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.

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