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May 27, 2008
Over the weekend, David Nash drew my attention to a book that he found on Amazon, that purported to contain bilingual crosswords puzzles in English and Wageman.
I was a bit perlexed by this, since, well, Wagiman doesn’t have much in the way of practical applications such as second-language learning, that is, of course, beyond the community of Wagiman people. It should be noted at this point though, that this book is not being marketed towards the small community of non-Wagiman speaking Wagiman people, but to a North American audience.
September 12, 2007
Posted by Jangari under Culture
, The Intervention
| Tags: Endangered Languages
, Human Rights
, Land Rights
, Language Policy
, Language Revitalisation
, Linguistic Diversity
, World Politics
|  Comments
The United Nations is due to vote on the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples tomorrow, as I’ve just learned from an article sent out on ILAT.
“Basically, it’s a very wide-ranging declaration that recognizes rights that they already have, such as the right to cultural integrity, the right to education in their own language, the right not to be dispossessed of their ancestral land and so on,” [Kali Mercier of Survival International] says.
“There has been a lot of support for it from some countries. Other countries have not been quite so keen and they’re some of the countries in which we would have hoped to have a much better example set. For example, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with indigenous peoples, have been very opposed to some of the wide-reaching rights recognized by the declaration.”
“Have not been quite so keen” is putting it very mildly. The Declaration has been about 24 years in the making, but suffered a setback earlier this year, when, possibly under pressure from John Howard, the recently elected Canadian government withdrew their support.
If adopted the declaration would encourage states to do things such as:
Not dispossess indigenous people of their land,
Undertake efforts to prevent loss of indigenous languages, and
Make bilingual education possible,
Australia, the United States and Canada between them have many hundreds of different indigenous ethnic groups spanning many hundreds of distinct languages, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that these countries would do what they can to thwart the adoption of this declaration. Protecting hundreds of indigenous languages, some spoken by, or affiliated with as few as a hundred people, is a very costly affair. And any good economic rationalist government would weigh up cost with benefit and conclude that doing so isn’t worth it, especially when we can do things like buy helicopters, give election-motivated tax cuts, or throw massive soirées at Kirribilli House instead.
Understandably, economic rationalism is an ideology I don’t altogether buy.
No more than an hour after hitting the ‘publish’ button for this post, I opened the Herald to see that this story had been taken up there. While the conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town after the APEC
summit monstrosity, the minor parties are lobbying hard to have the government support the declaration, which will probably pass tomorrow irrespective of Australia’s position.
On Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved an urgent motion in the Senate urging the Government to change its position while the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra. Labor, the Greens and Family First supported the motion, which was defeated by 35 votes to 33.
It also brought to light an interesting snippet of information which is especially pertinent with all the current hoo-haa:
The Government, which has lobbied since 1998 to have the phrase “self-determination” – saying it could lead to calls for a separate indigenous state – removed from the draft declaration, is standing firm.
Now of course, they are all for self-determination. Well, “self-determination” inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on the federal government’s self-imposed sovereignty over mineral-rich land that they would very much like to dig up and sell to China. They’re ecstatic with “self-determination” when it refers to their getting away with not funding vital services in remote communities.
The hypocrisy is nauseating.
Despite Australia thinking its opinion is worth anything on the world stage, the Declaration passed overnight by a whopping 143 to 4 with only eleven abstentions. I find it encouraging that so many nations supported the declaration, but deeply embarrassing that we, along with the US, Canada and New Zealand (I still can’t believe that, Helen Clarke was otherwise highly likeable), chose to oppose it.
Robert Hill, Australia’s ambassador to the UN and former Howard government Cabinet Minister (independent diplomatic appointments is a thing of the past, apparently) again made it clear that the Australian government’s opposition was motivated by the term self-determination, which, I might point out again, is the very term they use for the ultimate goal of the current NT intervention.
It’s interesting that the ABC news website now allows comments on many stories, this being one of them, because we can see a glimpse of the ideology that drives Australia’s opposition to this declaration.
Good on the government for voting against this crap.
It’s time these people stopped living in their stone-age past and realise they were conquered, the white man came and took over.
Nobody is excluding them from being a part of our society, the only thing that is excluding them is the chip on their shoulder.
September 2, 2007
A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:
Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.
I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.
The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.
Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.
I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.
Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.
It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).
That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.
At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.
Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.
June 7, 2007
Canada elected a new government 18 months ago and it appears that they’re trying to prevent the UN Human Rights Council’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from being approved (adopted, in the official terminology) by the general assembly. To put this into perspective, the decleration and resolution, avaliable from here, took 24 years to negotiate.
