Indigenous Languages

Sep 10, 2015

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.

A pen and paper turns Yolngu matha (shown) into 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?

(This article owes a hat-tip to Mary-Anne Gale for her awesome research in the 1980s and 90s about writing in Aboriginal Languages, and to for the nice image. Not those dodgy looking graphs though. That’s all me.)

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9 thoughts on “Indigenous languages, literacy and the myth of the “unwritten language”

  1. Roger Clifton

    Hey, I love your freehand graphs!

    Your article is just that much more readable, precisely because it feels as though you are sketching your thoughts as you speak to me in person.

    I felt English lost some of its power to communicate when the piece of chalk was removed from my hand, and I was banished from the stage to a lecturn where I fumbled with the mouse instead.

  2. Ian

    Thank you for the informative reples: much appreciated.

  3. wamut

    Norman, I’m still not quite sure what you’re referring to. Other commenters seem to have understood the context and found my piece interesting. Maybe if you have some info or insights you’d like to share you could think about a guest contribution to Fully (sic)? We’re always happy to receive them: fullysicblog at gmail dot com.

  4. Norman Hanscombe

    If Crikey intends to continue flogging this Crikey dead horse, what about someone trying to understand the history and theory of the topic before prattling on about it so that information is presented in relevant context?

  5. Doug Marmion

    Hi Wamut, nice post well done!

    Re your answer to Ian, I’d just reinforce the pragmatic point that learning first literacy in a language that one doesn’t speak (or speak well) is extremely difficult, and limits the level of skill that can be attained (some people will still manage, but most will struggle). On the other hand, learning first literacy in ones first language allows for a really full development of rich literacy skills. These well-developed literacy skills can then be transferred pretty easily to a second language. This happens all the time, all over the world; it makes sense, has been shown by experience around the world, and is backed up by research. For Indigenous kids who grow up speaking their own language first, the quickest way to high-level English literacy is through becoming literate in their own language first.

    But for some reason in Australia this is not accepted when it comes to Indigenous language literacy.

  6. Cathi Payne

    One further benefit that I see in having written Indigenous languages is that it allows those who do not have frequent exposure to language orally to access the beginning stages of learning the language. This would be particularly true for those who are visual learners, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, but perhaps less so for those that are auditory learners. As Indigenous languages continue to strengthen their knowledge and resources, there will hopefully be more resources dedicated to auditory learners, but currently many attempting to learn an Indigenous language will be primarily using written resources in conjunction with spoken instruction.

    From my (little) experience, I think actual proficiency and a fuller understanding would only come with further oral exposure, however those who have grown up with written language are certainly more able to tap into the basics of a new language that also has developed a written tradition. As a non-Indigenous person, this is certainly allowing me to learn the original language of the area in which I live, however I hope that it also assists those who were kept from learning their own language as they grew up, to be able to connect with it and increase the number of people who can converse in Indigenous languages.

  7. wamut

    Hi Ian. Thanks for the very kind feedback! I’m not a total expert at answering your questions, but I’ll have a crack:

    Your question about the the benefits of being literate in an Indigenous language, you touched on a few already. Yes it can be used to document cultural information. Yes it can strengthen identity (and hence confidence/wellbeing). Yes it raises the status of Indigenous languages for non-Indigenous audiences. Other important benefits are in education – as I mentioned, it’s much easier to learn to read in your first language – especially when the spelling system of Indigenous languages is MUCH more regular than English’s. And another important one that you missed: communication. E.g. Facebooking your family and friends, putting up notices in your community, translating the news for ABC, etc. For more on this, check out some of the research by Inge Kral: who looks at literacy practices in remote communities from a non-school perspective.

    Your second question – I’m not quite sure if you’re asking about personal cognitive benefits of being literate in an Indignenous language, or benefits to personal wellbeing. My guess is there’d be both. Becoming literate would probably help is understanding the rules and structures that are present in your language. Illiterate people can have these understandings too, but my impression is that literacy helps in that regard. I’d also say that being literate in your language can be a source of pride and contribute to a positive self-image as a speaker of Language X.

    Lastly, your question about prestige. Yes, certainly it is common for Indigenous language groups to consider that having their language written is symbolically important in that it is now playing the same game as English etc. In my experience, most Indigenous people place a lot of prestige on traditional languages already. It’s more that non-Indigenous people generally don’t. If a group switches from speaking their own language, to a more dominant, it’s usually because a raft of complex social and historical reasons and can happen even when people within the group view their language positively. Sometimes the external forces are just too great.

    Hope this helps answer your questions. Anyone else? Feel free to pipe in!

  8. Ian

    Gosh: I almost wrote a post myself. Excuse the length…you can see it is a topic I am interested in!

  9. Ian

    I had trouble understanding this:
    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) a foreign which they are only starting to learn properly in school (i.e. English).

    Are there some words missing? Or am I just tired? 🙂

    [Greg: Nope that was my bad. Fixed now. Thanks!]

    What a great post; thank you for it.

    A question… It probaby shows my very-Western-centric view and ignorance — but I mean it genuinely. From what I understand a large number [majority?] of the world’s languages are not “written”. What benefits does being able to read and write in a language in, say, Warlpiri, provide to the learner? I can think of things such as
    — preserving history/records [though many cultures appear to do well orally];
    — perhaps a greater sense of the language being your own[?], esp. if you then learn English which has a formalised script and compare;
    — and also the language being seen by others as a “language” through the strange view we often have that ‘languages need to be written’.

    Does being able to read/write in your mother tongue convey some more personal, inner, benefits? I must say I struggle to think of how I would view English apart from as a language I read, write and speak — it is hard for me to consider how this may be different if I could not [perhaps a a lack of imagination on my part!] As well as how I would view English if I grew up illiterate in it but them, say, was literate in German or Arabic through education.

    Another question, though a bit off topic: do Indigenous languages suffer from a perceived lack of ‘prestige’ among younger, or older, people. I hear of people around the world leaving their native languages [or dialects] for the ‘prestigious’ one. Are Indigenous languages sometimes similarly viewed?

    Again, thanks for the informative post. Love this blog.

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