November 26, 2012

Queen of the Desert

No, not Priscilla. The real one. Starlady.

ABC2 last night screened a terrific 30min doco about Starlady - a hairdressing, youth worker phenom doing great work in desert communities. If you missed the program then lucky for you the director has posted it on Vimeo

Starlady in Areyonga. Source: ABC
Not only was it a wonderful and interesting story, it provided a few genuine gems of wisdom. Starlady demonstrates how to deliver training and youth programs that are popular and engaging to young people in remote communities; a feat that many programs, including government school education delivery, often fails to accomplish. What is particularly special about this story is that the wisdom and positive example is being set by someone who has been discriminated against and would be seen as an outcast by many. Yet Starlady has a lot to teach munanga (non-Indigenous people). Some of the same people who would undoubtedly disparage or discriminate against her would probably be the same people struggling to get beyond their own ignorance to understand how life works in the bush and how to engage with people in communities. It was great to watch this positive story unfold and see how much Starlady actually likes the people she's working with. (Seriously and sadly - it is not at all a given that munanga working out bush actually *like* Aboriginal people). It was very moving to see her choke back tears while contrasting her city life with her remote community work:
"I was so used to being abused. I had people spitting on me, I had people throwing stuff at me. There was people trying fights everyday on public transport. And I was just being abused so much. And then I went to this place where people gave me lots of love and, you know, I could be this. I could be something special and you could do some really positive things." 
Starlady *gets* it where many government and non-government service providers in remote Australia don't. Where too many munanga go to communities and see mess, dysfunction and apathy, Starlady correctly sees beyond:
"The young people, they're styling! There's a sense of style out in the desert. People take really great personal pride in their appearance out here. But they don't always have the tools and access to the materials to be able to do that". 
But Starlady's no academic or deep-thinker. Just a clear-seer. Speaking about remote youth:
"They know that there's not a lot of real opportunities for them. They know that compared to the rest of Australia they're living in poverty". 
Starlady's approach and perspectives should be the norm for non-Indigenous people working out bush but unfortunately, people like her are rare. Dominating service providers like schools just aren't given the space and freedom to approach education and training the same way. Caught up in NAPLAN testing, policies, curricula and being part of a massive institution makes such dynamism nigh on impossible for most government teachers in remote schools. A pity. It was also great to see in the program some of the responses from the community members in Areyonga to Starlady's work: the boys on the catwalk showing off; the teenage girls shyly but proudly presenting their style. And the final quote from a community leader is gold:
"I've seen the movie Priscilla and I think Starlady is a real queen of the desert. And not Priscilla. Priscilla came here to act but Starlady is for real. And we loved her." 
Lovely. It was a great program and got a great response too, despite having a limited audience because of its 9:30 timeslot on ABC2. A number of tweets raved about the program, such as:

Make sure you catch the program! And keep doing what you do Starlady.

October 16, 2012

How do you say "Ngukurr"

A blogpost I wrote years ago about how to pronounce "Ngukurr" still gets hits now and then. Mostly from people who type "Nooka" into a search engine, not realising that the place is actually spelled "Ngukurr" and certainly not realising that there might be another, more authentic, way to say it.

One of the gathering-dust-on-the-shelf jobs came to fruition the other day when I raced around Ngukurr with my iPhone interviewing a few community members on how to say "Ngukurr" properly. I edited it together into a nice little video that I'm really quite pleased with, especially considering I hardly ever work with video:

And for those interested, here's a transcript. Translations are provided in brackets. The language is Kriol, except for Barry who uses Ritharrŋu as well as Kriol.
BW: My name Benjamin Wilfred (My name is Benjamin Wilfred)
RJ: Mi Rebecca, mi wek iya la ofis (I'm Rebecca, I work here at the office)
BB: Ŋarraya yäku Barry, Birrirri (My name is Barry, Birrirri)
WW: Main neim… Wally Wilfred (My name is Wally Wilfred)
RR: En mi Raini, mi wek la TCU (And I'm Raina, I work at TCU)
GD: What's the name of this community?
BW: Ngukurr
BB: Ngukurr
WW: Ngukurr
CH: Ngukurr. [Ngukurr] Ngukurr thei gulum dis kantri ("Ngukurr" they call this place) 
[How do white people say "Ngukurr"?]
RR: Wi gulum Ngukurr bat munanga mob thei gulum Nooka (We call it "Ngukurr" but Europeans call it "Nooka")
CH: Nooka! Nooka or Nookerr
BW: Nooka
WW: Nooka
BB: Wal Nooka thei oldei gulum bat dijan iya Ngukurr riliwan, thet stoun (Well, "Nooka" they always say, but this is "Ngukurr" actually, it's that rocky outcrop) 
[One more time… how is it really pronounced?]
CH: Bat dis kantri im brabli neim is Ngukurr (But this place's actual name is Ngukurr)
BW: Ngu-kurr
RR/RJ: Ngukurr 
BB: Ŋamakuḻi Wamut? (Good one Wamut?)
GD: Ŋamakuḻi (Good one)

