Indigenous languages, literacy and the myth of the "unwritten language"
Many of us have heard about the Indigenous literacy gap - but probably think it applies only to English. Greg Dickson takes a look at Indigenous literacy from the perspective of Indigenous languages, busts some myths and finds an even bigger "gap".
Indigenous Literacy is a bit of a thing these days, with a foundation, a gap and a day, just name a few. But when I see how the phrase “Indigenous literacy” is used, I’ve noticed that it generally refers to something more specific: English literacy among Indigenous people. By default, it seems to refer to Indigenous people becoming literate in English, and using literacy in the same way other English speakers do. When used in this way, it may be worth asking what is actually “Indigenous” about “Indigenous literacy”?
You could the take the term “Indigenous literacy” more on face value: literacy practices that are distinctively Indigenous. This could still be about English – after all, that’s what most Indigenous people speak as a first language – but you could talk about how Indigenous people actually use literacy, e.g. at home, in their daily lives, and see what’s interesting and cool about it. Or, you could consider the thousands of Australians who speak an Indigenous language and think about literacy in those languages.
Which brings us to a common question:
Are Indigenous languages written languages?
Yes. Yes, they are. The notion that Indigenous languages aren’t written languages is a myth, and an apparently pervasive one.
The simplest way of dispelling this myth is to simply prove it. For example, in Kunwinjku, to ask someone who they are, you ask: Nangale ngudda? <– see that there? That’s written Kunwinjku. Hey presto, it’s a written language.
But that’s being a bit cheeky and simplistic. Because it seems when someone tries to say that Indigenous languages aren’t written languages, what they really mean is that they are primarily spoken languages and that they don’t have a significant literary tradition like more prestigious languages such as Latin, English or Chinese.
This is also a short-sighted view. Indigenous languages have been written languages from the moment someone with a writing implement and paper tried to transcribe a spoken word in a written form. And this started happening as soon as Europeans uninvitedly set up camp in Australia (if not before).
For example, almost 200 years ago, a missionary (with an enviably cool sounding name), Lancelot Threlkeld, worked with an Aboriginal man named Biraban. Together, they produced a version of the Book of Luke in Biraban’s language Awabakal, spoken in the Hunter Valley area. The legacy of Threlkeld and Biraban’s work continues today with a range of Awabakal resources to assist with revitalising and teaching the language.
This kind of thing happened in many places across the country, perhaps most notably with German missionaries who arrived in the Adelaide Plains in the early-mid 1800s. They developed quite advanced literacy practices among Kaurna people – to the point where a number of people were using written Kaurna in education and socially (e.g. in letter writing). Again, this legacy remains, with Kaurna people being one of the most successful groups attempting language revival.
Fast forward about a century and UNESCO exists. They started to push the global idea that “the best medium for teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil”. In the 1970s, this idea took hold and numerous government schools in the Northern Territory established bilingual programs that not only used spoken Indigenous language, but focused on teaching literacy in Indigenous languages in the early years of education. This was done with the understanding that it is easier for kids to learn to read and write the language they speak and hear (i.e. their first language) rather than a foreign language which they are only starting to learn properly in school (i.e. English).
Indigenous languages have to be written languages for all this to happen, very obviously shown by the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, a digital storehouse of hundreds of written Indigenous language materials in over 40 languages (and counting). And it doesn’t stop there. Bible translations are freely available in fifteen different Aboriginal languages here and three Torres Strait Islander languages here. Dictionaries, books and posters in numerous languages are available in lots of places including here and here. Or you can follow me twittering in Kriol or see a bilingual website in Kunwinjku and English.
Most, if not all Indigenous languages have been written languages for at least fifty years and for the most part they have stable and established spelling conventions. Okay, so they don’t quite have a literacy/literary tradition spanning centuries, and you may not think they have iconic texts written in them like the Icelandic Sagas or Magna Carta. However, the Yirrkala Bark Petition is well-known as a foundation of the Land Rights movement and was written in Yolŋu Matha with an accompanying English translation. Now over fifty years old, it occupies prime real estate in Parliament House in Canberra.
“But so what? Just because those things exist, doesn’t mean anyone actually uses literacy in Indigenous language.” (Cue Negative Nancy.) Actually, yes. Bibles get used. Some schools are still bilingual. Indigenous language speakers use their languages on Facebook. And I’m quite sure that when the ABC news broadcasts news in Warlpiri and Yolŋu Matha, they’re not ad-libbing but are actually reading off a script.
The long answer though, is, sadly, not much – literacy rates in Indigenous languages are typically very low. Very few schools teach children literacy in Indigenous languages. People who do use Indigenous language literacy have learned it through church activities, sometimes school, sometimes other work (e.g. with linguists) or maybe they just make do with writing their language as best they can based on the frightfully confusing English spelling conventions they may or may not have got a handle on in school.
It doesn’t seem fair though – that if you grow up speaking an Indigenous language, you have very little chance to become literate in your language. When people talk about the ‘gap’ in Indigenous literacy, they mean the one between English literacy rates among non-Indigenous and Indigenous people:
Gap! (Note: not a statistically rigorous graph)
But we can look at the ‘Indigenous literacy gap’ in a different way by considering the rates of literacy in your mother tongue or home language. Most Aussies speak English as a first language, and those of us who do pretty much always become literate in our mother tongue. Our education system is built around ensuring that happens. For the small minority of Australians who speak an Indigenous language as a first language, the chances of becoming literate in your mother tongue are very slim indeed. In this regard, the gap in enormous:
Cavernous gap! (Note: an even less statistically rigorous graph)
For the most part, the education system does nothing about this cavernous gap, despite that fact that “Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination” (Article 14b, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). My interpretation of “without discrimination” means that just like how I went to a school where I learned to read and write my mother tongue, kids who speak Indigenous languages also have that right. If they are denied that, is it not a kind of discrimination?
AKA: Greg Dickson. Postdoc guy at University of Queensland with Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Somewhere there, also a community linguist (Katherine region, NT) specialising in Aboriginal languages.