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Sep 21, 2012

Our Land, Our Languages and Preserving Our Heritage

It's pretty rare that Indigenous languages (IL) get a day in the sun in such a spectacular way. The bread and butter of IL reporting most months is along the lines of "here's a new phone app that's going to save a language." Sorry to rain on anyone's parade, but phone apps don't save languages, people do. Specifically, speakers do: the only way to "save a language" is to make it easier for people to learn and speak it, and that requires actions which are integrated through a community.

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Claire Bowern writes:

We’re all in a tizz at Fully [sic] over the new report Our Land, Our Languages. We’re usually pretty mellow when it comes to government releases but this one is worth taking up some pixel space over. It’s pretty rare that Indigenous languages (IL) get a day in the sun in such a spectacular way. The bread and butter of IL reporting most months is along the lines of “here’s a new phone app that’s going to save a language.” Sorry to rain on anyone’s parade, but phone apps don’t save languages, people do. Specifically, speakers do: the only way to “save a language” is to make it easier for people to learn and speak it, and that requires actions which are integrated through a community and which are flexible enough to cater to many different language situations. Phone apps and the like are great for what they do, but they target a particular need.

That’s why this report is so important: it recognises this fact and provides 30 recommendations for how to go about it. The recommendations cover a very broad range of activities, from language documentation to education, implications for health, interpreting programs, and increasing national recognition for Australia’s linguistic diversity. This is a great example of ‘thinking big.’ In our continued series of posts on specifics of the report, I’ll be focusing here on documentation and archiving.

Increasingly over the last 20-25 years, academic research on Aboriginal languages has included a community development component. By the time I started my PhD in 1999, it was taken for granted that as part of my PhD research, I would contribute to local language preservation efforts and would do so for free and despite having no training in language pedagogy. On the one hand, I was happy to make myself useful, and to “give back” in a way that was to the advantage of the community I was working with. But on the other hand, it was a bit worrying that so much work needed to be done like that. If it had been an Italian or Japanese class, there would have been no way anyone would be expected to work for free. There would be no need to make class materials in a vacuum. It is heartening to see that this work is recognised in the report, with recommendations that Indigenous teachers be given accreditation for teaching their own languages, and that a repository be set up for sharing curriculum materials.

There are other ways too in which academics and language learners interact. Linguists have recorded much (though not all) of the language materials that now feed into language programs. Some of that material is now very hard to find, especially materials recorded before the 1970s. There are stories of treks to cattle sheds to find materials. Recommendations in the new report would make it mandatory for researchers to submit archival copies of their work to a central archive. Further (and equally important) recommendations would mandate adequate funding for curating such collections at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Now, language documentation and archiving might not make much of a difference to the average monolingual Joe Bloggs in the street, but it makes a very big difference to the programs who rely on such materials. Without it, the tasks facing language teaching and reclamation are much greater. The documentation part of language work is the foundation for other materials, so it is especially pleasing to see that this is taken into account in Our Land, Our Languages.

Some may disagree with the idea that Indigenous languages are part of “our” intangible cultural heritage. For Australians who until recently didn’t know that there was more than one Aboriginal language, or who had never met someone who spoke one, these recommendations might sound rather like “it’s a good idea to preserve Anglo-Saxon.” But the comparison is a false one. White Australians tend to forget that the history of dispossession and language loss didn’t occur for Aboriginal people at the time of the Norman Invasion: for many, it’s still within living memory, a product of the early 20th Century, not the 11th Century. Like it or not, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal languages are part of Australia’s cultural heritage, much as some would wish it otherwise. Not every part of our heritage resonates equally with each person, and that’s ok.

Claire Bowern —

Claire Bowern

I am an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut, USA) and I work on language description and prehistory in Aboriginal languages.

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8 thoughts on “Our Land, Our Languages and Preserving Our Heritage

  1. I don’t think anyone denies that reversing (or slowing down) language shift is very difficult. And of course I don’t think that government recommendations **on their own** will reverse language shift. I do, however, think that shift reversal is unlikely to happen without addressing the social factors that cause shift in the first place, and since those factors are complex and often only peripherally to do with language, if we’re serious about addressing language shift we need to think big and follow through.

    Claiming that I’m undermining local projects is melodramatic, especially since I’m on record as praising this report for recognising the work of grass-roots organisations and advocating better funding for them, better recognition for their efforts, and better ways of sharing what they do so that communities in similar positions might benefit from their experience.

  2. A quick google search didn’t turn up lots of stuff on language-saving phone apps, and I haven’t been able to find the bit on the 75 nouns that are enough to save a language. So possibly there is not such a huge media buzz at the moment on those phone apps, and you could have avoided touching a raw spot quite easily.

    If I get the point you make in your post, you basically say that small, isolated initiatives have little chance to reverse language shift, while governmental recommendations do, because they ‘think big’. Maybe that’s true, but it is annoying to see that you undermine projects trying to do something for endangered languages, when these projects (and the people behind them) are probably the reason why governements finally stop turning a blind eye on the problem of language endangerment, as they see that many small initiatives are taking place.

  3. Clearly I’ve touched a raw spot with you here.
    Of course books and software applications (like phone apps) serve particular needs and particular audiences. Some broader than others, and some better than others. They are useful but on their own won’t reverse language shift. I thought it was refreshing that the committee report took a more integrated approach to language reclamation and endangerment.

  4. not sure where to find info on all these endangered language smartphone apps, ’75-noun’ or otherwise, claire, let alone the media reporting on them. must have missed it, as well your point.

    you write: “Phone apps and the like are great for what they do, but they target a particular need.” I mean – are you serious? what is ‘the like’? what is this ‘particular need’? this is as if, instead of ‘phone apps’, you’d written ‘books’, or ‘software applications’, or any other category of resource and suggested it served a particular need.


  5. @Bruce, you missed my point. Have a look at the way most media articles report indigenous language phone apps. They suggest that 75 nouns on a smart phone with audio will “save” a language and create fluent speakers. I find that seriously unrealistic, and I suspect you do too. There are many things that can be done with phone apps, as you know, but the majority of them have very little language content and many don’t actually allow much user feedback.

  6. sorry to rain on your parade, claire, but a tool such as a crowdsourcing smartphone app designed in collaboration with a community-based language team to make it easier for speakers of endangered languages to get involved in and take responsibility for language documentation and archiving just may be of some value, though of course it was insightful of you to point out that ‘speakers’ are also required if a language is to continue to be spoken. just in case we’d forgotten.

  7. Wikipedia tells me that I’ve spelt Warlpiri wrong. Apparently the language mother/son-in-law uses is the Warlpiri avoidance register which rather than being another language it is of a special style….

  8. I think that’s pretty cool. I have had a bit to do with remote communities, and I find the languages interesting. In some ways it makes more sense to learn and promote an Australian language than a foreign one such as English, despite people saying English is far better, essentially. It would also educate us white people about the complexity of their culture. For instance, apparently it’s forbidden in Walpiri culture for mother-in-law to speak to son-in-law; they communicate instead in another (!) language or hand signals (!).