July 18, 2010

Ai nomo sabi tok Frentj

hehehe... I was at the Katherine Markets yesterday drinking yummy coffee and socialising. I was chatting to a couple I've known for ages - one speaks Kriol as a first language, the other speaks English as a first language and both speak the other language well. Because I'd just spent a couple of weeks out bush, my Kriol was well-oiled so I was switching between Kriol and English as I was talking to them.

After speaking Kriol a bit, their son (all of 4) goes to me, "Are you speaking French?". Now, this kid can understand Kriol pretty well and hangs around Kriol speakers quite a lot, so I was surprised he thought I was speaking French. I laughed and told him "ai nomo sabi tok Frentj" (I don't know how to speak French) but he still kept asking if I was speaking French... too funny.

I realised that for him, the majority of non-English speaking white people he's met in his short life are probably French speakers and I'm guessing he'd be lucky if he's met many other white people who speak Kriol well. So I think his brain connected my skin colour to the most likely foreign language name associated with that skin colour and hey presto, I was speaking French, not Kriol!

Now if I only I could find a French speaking black person and then see if he thinks they're speaking Kriol! :-)

July 11, 2010

spreading more ELAN love

Well, today was looking like a quiet Sunday in Ngukurr, working on my own processing some of the Marra recordings. Well, that's what I did in the morning, but after lunch, I thought I better go visit one of the old Marra ladies who I haven't had much of a chance to sit down with yet. Unfortunately, I couldn't find her, so instead I went to JJ's house and suggested I show the young women hanging around with not much to do (it's Sunday) a bit about processing language recordings using the ELAN program. It was a bit of a stab in the dark, but much to my surprise, the exercise caught on! So, I've just spent about 3 hours teaching two young women, with JJ there for support and supervision, how to transcribe recordings using ELAN. How fun! And they enjoyed it too!

This isn't the first time I've shown community language workers how to use ELAN (you can read a blogpost about a previous time here). Each time I've trained people on ELAN, it's been pretty much a raging success - very satisfying for me and satisfying for those learning. The girls I taught today picked it up very quickly and after 20 minutes, all they needed help with was a bit of Kriol spelling. There's something about ELAN that captures my 'students' attention - is it that they get to focus on a computer and the recording and not have to listen to a teacher drone away in English? They also get to have a giggle at the recording at any mistakes or funny things they say. Today, the girls just seemed to engage with it and happily spent a couple of hours working through a Kriol recording. I was quite pleased and surprised that this happened - especially as it was done so informally - on the verandah surrounded by dogs, TV on in the background, people constantly coming and going (and checking out what was going on too). What a productive way to spend my quiet Sunday afternoon!

What was also nice is that I learned a few more things about Kriol today. Which was nice, because it wasn't so much that there was anything in the recording I didn't understand, but rather by talking about some of the words with JJ and the girls and noticing their questions. For example (warning: linguist-talk follows...), the old lady talking on the recording, used the word gija a couple of times which is some sort of reciprocal/reflexive. The only other reciprocal/reflexive in Kriol is mijel. Much to my surprise, the young women unquestioningly wanted to transcribe gija as gijal. Young people say gijal! Who knew! We were all surprised at the young/old variation and I reckon that young people have changed gija to gijal to make it closer to mijel.

Another thing I noticed is the word usually written as thei in Kriol (from the English "they"): the girls asked if they should transcribe thei bin (they were) as thebin - one word, no diphthong. What a nice contraction - I never would've noticed it before and interesting that their instinct was to write it that way.

And they wrote the Kriol for "there" as ja - which is such a Ngukurr Kriol thing. The standard form is jeya or deya but no, it is so clearly ja here.

What I also liked about this exercise and ELAN in general is that it develops literacy skills really nicely - as long as you have some foundation to start from. They girls had some ideas on Kriol spelling but when you start transcribing and keep getting the same words, you really start to develop literacy skills. And I totally noticed how easy it was for them to engage in developing Kriol literacy - most likely because it's their first language (hello bilingual education?!) and because the spelling system is consistent (unlike English).

