July 27, 2006


Hey all. Sorry I’ve been slack with my blog. I was away from Ngukurr for a few weeks. Part of my time away was spent in Brisbane going to my first ever linguistics conference. 8 days of conference! Well, 3 days of conference then 5 days of linguistics courses. It was pretty full on, interesting and fun and very much a different scene from what happens here at Ngukurr.

The main thing that struck me while at the conference was how different the two worlds of linguistics are – one world being the on-the-ground, community-based, community development, applied linguistics stuff I do here at Ngukurr and the other world being the world of academic linguistics which is what dominated the conference.

While I find that world interesting and it definitely has a lot to offer, sometimes I couldn’t help thinking what little relevance it has to people like the guys I work with at Ngukurr – especially things like historical linguistics and typology… I can’t stop myself from thinking sometimes ‘yeah that’s all very interesting, but really… so what?’. Each to their own I suppose.

One of the other things I thought about was that by having such a focus on academic, theoretical stuff, all the good stuff that linguists do on the ground, working with Aboriginal people is usually backgrounded, which is a shame, because personally I think it’s more interesting and important. I mean, I listened to people talking about various grammatical features of languages and comparing this language to that language and re-analysing this-that and the other, but I know that some of those same people have done amazing things in terms of producing language materials, dictionaries, training Aboriginal people, language education etc., but that just wasn’t what the conference was about. I found myself imaging what the Australian linguistics scene would be like if linguists weren’t being competitive about analysing a certain grammatical feature or reconstructing proto-What-have-you but instead were competitive about who’s making the most user-friendly dictionary, who’s implementing the best training programs for community-based language workers and who’s creating the best educational resources for Aboriginal languages. Ah, that would be great… then I would really be engaged! And the two worlds of linguistics would be much more aligned.


bulanjdjan said...

Interesting idea - competing about revitalisation. The lack of support/status/acknowledgement given to these activities in the academic context gets raised again and again, particularly by those academics you were referring to who you know to be doing good community-supporting work, but not profiling this in their 'academic' personas.

Michael Walsh is a good example of someone who speaks up about revitalisation issues, and argues for their due place in academic discussion/enquiry/publication. He wrote a great article (which I can't recognise on his publications page...) about how the paradigm of academic merit (aka DEST points = keeping academic job) being awarded solely for descriptive/analytical/theoretical work needing to shift. I think it was published in the Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, in the last 5 years?

Anyway, it seems to be the case that many linguists who have academic positions at universities, who have associations with endangered language communities are held to ransom by the need to publish in scholarly journals in order to keep their jobs (let alone be promoted), despite wanting to pursue 'linguistic justice' issues alongside their scholarly investigations...

This came up frequently at the ELDP course I went to at SOAS, with academics there wondering whether it might be possible for students to be awarded PhDs 'just' for documenting an endangered language, given that our definition of what constitues 'documentation' has rapidly expanded in recent years and that the amount of work involved in undertaking to document a language left precious litttle time for the analysis required to produce a good PhD. It didn't seem to me that anyone there was jumping at the idea though. Analysis is still king, even at ELDP at SOAS.

Claire said...

Two quick points. Firstly, Bulanydjan's right about the DEST issue and needing to publish, but I think also that many academic linguists do the academic stuff because they like doing it. There are certainly some people who would probably do mor revitalisation work and less academic work if they didn't have to play the academic merit game, but a lot of linguists ended up in academe in the first place because that was what they wanted to do, and the community associations and revitalisation work came out of the fieldwork. I'm an example of that - I started in Classics, moved to historical/Australian work, and got into fieldwork almost by accident. And to be honest, I would not be happy just doing learner's materials, text collections, and so on, all the time.

Second, I don't think the theoretical stuff is always irrelevant. After all, part of writing a learner's guide (say) is to strike the right balance between complexity and clarity - to give a correct picture of the language without overgeneralising or making things too confusing. It's much easier to do that with an understanding both of the complexities of the language and of the concepts that underlie language description.

bulanjdjan said...


I don't think I implied that linguists employed in academic institutions would all rather be doing revitalisation work (if you were implying that I implied that!). I agree with you, that for many linguists the 'linguistic justice' issues/pursuits come out of fieldwork, and that good description *is* necessary for good revitalisation.

It would be really satisfying though, to see the possibility of having university bureaucracies being open to acknowledging the community focussed work that linguists want/need to do to sustain their academic work. It's not just linguists who want to do this work (in some cases) - but the speech communities where we work often have expectations about what we should contribute 'in return'. I went to a seminar on 'fieldwork and subject community relationships' and was told by the Dean of research that a 3 page report on your research returned to the community was sufficient 'exchange'. I asked others present whether other disciplines in the humanities/social sciences were also working in a more developed paradigm of moving beyond working 'on' subject communities, to 'with' and 'for' them, as was common/expected in linguistics (at least by linguists themselves, if not by DEST/University bureaucracy). I was admonished by the Dean for not valuing my research enough and warned not to waste my time.