September 26, 2012


I've withdrawn my recent post about the Katherine AFL Grand Final. In writing the post, it wasn't my intention to offend anyone or inflame tensions. It seems apparent that my post did so I apologise.

September 17, 2012

Government report on Indigenous languages is out!

I've done quite a few posts here about the national inquiry into Indigenous languages that's been going on for about a year. See here and here, for example.

I'm very excited to say that the final report came out today and it's really good. I was very lucky to receive a preview copy of it last Friday because of my association with the language blog on Crikey. It was a media embargoed copy of the report and I wasn't allowed to disclose its contents until it became public today. (I'm so ready for CSI: Ngukurr... ha!). But getting the preview copy allowed me to write up a piece for Crikey which can be found here (thanks go to Claire, Aidan and others from Fully (sic) and Crikey eds for making my piece much better than it was going to be).

It's been an exciting day. Personally, I was pleased to see my article published on Crikey and that it seems to be pretty well received and read. But that's just my own little smugness. Generally, I'm really excited about the government report and what it might mean for Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal people and the many many people I know who, like me, battle away on working on these languages.

It could mean that organisations like the Ngukurr Language Centre will be better resourced. It could mean the return of proper resourced bilingual education in remote schools. It could simply mean that Aboriginal languages are better and more widely recognised and that I won't have to do so much hard work advocating for why it's worthwhile paying attention to them in the first place!

I'll be keeping track of the media and commentary that the report gets over coming days and weeks. In the meantime, here are some links to other media stories about the report that came out today:

Action needed to help preserve Indigenous languages - The Conversation.
Preserve Indigenous languages: inquiry - NITV news (video)
Indigenous students need bilingual education - ABC online
Call for Indigenous languages in schools - ABC news (video)

Exciting times.

September 09, 2012

What's in a word: barra

My PhD research concentrates on Marra and Kriol - Marra an endangered traditional language and Kriol, a creole language that has usurped it along with many other languages in this part of the world.

Personally, I find both languages fascinating. The idea that Kriol is somehow inferior or should be viewed upon negatively doesn't wash with me. Although I do recognise that Marra has more prestige for many. Kriol is amazingly interesting, dynamic and complex and I've learned that it has a richer vocabulary than any other linguist has previously described. At the same time, I love learning Marra and working with the last few old ladies who speak it. We've spent hours and hours making and listening to recordings and transcribing and translating them and I've loved pretty much every minute of it.

When translating recordings with the old ladies, I'm often amazed at how neatly Marra translates into Kriol most of time. Some of the Kriol translations are so compatible with Marra that it looks like Marra falling out of use is no great loss in terms of how you can describe the world around you. But then along comes a Marra word, saying or sentence that makes me go, "Damn, okay. You got me there. Kriol speakers would no way be able to talk about that in the same way, or maybe even know what you're talking about."

A recent example of that is when we came across the word barra in an old recording (a wonderful 52 year old recording for that matter!). Initially, I thought the word was barda - a common word meaning 'after' or 'later'. But old BR and FR said it meant 'wind'. But I know the Marra word for 'wind': walulu. Someone's confused - the smarty-britches PhD student or the elderly ladies?

BR and FR explained further: barra is a specific wind - a westerly wind. I had no idea this word existed in Marra. There's certainly no equivalent of it in Kriol. What a neat word! I was impressed.

