back here
to a place where we left no tracks.

We were brought back here
to a place we’ve only passed
through when we moved camp
or were hunting,
or were looking for enemies.

We were brought back here
and yet we are lost.

We were brought back
to a place where we are confused.

But now we are starting to sing our songs.
We are singing our songs
that will help us find our way.

We are singing our songs
because we want to rest in peace.

We are singing our songs
so that the people who have been so friendly
to us will also be at rest.

We came back to a people who
look like us but whose language
we do not understand anymore.

Yet we know in our hearts
they are feeling good too, to have
us back here among them.

We are back here now but preparing
to journey on.

We are singing our songs of joy and
we are gradually, gradually becoming happy
knowing we can now travel on
and finally be at rest.

Categories: Culture, culture wars, education, indigenous, Politics, social justice

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. I certainly don’t want to trivialise such an important issue, but since this post is about language (and to be pedantic for a moment) should we not be discussing linguicide rather tban linguistocide? After all it’s not the linguists that are dying.

  2. Heh. Linguicide made me think of people going around cutting tongues out of people’s heads.
    Which, I suppose, could be a useful metaphor. But still, ew.

  3. Sarahbubble has posted a piece about Canadian language death here. It’s well worth a read.


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