So that's my story of my surprising, impromptu, sitting-on-the-verandah-with-nothing-better-to-do, ELAN training session on a Sunday afternoon. :-)

July 10, 2010

warri-ngarlini (I returned)

I suppose I should start posting again now that I'm back in Ngukurr and experiencing lots of neat things again and feeling removed from mainstream Australia (hence the need to write about my experiences to process them and share with others so to feel a little less alone). I'm now into the 'fieldwork' phase of my PhD studies which is the bit that I'm most excited about. I have to be honest and say that after spending so many years working so closely with Aboriginal (and a few Islander) people on their languages, I find University environments quite strange in that there you talk/hear about small, Indigenous languages a lot but in an environment that is removed from context. Even though I adjusted to that during my 3 months in Canberra, now that I'm back in Ngukurr, I can feel that disjunct unsettling me again. Or maybe it's just that I'm really enjoying being back here and feeling so satisfied to be involved in exciting on-the-ground work again.

This is only my second week back in Ngukurr but I feel like we've achieved lots already - and lo and behold all our plans have gone to plan! (It is one of my favourite personal achievements that I feel like I have learned to work collaboratively and effectively in Ngukurr - a skill that I reckon takes a few years to develop and certainly something that all young non-Indigenous professionals grapple with when they first try and work in communities - okay, I'm tooting my own horn a bit there but I'm on a bit of a high at the moment...)

So I got back to Katherine about a month ago after a really great three months in Canberra at ANU. It took a little while to adjust to University again and get my rusty academic brain exercised again. But I really enjoyed the environment there and there are lots of great linguists and students there - all doing interesting work throughout SEAsia, Australia and the Pacific. Certainly very stimulating and I've found coming back to 'the field', I'm better equipped to study, learn and engage with working on languages here.

Last week was my first few days in Ngukurr. I hadn't been here for nearly a whole year so it was great to see lots of old friends/adopted family and lovely to feel welcome. Also great was that the Marra mob I used to work with were more than happy to get stuck into working with me. I brought back a bunch of recordings from the AIATSIS archives in Canberra - the oldest dates from 1959 and features lots of long passed Marra people that old people here knew and hadn't heard for goodness-knows how long. Straightaway we got stuck into transcribing and translating some recordings that were never transcribed or translated before. Pretty exciting. My rusty Kriol and Marra skills are coming back to me pretty quickly and will hopefully keep developing.

After a quick break where I went to Darwin to meet with my supervisor, I'm back again this week and again, we got stuck into more work. On my second day back, the Marra mob and I started planning to head to Numbulwar where three old sisters and their younger brother live who are all really strong Marra speakers and use it everyday for general communication - something that I think is pretty rare for such an endangered language. And yesterday, we made our first trip there to meet with them. It was absolutely awesome. They spoke so much Marra I was grinning ear-to-ear and getting a little bit emotional too! We listened to some of the archived recordings together, made a few new recordings and started talking about my project to work towards 'informed consent' - the response so far is really positive which I find heartening.

So I'm really enjoying being able to hear so much Marra and concentrate on the language, as well as finding out more about Kriol, as well as working together with Marra people all-the-way. Very satisfied.

And some language tidbits:

Yesterday, the old ladies at Numbulwar clarified a word on the old recording that the Ngukurr mob didn't know and wasn't in Heath's grammar/dictionary: muwurl - which we now know is the tail part of a muwarda (canoe) but is different to the word for tail-of-a-dog (jigurr).

And on the Kriol side, I'm learning more verbs that aren't taken from English: JJ told me that ngum-ngum means hitting someone on the back and jawak is similar to gula (argue, fight, yell) but different because it's not targeted at anyone in particular - when you jawak it's like when you are really angry and broadcast your yelling publicly for everyone to hear.