See, in English we can describe different kinds of wind, and some are very specific: sea breeze, northerlies, westerlies, headwind, trade wind, gale, etc. But there's a key difference. English words for specific winds are more often than not compound words. They have a root - breeze, wind, north - which is modified or added to to create the word:

sea + breeze --> sea breeze
north + erly + ies --> northerlies
head + wind --> headwind

(Note: words like gale and breeze are exceptions but they describe the strength of the wind, not the direction like the Marra word barra does.)

The word barra is special because it is monomorphemic - a unique, stand alone word. It doesn't have a root part and a modifying part like the English words do. The word barra has nothing to do with the generic Marra word for 'wind' (walulu) or a Marra direction term (warrgarliyana means 'from the west' and nguwirri means 'to the east'). To put it simply, the Marra language places enough importance on this type of wind that it gets its own word, unrelated to any other Marra words. Kriol and English don't do this.

Is there a reason why this would be so? Perhaps. Heath's Marra grammar has barra in the dictionary and includes some encyclopedic information in the defintion:
barra: northwest wind. This is the dominant wind during the wet season. Mack Riley says that the arrival of this as the dominant wind is a sign that dugong are heading for deep water to breed. (Heath 1981: 439)
So it can be argued that there's a sound cultural reason that this westerly or north-westerly wind has its own unique name in Marra. It's associated with dugong hunting traditions. But these traditions have changed or diminished. There's no dugong hunting in Ngukurr because it's too far inland/upriver so maybe Kriol speakers at Ngukurr don't have a reason to pay attention to this wind in the same way that Marra dugong hunters would have done. And as a result Kriol doesn't have a special word and has lost some eloquence because of it.

Then again, it's not as though you can't describe this wind just because your language doesn't have a special word for it. Kriol speakers and English speakers can describe this sort of wind if they want - sangudanwei win? westerly? When the word barra finally fades from living memory, what's been lost? A unique meaning? A cultural reference? Or just a rather eloquent word that other languages describe in a more clumsy way? I don't know the answer. If you have any thoughts, please share.

This is the big question of my thesis - what's lost when a language disappears. I'm finding it a hard question to answer.
Heath, J. 1981. Basic materials in Mara: grammar, texts and dictionary. Pacific Linguistics: Canberra.

August 27, 2012

What happens when remote voices are silenced - a note on the NT election result

It's always exciting when an election turns out an unexpected result. In this weekend's NT election, the CLP have taken power again after winning as many as four bush seats off Labor. It was remote Aboriginal people who dictated the final result. I think that's a first. (I'm hoping that it means politicians will now do more than just pay them lip service which has happened far too often in the past).

(Photo source: ABC)
I find it interesting that the media commentary is talking up the big remote swing towards CLP. If you look a bit more closely, the reality is that bush polling just swung all over the place, usually in the direction of those with more local ties. For example, the booth in Lajamanu went to the First Nations candidate Maurie Japarta Ryan who is from Kalkarindji (100km up the road). Maningrida went to Greens who put up a local candidate. They also put the Labor and CLP candidates third and fourth and chose not to give their votes to Tiwi Islanders over the local candidates. Elcho Island went to an independent: well-known community worker (and Balanda) Kendall Trudgen. Ngukurr maintained their Labor support of Borroloola-bred Yanyuwa woman Malarndirri McCarthy giving her 70% of the vote. And so on.

Media commentary is focusing on the shire amalgamations which are very unpopular in the bush and saying that this dissatisfaction caused the result. (Although it should be noted that some shires are functioning better than others. E.g. Roper Gulf seems to me to be doing okay - although still not popular in Ngukurr. West Arnhem looks ok to me from afar. But Victoria Daly and MacDonnell shire look much messier from where I sit.)

In my opinion, the effect of the shires on this election is not just that people don't like them and voted against Labor. There's an additional factor at play which is that people out bush are now looking for new ways to have some power and control over their communities. In addition to the shire amalgamations/loss of local councils, we've had the Intervention, the scrapping of the permit system and the loss of ASSPA funding which have all taken away opportunites for people in remote communities to exert control over their own lives and communities.  This is why we saw more remote people nominating in this election - not just for CLP, but also for Greens and the First Nations party. In the 2008 Election there were 17 candidates standing who weren't from the big two parties. This time around there were 36 - more than double.

This then created the erratic polling results which saw not just swings to CLP, but swings all over the place as more and more remote people put their hands up to get their voice back and try and regain some power and control for their communites. The CLP managed to come out ahead of the mess but it was a scrappy race and a big mish-mash of results. The media commentary seems to have missed this point so far.

