Quick hit: Aboriginal languages are like Deafness, and condoning either is “criminally insane”

Eric Brodrick from Alice Springs has a piece in Crikey this week titled “What’s the Pitjantjatjara word for computer?

His argument boils down to this paragraph:

Not being able to speak the major language of a country is a disability equivalent to being profoundly deaf. Limiting a person’s access to and knowledge of, the major language of a country in the name of “cultural purity” borders on the criminally insane. How can a person learn and grow if the only language(s) they can speak is as relevant to the modern world as ancient Babylonian?

Hoo boy.

I wonder if he’s the same bloke who wrote this rant about “Professional Aboriginals” sticking their noses in the government trough?


More on the background:

The Age: “Calma backs bilingual education in NT

Wamut at That Munanga Linguist: “Bad and ridiculous news from the NT Minister for Education

Transient Languages and Cultures: “TESOL association against scrapping bilingual education

Anggarrgoon: “Australian folk language policy (1): the failure of monolingualism” and “Australian folk language policy (2):

Categories: indigenous, language, social justice

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29 replies

  1. *headdesk*

  2. Yeah, there’s no words in Pitjantjatjara that would express anything relevant to someone living in Alice Springs, that’s for sure!

  3. Perhaps Eric Brodrick would be suprised to find that the Pitjantjatjara word for computer is, in fact, “computer”. Languages change.

  4. “Identifiably Aboriginal”??
    hexy’s last blog post..SWOP USA’s National March for Sex Workers Rights

  5. A lot of the profoundly deaf people I know feel sorry for the (apparently) exceptionally learned and fully grown mainstream*, as we have no experience of the cultural ties and close community bonds of the Deaf.
    He also seems to forget that ancient Babylonian would be quite useful to… ancient Babylonians. In quite the same way that Pitjantjatjara is practicable for Pitjantjatjara people, and Auslan is quite handy for the deaf.
    *Because comparing Aboriginal and Deaf people to children is so hot this fall.

  6. This *does* actually remind me of something I read in “Inside Deaf Culture”: the way “well meaning” hearing people keep trying to make sure deaf children learn lip-reading instead of sign language, since they’ll be “able to fit in better”, and the horrible social /psychological effects this has on them. (nb I don’t actually think the two situations are that similar one the whole)
    What’s so bizarre is that Australians will express envy for the way swiss etc children grow up bilingual, but of course those are “real” languages like german or french.

  7. Goshdarnit this is one of those things I just cannot stand. Learning a second language, *any* second language, is a hugely valuable experience, and imparts a range of skills and a broadened perspective of the world.
    Then someone will come along and say, “But Pitjantjatjara (or more commonly when I’m having this argument, Maori) isn’t RELEVANT! When will The Kids use it?”
    Well, when will the artsy kids use the algebra we force them to learn? What benefit is there in imposing the reading of works of literature if the kid’s going to be a computer programmer? Why make the sporty kids do music? Oh, right, because learning is good, and broad-based learning is great, and those various “irrelevant” subjects have been around long enough to be taken for granted and don’t threaten anyone’s ethnic superiority complex.

  8. Not to mention, we already have >500 extinct languages in this country already. How incredibly insulting is it to say that someone’s language deserves to go extinct? It’s like telling a rhino to take a stroll along some seaside infrastructure because there are more zebras and they have more interesting hairstyles.

  9. “When will The Kids use it?”
    Well when living in Alice, I heard the kids using it when discussing what to get for lunch from the takeaway shop, before ordering in English; for being rude to their parents (I assumed from the reaction of said parents), for yelling at each other as they played, and in a variety of other situations. I assume they also use it when talking to their elders about their culture, when undergoing initiation etc. It’s a language, and it’s highly relevant to them.

  10. Sorry, QoT, I should have made it clear that I wasn’t taking a swipe at you, but at the people who say Indigenous languages aren’t relevant.

  11. Well, not only that, but language is the primary way to distinguish one cultural group from another. The first thing a subculture will do is to create its own lingo to differentiate itself from the mainstream. When groups are villified, their language is often the first thing attacked, too. Gays lisp, african-americans have ebonics, asian people get “r” and “l” confused, developmentally disabled and autistic people often slur, lower class people have a strong “ocker”, teenagers frequently say “like” and can’t spell, and all the rest.
    Language is very important in establishing an “us” and “them”. And when people suggest the death of a language, they’re inevitably saying they want the cultural group gone too.

