July 01, 2008

Showing people that the message isn't quite getting through

The other day an interesting message came through the Australian Linguistic Society email server. It's from Gavan Breen and talks about the problem of miscommunication between Aboriginal people who have English as a second language and English speakers, especially public servants. It's a huge problem that I'm well aware of and Gavan is talking about getting the issue out there or doing some research. Here's a copy of Gavan's post:

I and some others here at the Institute for Aboriginal Development think there is a need for a study to be done of how well Aboriginal English speakers, especially those who speak it as a second or later language, understand the English of whitefellows, especially public servants and politicians and the like. The latest inspiration for this is a news item: Report finds NT Aboriginal group doesn't understand legal terms

However, there was an earlier discussion of this sort of thing, related to the inability of public servants to explain aspects of the "intervention" to people in Aboriginal communities.

An obvious aspect of the problem is the use of words that people don't know; 'equity' is one that was mentioned as an example a couple of times in the recent exchange of emails, and it's one that I have only a vague understanding of myself.

A less obvious aspect, and so one that is not so easy for government officials and other offenders to appreciate, is, in my opinion at least, the fact that Aboriginal English speakers are not familiar with the extended meanings of words and the idioms that educated native speakers use. For example, 'We have to decide where X (a community) is going'; meaning, of course, how it is to develop, not where it being moved to.

I heard a story recently about a small group of teenage students who had been chosen to attend something (educational, I forget what) and were being interviewed by a reporter (in the presence, fortunately, of their teacher). One was asked 'What do you hope to get out of this?' and she didn't answer; obviously confused, she had a whispered conversation with the teacher that solved the problem. The problem was, she was looking forward to the thing, she wanted to do it, she didn't want to get out of it.

Other examples of usages that are perfectly familiar to us are the various figurative uses of 'heart' in English, the use of 'today' and 'tomorrow' to mean 'nowadays' and 'some time in the future', and the specification of location relative to the body (on the left, right, front, back) rather than to the world (north, south, east, west). There are probably hundreds of expressions that we use that teachers in Aboriginal schools would take for granted and never think of teaching.

I suggest that an institution that wants to look into this topic find a student who would be interested and amass enough data to convince the decision makers that there is a need for education, both of Aboriginal people and of those who deal with them, to improve the quality of communication.

Apparently, a few of us agreed with Gavan and sent him replies. Here's my pocket of shrappie:

I was very interested to read the bit from Gavan Breen about miscommunication between black and white, especially here in the NT with the Intervention. I see this sort of basic miscommunication happening everyday here in Katherine and also when I was living in Ngukurr in Southern Arnhem Land.

I've done a little bit of Kriol interpreting and I listen to the language of public servants and shake my head at the lack of consideration that is given to their choice of words (the problem is compounded because many public servants are given directives about the approved wording they are supposed to use). I remember last year at Ngukurr an Intervention meeting involving a public servant talking about the 'cessation' of CDEP. I'm guessing the word 'cessation' was chosen carefully as approved wording but unfortunately just wasn't understood by the vast majority of the Kriol speaking audience. Another example of incomprehensible approved wording from that meeting was 'transitioning', ie. 'transitioning' people from CDEP employment to Centrelink benefits. It was appalling. This meeting was essentially the government telling the community that 180 jobs will soon be gone and everyone will then have to go back on Centrelink payments but the 'approved wording' meant that people barely realised this was what they were being told.

Then there are more subtle examples. Interpreting at Centrelink last week, I heard some Centrelink staff constantly using unnecessarily difficult words when dealing with Kriol speaking ESL-customers. Examples are words like 'verify' and 'confirm' (I suggested 'make sure'), 'currently' and 'at present' (I suggested 'at the moment' or 'right now') and 'entitled to' (I suggested 'can get'). By merely speaking in plainer English, communication difficulties can be reduced significantly. And if public servants don't have time to think about the English they use, they can just get an interpreter, but this doesn't happen very much either!

Sadly, it seems that Aboriginal people with English as a Second Language are used to not understanding public servants properly. It's the norm and to a certain degree 'just the way it is'. Some of us are here trying to make a difference and the more exposure the issue can get, the better. Importantly, the education needs to be both ways. In my opinion, not only do whitepeople/public servants need to realise the extent of communication breakdown but Aboriginal people who are ESL also need to be educated or shown that the way things are now aren't necessarily the way things have to or should be.