July 30, 2012

Coming full circle: the Ngukurr Language Centre needs a Coordinator!

The Ngukurr Language Centre is funded again! Crazy to think really, about how this has come full circle... the first 100 or so posts on this blog were all written when I was toiling away as the linguist at the Ngukurr Language Centre. It was a difficult, but ultimately extremely rewarding job. This blog was originally started as a way for me to cope with the struggles of that job. Life in Ngukurr for me was sometimes (often?) lonely and confusing and so unique that blogging was the best way to help outsiders - and myself! - understand what I was experiencing.

After three long but great years, the circle started turning. My workplace turned sour (not at Ngukurr, but at the head office). I moved back to Katherine in 2007, tired and unmotivated. My time with the organisation ended and I went on to other things (and the blog posts became rather sporadic): three semesters of teaching with Batchelor followed by PhD research and it was time to start spending more time at Ngukurr again. But by then, the little language centre was dusty, broken and mouldy.

Bit by bit, a bunch of us started dusting it off - metaphorically and literally - and now it's an independent organisation with a great little local team ready to see it in full swing again after four long years in the wilderness. And today the Ngukurr Language Centre advertised for its first ever Coordinator!

Very exciting (and nerve-wracking) to see what happens from here. I would definitely consider applying but I have a PhD to finish. Please do the Language Centre a favour and think about being its inaugural coordinator (there's a job ad here). Or send it to someone you think might be good.

My words of encouragement: go for it! It's such a small organisation that the admin aspects are very manageable. The board and local language workers are motivated which makes it easy to deliver great collaborative language projects. You don't have to be a linguist, just manage language projects. Give it a go! It might just be the most exciting, life-changing thing you do for quite a while! :-)

July 17, 2012

How not to report on Indigenous education

Yesterday I got a phone call out of the blue from a journalist from The Australian newspaper. Initially, I felt a bit chuffed being cold-called by a big newspaper. I soon realised however that the journo was asking me about stuff that wasn’t really my area of expertise. She wanted to know about ESL teaching in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands. This is out of my area – geographically (desert, South Australia) and professionally (education, ESL teaching).

When I started to explain that I wasn’t going to be terribly helpful to her, she said ‘Oh. Well I just got your contact details. I don’t really know what you do”. That should have been a big enough clue to realise that there wasn’t going to be much good journalism going on.

When I saw the resulting story, I learned that she didn’t do a good job of reporting on the issue at all. The story, "Language skills poor in 40pc of APY children", can be found here.

It's a prime example of how not to report on Indigenous education. The result is a misleading and negative article. Ultimately, it contributes no worthwhile information to the issue and serves only to perpetuate misconceptions and prejudices many Australians already hold.

The entire premise of the article is flawed. It claims that 40% of children in the APY lands have 'poor language skills' – a claim based on census data of children from 0-14. It implies that it is newsworthy that 225 of those 600 children are not proficient in English. In actual fact it is entirely acceptable, predictable and expected that children in the APY lands up to the age of 5 - which probably number around 225 - would be proficient only in their own Indigenous language. Children are not expected to start to develop English proficiency until they enter the schooling system. The journalist has disappointingly gone for a dramatic sounding headline based on not much news at all.

Regarding that headline, "Language skills poor in 40% of APY children", this is again misleading. It assumes that "language skills" means only English skills. It ignores the fact that all children in that age bracket would have perfectly adequate oral language skills in their mother tongue – Yankunytjatjara or Pitjantjatjara. By ignoring the skills children have in their own language and claiming that they have poor "language" skills (when they really mean “English” skills), it falsely perceives them as deficient. Their Indigenous language skills and knowledge become invisible.

It should also be noted that 225 out of 600 is actually 37.5%, not 40%. Okay, not a big difference, but that’s actually falsely adding 15 kids to the total of kids with ‘poor language skills’. That’s nearly a classroom of kids.

"I've got poor language skills?
How good's your Pitjantjatjara?"
Aboriginal people are regularly fed messages by media that tell them they are unsuccessful in education and many other aspects of life. It is not nice that Sarah Martin has created another of these messages based on insignificant ABS data while at the same time ignoring important language skills that these children have.

I emailed her today with these concerns. I would like to hear back from her. At the very least, I hope she has simply made honest mistakes that she will avoid next time.