  12. Er, I’m saying those are the stereotypes used to denigrate the communities, not that they have any basis in reality, in case that’s not clear.

  13. If the “whats the [language] word for ‘computer’?” is a problem …
    what’s the English for “phenomenon”, “gladiator”, “bourgoisie”, “glasnost”, “haiku”…. etc? (note that there has been no anglicization of any of these). Has anybody out there tried working through Beowulf in the language before Latin/Greek imports?
    I’m sure languages like Pitjitjanjarra will import words just like English has, with or without acclimatization to the local language, just like English has alcohol, algorithm, puerile, maternal, etc.
    And does English have the fine-grained labels for the landscape and ecological relationships unique to Oz, relevant to science or public policy, that have existed in pre-colonization languages? (A bit like the urban myth that innuit have 20 words for snow, or classical greek has many words for “love”.
    Let’s hope there isn’t a Pitjitjanjarra equivalent of
    (btw: Latin is ancient, but because it is the official Vatican language, it has words for astronaut, covergirl, computer, etc, etc. Gotta find one of those dictionaries. It’s also worth remembering that Latin was pretty useless until Cicero did his imports/inventions of words Latin couldn’t express as part of his “Philosophy for dummies who only speak Latin” series).
    Perhaps Broderick doesn’t understand language development. For me, I’d say it’s important for societies to train children in languages they’ll need (e.g. technical/business Mandarin for Australians), but cultural identity is important. (Hey, if these kids in NT are bilingual, then they are more linguistically capable than most white Australians).

  14. Damn… missed “Pitjantjatjara equivalent of L’Academie Francaise”, and apologies for mis-spelling it — unless I’m thinking of a different language.

  15. Much more useful to teach everyone lolspeak…
    Or unschool and they can decide for themselves whether it’s relevant enough for them to learn.

  16. The author’s real problem? He’s worried about what all those blackfellas are saying about him. Is anyone proposing that kids only learn Pitjantjatjara? I somehow doubt it.
    A few years back I was very fortunate to live in a bi-lingual village in Wales. Since the 1970’s the welsh language has been formally recognised in Britain (but alas, still not in the EU). All street signs/place names are in both Welsh and English (or at least try to be), local authorities are legally required to produce their communications in both languages, there is a national welsh-language TV station, and after 100+ years of beating and/or shaming children who used their first language while at school we now have an extensive system of mainstream schools where the entire curriculum is taught in Welsh. Strangely, this hasn’t reduced the kid’s proficiency in English and the welsh language schools tend to outperform their english language neighbors in the league tables, though there is still wailing and gnashing of teeth because Welsh is compulsory for ALL students in Wales up to year 10.
    There is a large but noisy minority of English people who have moved to Wales yet seem to detest welshness, often going as far as to deny that it exists at all. They seem particularly paranoid that they may be talked about and get offended when welsh is used in front of them. The Conservative Party has made long term enemies in welsh politics by openly courting this group and making statements very similar to the Crikey piece despite abundant evidence that bilingualism of ANY language is a positive boon for kids development. There’s also much b*tching about the additional costs involved in providing materials in both languages. Fortunately the welsh* don’t do ‘cultural cringe’ – they much prefer inventive and humorous acts of minor revenge (and supporting whichever soccer team is competing against England).
    (*statement of interest – I’m half welsh myself)

  17. {apologies to the apostrophe police} …hasn’t reduced the kids proficiency…

  18. In the immortal words of George W Bush, “The problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.”

  19. Part of my thesis topic involved the devaluation of Deaf culture by enforcing Oralism to the point of beating Deaf children for Signing to each other. Alexander Graham Bell was quite concerned about the need to eradicate the Deaf menace, IIRC.

    No parallels here!


  20. Many’s the time I’ve heard, and used, the word “Boomerang” wrt the conditions of a loan of, for example, a tool: that it will be returned promptly and with no need for further input from the lender. Everyone, in my experience, which has been in the main with non-speakers of the Dharuk aboriginal language, understands the meaning of this very useful word. Can anyone offer another single word, from Teh English, that fully conveys it’s meaning?
    I wonder what the Pitjinjara word for ‘smartarse dickhead’ is: Ericbroderick perhaps?