How do we give this issue exposure? A research project would be great, but I don't think we need to wait until research is done before we can plainly show that miscommunication is occurring.

One idea would be some media activity, especially from someone who is media-savvy. How about regular press releases which give an obvious example of miscommunication, similar to the examples Gavan's already given and then suggestions for better ways to communicate. Does anyone have any other suggestions on how we get this issue out there? I'd be happy to give the cause a bit of time if there is support and ideas out there.


A big issue no? Anyone have any bright ideas about what we can do inform the public (black and white)?


Will said...

No good ideas, but I've been there. I was in Amoonguna once speaking to a man whose country was to the north. I asked if he planned to go back there soon, and indicated "Back" by tipping my head backwards. Unhesitatingly he pointed north (to my right) to show me that I was mis-oriented, then he said no, he wasn't planning to make a trip.

It's another example of "miscommunication" except that I was the one who couldn't understand how to properly indicate what I meant. That old man, on the other hand, was pretty clear about what I said.

Sally said...

I guess one important thing that gets taught in our cross-cultural awareness courses is how to recognise culturally specific 'comprehension behaviour', 'dismissive behaviour', 'incomprehension' etc. So as well as maybe giving examples of common confused words (like words with different meanings in diff dialects of English, 'shame' for example), they talk about culturally specific ways of indicating agreement/ understanding etc.
I remember being told that a specifically Aboriginal way of dismissing someone is to just agree with them somewhat profusely (constant head nodding) until they shut up and go away. This looks different to someone who is engaged, understanding and agreeing. And also our CAT facilitator said that Aboriginal people might be less likely to say outright 'I don't understand, tell me more'. But indicate this with silence. Anyone who has lived outside of their own culture will recognise that this is definitely a cultural point of difference. (i.e. in the Philippines 'yes' regularly means 'no').

The general knowledge that there are different ways if indicating these things, and the specific knowledge about what some of the differing strategies are, certainly made me more attuned to the possibilities for misunderstandings in my interactions - and hopefully that has helped!

bulanjdjan said...

I think it's great this it being given some serious attention.

But I had to laugh at the following eggcorn in the ABC story about the ARDS report.

"There was a number of charges they said 'ah well I shouldn't of been charged with that and that because I had nothing to do with that'."

Catalin keeps telling us that people are careless with all written language, not just Aboriginal languages. Maybe she's right!!

Catalin said...

I think efforts at 'plain English' from public officials would benefit more than just Aboriginal Kriol speakers. I'm sure there are plenty of other English L2ers in Australia.

The thing that maybe would be even more shocking to reveal is that plenty of people who ONLY speak English are also confused by language that uni-educated people take for granted.

I think the examples you've cited are really good. Write letters to newspapers, call into radio shows, etc. Press helps raise awareness. Another place to go would be teacher-education programs. The sooner you have all teachers recognizing that their Kriol-speaking students are in fact English-learners, the better better chance you have at idioms and such being explicitly taught. (Right now, do teachers in the NT have to be trained in Teaching ESL?)

Wamut, maybe this is the direction of your PhD proposal?

Anonymous said...

Hey Wamut,
You know about the Medical Journal of Australia paper from about 2000, don't you, tracking communication at the Nightcliff dialysis unit (it's online, one of the authors is Alan Cass).
That would be a great springboard to launch a PhD from.
Gamarrang (coming to Darwin for a week next Friday)

Perez said...

Sorry I didn't read all of this post cos I'm on the fly but in case nobody's mentioned it, read Nick Evans' chapter in Language in native title. There's a bit about forensic linguistics which talks about lawyers and judges misconstruing aboriginal witnesses (rather than the other way around). Also, what's-her-name from UNE has written about this kinda thing.

Wamut said...

Thanks for the comments yumob,

But I'm still wondering how we can effectively get the issue out there to the general public. We all know the issues exist but we need to be talking to those who don't realise it. Press releases from ALS? Articles for press? Who has journalist connections... that sort of bizzo... bright ideas anyone?

And no, not my favoured PhD topic... I'm keen to keep working on Endangered Languages. :-)