Of course, I'm not the only person to comment on negative and misleading reporting on Indigenous issues and its potential affect on Aboriginal people's lives. This article quotes an Aboriginal academic at a health conference who said, "We’re tired of being told that we are helpless, hopeless and useless". The article also quotes Professor Fiona Stanley who advocates for more positive reporting on Aboriginal issues: "The more that the dominant culture reports negative stories about Aboriginal people, the more that Aboriginal children feel bad about being Aboriginal,” says Stanley. She goes on to say:
“I have these fantasy conversations with Rupert Murdoch and say, ‘you could actually turn around Aboriginal people if you could change the way you report, even if you just made just 50 per cent of your articles positive, you could reduce suicide rates.’”
I would happily have that same conversation. If not with Rupert Murdoch, then at least with Sarah Martin.

Further readingIs the media part of the Aboriginal health problem, and part of the solution? by Melissa Sweet. Inside Story, March 3, 2009

June 17, 2012

Ngukurr Language Centre logos

Over the past 18 months I've been doing a lot of work helping Ngukurr mob to get the Ngukurr Language Centre up and running again. I won't bore you with the details but will say that I'm pleased with lots of promising developments that have happening in 18 months. I'm really hoping that the Language Centre will be in full swing again by the end of the year. (All this is thanks to the dedicated elders and language workers in Ngukurr who are committed and passionate about working on their languages).

The one thing I did want to share are the flash new logos for the Ngukurr Language Centre. They are based on a painting that the Language Centre commissioned Ngukurr Arts to do. The Language Centre committee came up with the idea for the logo/painting: three specific kinds of trees. Betty Roberts then did a great little painting of them and then a professional graphic designer turned the painting into a set of three interchangeable logos. I was the middle-man helping make it all happen and am very pleased with the result:

This one is a shade tree called mirnija in Marra (Scientific name: Cathormion umbellatum).

This one is a freshwater mangrove called murrnganawu in Marra. (Scientific name: Barringtonia acutangula)
And this one is very recognisable as pandanus (Pandanus spiralis) aka mugarra (Marra), gunga (Wägilak), (Ngandi), maguj (Nunggubuyu), mu-rok (Ngalakgan) and dayarr (Rembarrnga)

What do you reckon? Okay, I know logos and graphic design don't necessarily directly lead to language revitalisation outcomes but hopefully it contributes to building a strong Ngukurr Language Centre which in turn will lead to it running lots of great language programs.

Nice work Betty, Scott, Ngukurr Arts and the Language Centre committee!

Oh and the Ngukurr Language Centre is on Facebook now too so you can go the page and 'like' it, if you ... well... like it. :-)

May 30, 2012

When did I grow two heads?

So when you've devoted the last 10 years of your life to working on Aboriginal languages it's easy to forget that what you do is actually quite unique in the context of wider (whiter?) society. It's what I do (nearly) every day and what I think about every day and has become completely normalised to me.

I do have enough self-awareness to know that I don't lead an average life and have an interesting job but I wasn't quite ready for the responses I got last night when I talked to a couple of people about what I do. I was chatting to an acquaintance - a tertiary-educated professional who has lived in Katherine long enough - who asked me what my PhD is about. So I gave my spiel that tries to make it sound not completely obscure and esoteric. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "I'm looking at two languages from Ngukurr - Kriol and a traditional language, Marra - and looking at how you talk about the same topic in both languages. Like, a lot of people think that each language has a unique way of describing the world and it reflects that culture. So I'm trying to look closely at that idea because there's only a few old people who speak Marra now and everyone else speaks Kriol."

Other guy: Blank look. Extended pause. Then...

"The other day someone used the word 'pusillanimous' and I had to look it up in a dictionary".

An hour later I was small-talking with another guy I'd just met who is new to Katherine (works for the RAAF) and gave him even simpler details about what I do and was met with a similar blank look and silent response.

Is what I've devoted my life to so bizarre that it leaves even well-educated people who are not strangers to the Katherine Region dumbfounded?

I do understand why a fellow NT-linguist colleague chooses to tell randoms that she's a teacher rather than Aboriginal language linguist. But for me, I don't want to hide what I do from regular people for the sake of social niceties (and therefore perpetuate Aboriginal languages as being 'unseen' and overlooked). If what I do confuses others or makes them uncomfortable then that's their problem, not mine.

