I heard on Lateline last night that the US military is asking Congress to approve a further US$190 billion to fund its “projects” in Iraq and Afghanistan, much to the dismay of Congress:

ROBERT BYRD, DEMOCRAT SENATOR: If the Congress were to approve the President’s revised budget request, the total funding for the war in Iraq will exceed $600 billion, 600 billion, billion, billion dollars!

Meanwhile, something I had heard years ago was confirmed in a talk by Michael Walsh on Wednesday. At 100,000 pounds per year, for three years per language, it would cost some 900 million pounds (or AU$2.137 billion) to do some pretty solid documentation work on the 3000 languages predicted to lose all their speakers¹ by the end of the century. In Michael’s words, that’s equivalent to a couple of days’ oil revenue, in an average year. “Where else would you get such value for money?”²

I’m just sayin’, is all.

~

¹We don’t like using the term ‘die’.

²Based on: Crystal, D. (2004). The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tandanya is the Kaurna name for Adelaide. 

I was finally able to get on the internet today after a few days of suffering email and blog-stat withdrawal symptoms. Except it’s not the high-speed wireless broadband that I envisaged. Rather it’s a university access lab that reminds me of what it was like to be a student again – without the concession transport rates.

This morning was the official start of the ALS conference after yesterday’s start of the ILC conference, and so far it’s been full of brilliant and interesting talks from various people working on various indigenous languages, more often than not, their own languages. Two of the more memorable talks so far have been Phil Cash Cash’s discussion of the documentation of placenames in his people’s country, the Southern Columbia Plateau, and Te Haumihiata Mason’s presentation of the arduous work involved in producing the first adult monolingual dictionary of Maori¹. These presentations, among others, should soon be available from the ALS/ILC website.

It’s shaping up to be a very topical and political gathering as well, since many people here are directly affected by the government’s intervention plan. Not only linguists and language workers whose projects are going to suffer as a result of radically less funding opportunities, but also delegates from communities from all over the country, who have embraced this gathering, held on Kaurna country, by the way, and have demonstrated support for people working on indigenous languages not only in Australia, but other parts of the world too.

It’s also been a little bit of a blogging fest, with I think most of Australia’s linguist bloggers all in the one location. We have Jane Simpson, Claire, Wamut, Bulanjdjan, Hooch and Sophie and I believe a couple of us were even meeting for the first time offline.

Annoyingly, I haven’t been able to access my newer email account, the one at the recently acquired matjjin-nehen.com, because the host (hoster?) doesn’t have a web-based email access system set up yet. So apologies if I’m missing anything.

That’s all for now since I’m only able to get to a computer by sacrificing my morning tea break, which means foregoing coffee. So consider yourself lucky!

~

¹This computer won’t let me run the character map, and I can’t find the bar-A using alt combinations.

I’m off to Adelaide on Monday morning for the joint ALS and ILC conferences, which should be very interesting, especially given all the news that indigenous languages have been receiving of late (an insightful discussion of which can be found at Anggarrgoon, twice)¹. Something else that will be discussed in Adelaide is the idea of language ownership. In fact the general question Who controls your language? appears on the official ILC program.

I also have a new (it’s new to me anyway) laptop. It is smaller, newer, faster and lighter than my old one, which just barely survived my recent field trip, only to give up a couple of days after I returned. In an attempted salvage operation, I reformatted the hard drive and installed Ubuntu, a user-friendly Linux build, as part of my quest to go completely open source. Unfortunately some of the problems with the laptop were evidently hardware-related, in addition to the multitude of problems that were simply a direct result of the stupidity of Windows. Consequently, I might have to put my Ubuntu experiment on the backburner for a while.

The point is, I now have a computer that, lo and behold, works on the internet and actually has a wireless card that functions! So, pending access to wireless within Adelaide University, I might get a chance to do some live blogging that was so fashionable during the conference of the LSA back in January.

I’ve also invested in a flash little business card to aid my networking attempts and make myself known as a potential candidate to those people who take on PhD students. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Apart from all that, there should be plenty of time to enjoy being away from Sydney again, even if it’s only for five days.

~

¹There was also a report on ABC Radio’s AM program this morning that publicised efforts in Wadeye to document Magati Ke, one of the languages that the Enduring Voices project has focused on for its ubiquitous media releases. However, this report didn’t merely repeat what National Geographic had released to the press; they appear to have actually spoken to Magati Ke speakers and linguists working with the community. In fact, the only reference to all the ‘Language Hot-Spot’ business merely spoke of “A recent international study”. The transcript of the story is here, and the same page contains links to the audio.

As an aside, the title Enduring Voices reminds me of one of those ambiguous verb/noun phrases that they use in psycholinguistic experiments, like landing planes. You know the ones? They ask you to complete the sentence landing planes…,  then they ask you to do the same, after you’ve been primed with something like when walking near the airport… or when in training to become a pilot…

Complete the sentence: When the in-laws are in town, enduring voices…

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.

~

<update>

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.

(from “Realist“)

</update>

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.

Apparently pre-colonial New South Wales had 200 languages, that is, according to NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Paul Lynch. It seems a few too many to me, given that best estimates (from linguists and anthropologists, not politicians) count somewhere between about 250 and 400¹ languages for the entire country, mostly concentrated in the north.

I’m all for greater recognition of the diversity and complexity of Australian languages, but let’s not have so much hyperbole.

~

¹The variation in figures depends on where you draw the line between language and dialect, and even then there are problems; dialect chains, lack of data and so on.

I learned of another aspect of Australian indigenous culture today, something that I’m sure many of you Australianist linguists (and indeed anyone that works in communities) have no doubt known about for many years, but it’s something I’ve fortunately never experienced before. I’m referring to a Sorry Day.

I don’t mean the sort of Sorry Day that is observed each year on the anniversary of the handing down of the Bringing Them Home report into the stolen generation, I mean the sort of Sorry Day that happens when a relative dies and a community goes into mourning. Although, and I never thought of this, the latter is probably the source of the name of the former.

All my speakers were keen to do a lot of work yesterday, after a Tuesday in which everyone was tired. But then we heard that a relative of most, and by extension, of all, of the community, who lived in Darwin, had passed away early in the morning. I guessed from one of my speaker’s demeanour that that meant no work for the day. Well, that and the fact that he said ‘Nomo work for us today, im sorry day’.

So I took it easy and tried to catch up on the news and do a little work on the side, repsecting the imperative to not work on a day of mourning.

Today though, I went to see my best speaker, and found him very glum. “Wornka-wornka gi-yu?” (You sad?) I asked, thinking he was still sad about the relative who died yesterday. He informed me that a close relative, a brother in fact, died this morning. Very sad indeed to have had two Sorry days in a row.

I don’t mind of course, despite how much time it might cost me. The death of a relative is just too important to be trumped by my needs.

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