I went and had a look at the resolution to see what could have been so odious that Canada would want to prevent it from becoming bound by international law, but it seems reasonable to me. Here’s an interesting excerpt that is especially relevant in a current local debate in Australia.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
I draw particular attention to the last sentence, the one that orders States to provide education to indigenous people in their own language. So if Canada aren’t successful in hindering this declaration any further, bilingual education could become a matter of international law. Interesting.
It appears that Howard may have had a slight helping hand in Canada’s change of heart, rather than it being due to merely a change in government.
The newspaper is quoting unnamed political sources as saying Mr Howard convinced Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his visit that the declaration would be “problematic.”
Although, ‘unnamed’ sources are always a bit sketchy, the timeline is curious:
Mr Howard visited Ottawa and the Toronto Globe and Mail says things began to happen within days.
May 25, 2007
I awoke this morning to find that the old debate about the roles of indigenous language and English in Aboriginal Australia had crept back into the news. Except this time, the debate is getting considerably more polemic.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough has called for aboriginal children to be forced to learn English. He proposes to ‘quarantine’ welfare payments to parents unless their children attend school. That is, similar to the land ownership issue that I wrote about only yesterday, he is using money that is rightfully theirs, and threatening to keep it unless they do as he says.
“Too many still only have a rudimentary understanding of the language spoken throughout our country and can only speak their own language, which perhaps is only known to 200, 300 or 400 other people,” he said.
“That must end.”
This isn’t mere coercion, this is blackmail¹.
While he says that he is “not asking anyone to give up their own language”, the broader implication and the government’s failure to recognise indigenous languages say otherwise.
Of course, it is quite reasonable for someone to speak multiple languages. Aboriginal people traditionally spoke many languages, depending on the geo-political situation in the area. People still know three or more languages each, and claim affiliation with many more again. This is the situation in Wadeye, where, as he claims, there are a handful of distinct languages resulting in groups of people who cannot communicate.
These children, like all Australian children, will benefit from a strong grasp of English which allows them to make choices in their lives which they simply don’t have when they only speak a language that only a handful of people understand. (mp3 here)
Apart from the notion that Aboriginal people will benefit from speaking English in an English-speaking country, with which I agree, this is mostly nonsense. Most people in Wadeye speak Murrinh-Patha as well as another traditional language or two. In addition, just about the entire town speaks Kriol, the lingua franca of most of indigenous Australia. To put it another way, I would bet that there are no two Aboriginal people living in Wadeye who are unable to communicate with any language in their arsenal.
If the government wants aboriginal people to all learn English, then fine, fund programs to do it. But don’t use this nonsensical, flawed argument from unintelligibility to promote the further discouragement of indigenous languages.
NSW MP Linda Burney has countered Brough’s claims this morning, pointing out this government’s track record when it comes to the retention of languages and culture.
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.
She was also on ABC radio this morning reiterating the woefully shameful statistic that, of around 600² languages originally spoken in Australia, only 60 odd remain. The debate seems to centre on allowing aboriginal people to integrate into the mainstream economy (make of that what you will) but ignores the cultural imperative to do what we can to ensure languages don’t unnaturally cease to be spoken.
Language is the mechanism through which Aboriginal people in Australia relate to their family and other kin, to their ancestry and to their land. Language is not a mere means of communication, it embodies identity and culture.
For most of the world, and certainly for Europe, land is independent from people and language. Languages are embodied by people who inhabit land. When people move to another land, they take the language with them. In traditional Australia, this isn’t quite the case. Language is embodied by land and people are transient; taking on new languages as they take on new land³. For this reason (among others), language is an utmost important aspect of one’s culture and identity. To deny an Aborigine the right to speak their language is to forcibly remove their identity.
This, I believe, is one of the causes of social ills that indigenous people endure.
Burney also pointed out that Brough lacks even a fundamental understanding of aboriginal people, which should be compulsory in his portfolio. He fails to understand the importance placed on language and culture, which is immeasurably more important to them than some abstract, white man’s notion of being integrated into the mainstream (which sounds an awful lot like ‘assimilation’ to me).
¹I might point out that I do think that Aboriginal children, in fact all children, should be attending school, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks otherwise, but threatening to withhold vital funding is not the right way to do it.
²The numbers are difficult to ascertain, since it depends on your definition of language and your definition of dialect. 600 is near the higher end of the spectrum and relies on a liberal definition of language. I usually quote 350 to be conservative.
³See Merlan, Francesca. 1981. Land, language and social identity in Aboriginal Australia. Mankind 13(2):133-148.