May 24, 2012

Nomo ba fan

Just thought I'd share I nice little Kriol turn-of-phrase from yesterday:

Me and three of the Marra gang I work with in Ngukurr travelled to Numbulwar for the day to meet up with the old people there who speak Marra. The wet season is officially over, but on the three-hour drive to Numbulwar we were surprised to find out that there had been quite a bit of rain on the road overnight and a large section had turned to mush. My 4WD slid its way through the mud and got us to the other side but it was pretty hairy.

After a few hours in Numbulwar we noticed clouds developing again (In Marra: mala gana durn-garlindu = clouds are rising/moving) and my baba remarked:
Yu luk dis kloud, im gaman-gaman nomo ba fan. Ba rein im gaman.   
Look at these clouds, they're coming not for fun. For rain, they are coming.
Well said, baba.

So we anxiously took off back to Ngukurr earlier than planned and fortunately the slushy part of the road had dried off a bit and then apparently it poured with rain at Numbulwar last night.

My baba was right: nomo ba fun, those clouds came.

May 09, 2012

Four things that made me cry today

1.Watching for the first time video footage from Ngukurr in the 1980s of two old men speaking the Ngalakgan language to each other. I’ve never heard a conversation in Ngalakgan before. The last person I knew of who spoke Ngalakgan fluently died around 2005.

2. Watching another old video for the first time that featured one of the old Marra ladies I’ve worked with quite a few times in the past couple of years. She’s old and frail and lovely and likes to speak Marra more than English or Kriol. Watching the video of her 30 years ago, speaking only Marra for 45 minutes, made me cry. It made me mourn for a time when the Marra language and the few old people who still speak it were in a much healthier state.

3. I’m currently reading the brilliant book ‘TheTall Man’ by Chloe Hooper. It’s about Cameron Doomadgee who died of horrific internal injuries in a cell of the Palm Island police station in 2004. It’s a horrific, tragic story and very well written book. The book didn’t make me cry today, but finding the trailer for the documentary about it that came out last year did.

4. Then I decided to watch Monday’s 4 Corners program called "Judgement Day" about what happened in Australian politics after the High Court’s Mabo decision that overturned over 200 years of the common law principle of “Terra Nullius” – the premise that Indigenous people didn’t have any rights over their land. It’s a brilliant documentary and quite moving in parts. I love Mick Dodson’s words at the end of the program:
What we want is an acceptance of our history and what has happened to us, the First Australians. Don’t deny the historical truth. If you can do that, you’ll free your heart.
I’ve been moved to tears a lot recently, as I write a chapter in my PhD thesis about the history of the Roper River Region, where Aboriginal people had to deal with invasion, violence, dispossession, the ‘civilising’ and ‘Christianising’ agendas of missionaries and more. Basically, any injustice or tragic story you can think of, that mob have dealt with it. It helps paint the picture about the history and changes that Marra people have gone through and why their language is now critically endangered, usurped by Kriol.

What moves me even more sometimes are the people I work with at Ngukurr who still manage to laugh, joke, smile, nurture their families, welcome and encourage me and continue to struggle on with their difficult lives. I'm looking forward to going back again next week.

May 02, 2012

NT Govt claims "Indigenous language a clear focus"

I'm currently listening live to the Darwin hearing of the Federal Government's inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities and it's gripping stuff (for me, anyway).

The NT Government spoke first this morning and swiftly issued a media release claiming 'Indigenous a clear focus of the Government '. The sentiments are noble and there are certainly some nice projects going on, but for the NT Government to claim it has "clear focus on Indigenous language" is a bit hard to swallow. Yesterday the NT Government handed down their budget and a flurry of self-promoting press releases soon followed. I searched through the 22 press releases and couldn't find a single mention of Indigenous languages.

Furthermore, it's worth reiterating that anything the NT Government does for Indigenous languages is undermined by the "Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four Hours of Each School Day" policy.

Apologies and respect to Minister Malarndirri McCarthy, who spoke very well at today's hearing, but I'm genuinely puzzled as to how and why DET and NT Government supports this policy. It does not lead to any demonstrable benefits. Gary Barnes pretty much told the inquiry today that schools can ignore it. The NT Government has admitted this policy was introduced badly. Marion Scrymgour said it was "put together in a few days". It's been criticised widely from all sorts of people ever since its inception - even right up to the UN. Why do Indigenous students and remote teachers still have to deal with this policy? It is demeaning to Indigenous languages and therefore demeaning to Indigenous people who hold their languages as an vital part of their identity.