  21. the way “well meaning” hearing people keep trying to make sure deaf children learn lip-reading instead of sign language, since they’ll be “able to fit in better”, and the horrible social /psychological effects this has on them. (nb I don’t actually think the two situations are that similar one the whole)

    There are definite historic parallels – talk to Anna about enforcing oralism! Both signing kids and kids speaking indigenous languages have had schools attempt to ban them from their own language, had their hands hit for signing, signing kids have been made to sit on their hands (or worse), all in the name of “it’s for your own good”, because oral language/English is thought to be so clearly superior. Some of the issues are clearly different, but some of the linguistic oppression issues are very similar.
    And the comparison is all made a bit more poignant by the rampant sight- and hearing-threatening ear and eye infection issues in some Aboriginal communities, issues which could so easily be ameliorated or even completely eliminated (trachoma) with appropriate funding and effort. Hard-of-hearing kids are obviously going to find it doubly hard to learn in a second language that they can barely even access.

  22. I just want to say that ancient Babylonian is terribly relevant today: How many people today believe in the OT? Ancient Babylonian = practically Hebrew (esp. the current resurrection of Hebrew used today)
    So his “useless language example”? Massively Fails. But beyond that? Multiple languages and methods of language grammar encourages children to be smarter. Therefore such a dumb man is clearly against intelligence. And on top of that? Who cares if it is relevant to his stupid little world: why does he care if he can talk to them if he so clearly thinks they’re second class anyway?

  23. I’m reading a book right now (I cannot wait until my Literature Review is done) that describes “the numerous strategies used to enforce Oralism included hands being tied behind backs, taped to desks, beaten or simply sat upon. These were among the less severe detterents practices right through from the 1880s to the present day”. Ladd, Paddy Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood.
    Which of course ends up with children with a hatred towards the “required” language, less understanding and success in school, and an ingrained attitude of looking down on their own culture, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do.
    Gosh, I wonder if this would have any long-term consequences on people. Do you think? /sarcasm.

  24. Anna, the really insidious thing is when they get minorities to police themselves. In Wales, english-only schools had ‘the welsh knot’. A knotted necklace of rope was put on a child when the teacher caught him/her using Welsh. This child could only remove the knot by passing it on to another student he/she had heard using welsh whether that was in the classroom or in the playground. Whoever was wearing the knot at the end of the day got the beating. Nasty.

  25. Wai palya? (Hey good?) Ngayulu kulini tjukutjuku (I understand little).
    How many people do you know actually speak any Australian apart from Australian English, a living language dialect that has been picking up or as has been said above importing words like “google” or verbs “to google” or “googled”? Having lived at Yulara working daily with ngayuku malpatjuta (my friends) and listened and learned some Yanguntjatjara-Pitjantjatjara-Lurita-Ngaatjatjara-Nyaatjatjara-Kukatja then when in Mperntwe (Alice Springs) I started learning Arrernte dialects and Warlpirri especially when I Co-ordinated & Lectured the 1st Indigenous Tour Guides Course then ironically perhaps taught NOS (National Office Skills accredited) computer modules for 3years to the 12x Combined Aboriginal Organisations (CAO) at IAD the Institute for Aboriginal Development http://www.iad.edu.au and was awarded a NAIDOC Non-Indigenous Person of the Year, my favourite experience being a >60yo elder Arrernte woman who did not even have English as a 6th or 7th language [ie ESL!!] who within 30mins of me putting her in front of a Mac paint program had a dot painting done without much guidance from me at all because Macs are more graphic or iconic than abstract Latin letters! So horses for courses in this case one of the key descriptors for humans is that we are tool users and computers like a pen or fingerpainting ochre is just a tool ….
    For those Latin lovers … the same word for “ear” in Pitjantjatjara is “pina” – I hope then all those non-deaf non-Auslan speakers are listening – as 1st Australians say with “deep listening”! 😉

  26. Definition of Pinna

    Pinna: The ear or, to be more precise, the part of the ear that projects like a little wing from the head. In Latin, pinna means wing.

  27. Perhaps Eric Brodrick would be suprised to find that the Pitjantjatjara word for computer is, in fact, “computer”.

    Late to this thread, but I would presume that the Pitjantjatjara language has a verb meaning something like “compute” or “calculate” – and presumably it has a way to make an agent noun out of it, much like the way English adds “er” or “or” – after all, where did the word computer come from?

  28. mmm wiru! good one! Kulini means to understand then I’ve forgotten what the associated words may be as a computer. IAD Dictionaries http://www/iad.edu.au would help. Computernya would be worthy too of consideration as in Pitjantjatjara the suffix -nya is used when a vowel sound is at the end of a name eg Matthew becomes Maatjunya (as there is no sort “a” sound as in “at” or “hat”).


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