Funny thing was, when I won a grant which allows me to do exactly the kind of research and community work I want to do, and the University was making it difficult for me to proceed as I had planned, the Dean went in to battle for me. I guess grant-winning is evidence enough (in University bureacracy at least) that one's proposed methods are accepted/valued/esteemed by other institutions - ones prepared to fund them, no less.

bulanjdjan said...

Wamut, main san,

Did you go to see Sophie's paper at ALS? Did she rule the school? (I ask you here b/c she's refusing to answer comments on her blog!)

En yu gin kolimap mi enitaim! Mi iya la Melbun igin. Aina lisin ol yu stori! Gud boi!

Wamut said...

Hey Claire,

Thanks for your post (en yu du mami). I know it's a tough issue. I think I acknowledged both of your points in my post (but maybe not very explicitly).

One key thing about revitalisation/community based work is that the focus is not about just doing learner's guides, text collections etc. but the main focus should be, i think, on investing in the people themselves who are the guardians and owners of these languages, the materials that are produced are the fruits of that investment.

Jane said...

1. Universities in Australia do recognise community service, such as work in language maintenance, revival etc; it's one of the 4 areas we have to work in - but perhaps it isn't given the weight of research and teaching.
2. However, there's a growing industry of publishing in language maintenance/endangerment which allows people who want to talk about language maintenance, revival etc, as well as do it, to gain academic brownie points if they need to. And you can get brownie points for published Learners' Guides (altho' the scaling down of the major publisher of language learning materials, IAD Press, will make that harder).
3. Linguists are probably best at the pretty solid linguistic analysis needed to underpin long-term language programs. The best language programs I've seen have been those that involve very gifted and imaginative teachers. Descriptive linguists are often too focussed on the details of language to do this well - ALAA might be a better place to find applied linguists with ideas about language maintenance.
4. Most Australian Linguistic Institutes have involved week-long programmes for speakers of indigenous languages and people working with them. However, it requires far more time and money to arrange that (e.g. getting the Vice Chancellor's car and driver to transport elderly speakers around Macquarie campus!) than it does to get students and staff together as in Brisbane.
5. BUT Rob Amery, robert.amery AT adelaide.edu.au ( is planning such a workshop at the next ALS in Adelaide next year. So, get out your grant applications and start planning to bring speakers and offer courses/workshops there!

Sheena V said...

I can certainly sympathise with what you're saying. For me, part of it is being in an academic setting right after being in the field stirs these types of feelings a lot. I'm not sure if that's part of it for you or not, but it certainly is for me.

I have to admit, that I find it somewhat odd to hear this about the Ausralian linguistics scene. From my point of view, the Australian linguistics scene seems so much more focused on this type of thing than what I'm used to. I'm in Australia now, but did my BA/MA in Canada. I tend to paint all of Australian linguistics with the brush of being very descriptive and not at all theoretical. Although I sometimes wonder if it's more a product of the institutions that I've been with.

I came into linguistics through theoretical stuff. I've also just stumbled into fieldwork. But sometimes when I'm in the field all I can think about is doing revitalisation/pedagogical stuff. But then when I come back, I remember how much I love the other stuff. It can be such a struggle in my head sometimes. And now the struggle is becoming more real as I have to think about postdoc applications and such - but that's a whole nother story!

All this being said, I agree. It'd be nice if this stuff were given a bit more value at times so you didn't have to feel like it's just an 'extra' thing you're doing.

bulanjdjan said...

Hi sheena v,

I think we're talking about the issues of maintenance/revitalisation vs documentation vs description, all of which are different from each other and different from theoretical linguistics. There is a seminal paper by Himmelmann which outlines some of these disctinctions:

"Documentary and Descriptive Linguistics", in Osamu Sakiyama & Fubito Endo (eds), Lectures on Endangered Languages 5: from the Tokyo and Kyoto Conferences 2002, 37-83 [= extended version of Himmelmann 1998]

"Documentary and Descriptive Linguistics" Linguistics 36:161-195


Thanks for the clarification and heads up re: ALS in Adelaide.

Sheena V said...

Yup, you're right. I shouldn't lump these things together like that. I know that they're quite different things (I've read the Himmelman papers). But I tend to think some of them flow into one another in some ways (if that makes sense). I'm not sure I can really articulate what I mean by this, but I know my comment about Australia vs Canada generalises things more than I ought to do. And lumps things together that I shouldn't lump together. I tend to do this way too much. At any rate, my other comments were directed more specifically revitalisation/pedagogical stuff. I mostly wanted to post a comment because your post was very similar to how I feel at times.