A transcript of today's hearing will be available on the website within a week or so.

April 12, 2012

That *is* the point...

Wow. More great stuff coming out of the national Inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. The inquiry committee has just been to Adelaide and it must have been great. I just read through most of the transcript and particulary loved this bit where the Member for Durack (WA), Barry Haase, challenged Kaurna speaker Dr Alitya Rigney about why government funds should spent on reviving Aboriginal languages. She stood up to him very well. More than very well...
Mr HAASE: ... I am trying to wrestle with your concept that the federal taxpayers should make further contribution to the teaching of the language which is—in your own words, but not the same words—almost dead, and you are now resurrecting it. I am trying to find a reason other than an emotional reason, which is important, an artistic reason, which is important, and a cultural reason for the taxpayers of Australia funding this. What is the other reason that would justify the federal government cutting funding from an area that is currently being funded to place additional funds into teaching a language that is all but dead and spoken by just one area of Indigenous Australians?

Dr Rigney: My answer to you, Barry, would be: you pay the rent on this country that you stole from us, and then we would not have to go cap in hand to you every time that we needed funds.

Mr HAASE: That is not the point, if I may.

Dr Rigney: That is the point because the invasion of this country meant that my culture and my language and my commitment to Aboriginal issues was annihilated, was deleted, was eroded. So, for people who invaded some other country, there needs to be a payback system. There needs to be something in place that will not allow the people who owned the country before to have to go cap in hand all the time to ask for money. We would have our own money and we would be able to determine where it goes. That is what I think. I was a taxpayer too, a big taxpayer when I was a principal. Therefore, maybe my taxes should be paid to the Aboriginal committee. There should be some sort of 'pay the rent' in this country for the first nation's people so that we would not be poor citizens and we would be able to do the things that we would like to do for our communities.

The full transcript of the Adelaide hearing can be found here and is well worth a read. Many strong and deadly language workers and linguists spoke to the committee and spoke very well.

I just wish the Hansard would transcribe the bits where people spoke in their language though. I find it insulting and embarassing when they don't. The whole inquiry is about valuing Aboriginal languages more but they can't make the appropriate symbolic gesture of transcribing the various languages that people have spoken to them throughout the hearings? At the very least, they could always make sure that the name of the language spoken is mentioned in the Hansard...

April 05, 2012


While staying at the Language Centre on my last trip to Ngukurr, I was visited daily by Bluey. Bluey is a young buffalo that has been brought up by a family in Ngukurr who live down the road from the Language Centre. Everyday, Bluey wanders the street, eating grass. It freaks me out. It is a very big animal to be in such close proximity to, but more than that, in and around Ngukurr, buffalo are animals to be feared and avoided at all costs (unless you're killing one). So it's a bit disconcerting to all of a sudden have a friendly one around.

I was working with AD at the Language Centre one afternoon when Bluey came for a visit. AD fed him a couple of gingernut biscuits and then I couldn't resist documenting the occasion on my phone:

Although it was completely unplanned, I like this little recording. It's a nice example of spontaneous conversational and entertaining Kriol. Here's a transcript:
Juy! Yu gu na la kemp, no daga. Najing
Glenda jeya luuuuuuk!!! Glenda!!
Main gagu iya!
Minbala gagu bin kaman iya la im gagu iya.
Baitim im!
Ai bin regen wanbala garrwiri iya, gardi, tubala, gardi
Bluwi! Yu luk Glenda garri witbik tharrai luuuu, la kemp.
Baba, im gin galima iya. Mi dali yu. Imin meigim mami ting dijan iya, gidap-
And here's a translation:
Scram! Go now, home, there's no food. Nothing.
Glenda is there, see!? Glenda!
My grandson is here! (the buffalo is AD and my 'grandson')
Our grandson came here to his grandfather here.
(To the dogs): Bite him!
I thought there was one dog here, geez, there are two, goodness.
(Back to Bluey): Bluey! Look Glenda has weetbix over there, see, at home.
(To me): Brother, he can climp up here. I'm telling you. He made mum whatchamacalit, he did, get up-
If you're after more info, I'll go through some of the content of this recording to show some of the interesting things going on. A lot of people don't realise how complex Kriol can be so I thought I'd try and illustrate: 

March 25, 2012

Scrymgour's Bad Language

I don't mention it much here, but I've been doing occasional bits of writing elsewhere on the net. Mostly, for the language blog on Crikey, Fully (sic). (You can see my contributions here).

Last week I got a piece published by another website, New Matilda, which is quite a well-regarded independent news and analysis website. I was very pleased that New Matilda published my article. It's a reflection on Marion Scrymgour's time in politics, in particular with the role she played in canning bilingual education after a 34 year history in the NT. You can read my piece here.

I was inspired to write it because ABC News in Darwin ran a story about Marion leaving politics and discussed her legacy. Except they didn't mention a thing about her introducing one of the most ridiculous policies I've ever seen - the "Compulsory Teaching In English For The First Four Hours" policy. I'm glad my article was published to counter the glossier stories that came out about Marion.

The day after my article was published, Scrymgour appeared on 7:30NT and talked quite candidly about her time in politics and this time the ABC did bring up the bilingual education issue. Marion was quite frank, talked about her regrets and seemed somewhat apologetic about the whole affair. However, reading the transcript her ideas still seem muddled and she falls short of acknowledging that the policy she introduced wasn't a good one. Here's part of the interview:

7:30NT: You’ve said education is the key to delivering change in Indigenous communities and closing the gap, but you were in charge of education in the Territory in 2008. Do you concede that perhaps you played a part in the failure to deliver any change for Indigenous education?
Marion Scrymgour: Yeah, look, I… I… one of the biggest things, Louisa, and I-… one of the biggest regrets that I have is the way in which I communicated, at the time when I was the minister, the whole issue of bilingual in the Northern Territory. Now, it was never my intention – never – to remove Aboriginal languages from being used a tool for the instruction for English but I think that many people had misinterpreted that and I didn’t help that by communicating and saying that Aboriginal people shall only speak English for the first four hours which wasn’t true. Um, so do I have regrets? I certainly do, I think that, you know, in that instance it could have been done better and if I had my time over I probably would do it differently, however I don’t retreat from the fact that we-, that I thought that the debate we were having about languages was a red herring. That kids have got to get to school – that’s the big issue is the attendance.
I suppose it's easier to be honest when you are retiring and have less at stake. Pity that NT Labor and NT DET are still sticking by Marion's policy. God knows why. As you can see in the New Matilda article, it's been getting torn to shreds for 4 years now and has brought nothing positive.

March 14, 2012

Government inquiry into Indigenous languages: update

I haven't posted about this much but I've been keenly keeping up with the House of Reps inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. They're now well into the public hearings and the dates for NT have been set which I'll be very interested in. I just discovered the most recent transcript from the inquiry's public hearings which was with DEEWR - the federal department responsible for education. I found it quite riveting! Go here and it's the hearing from March 1.

In particular, my jaw dropped at the bit where Dr. Amanda Day, Acting Branch Manager, National Curriculum Branch, demonstrates that she adheres to the myth that good English outcomes and bilingual education are incompatible. Clearly, she doesn't get that bilingual education can and does produce excellent outcomes for English language learning:
CHAIR: All right. You mentioned in your report about the tension that exists between bilingual language learning and of course being fluent. There are two aspects to this inquiry: English language learning, of course, in Indigenous communities as well as the maintenance of and revitalisation of Indigenous languages. Can you comment about the tension that exists? In your submission you actually make the point on page 12.  
Dr Day:  Yes, thank you, Chair.  
CHAIR:  It is a point that has been made elsewhere, by the way—in other submissions. It has been commented upon frequently. I am interested in what DEEWR has to say about it.  
Dr Day:  We did say that there is a tension between maintaining the benefits of bilingual education with the need for all Australian students to have the opportunity to also speak, read and write in English so that they can interact across and within contemporary Australian society. The department is aware of models that exist across Australia of successful bilingual schools that offer students that opportunity to interact. 
The government's position on bilingual education is detailed in the submission. The government recognises the important role that Indigenous language learning currently plays in some schools, including bilingual schools, but there are issues in implementing it. A bilingual program is really a matter for individual jurisdictions to determine, as I outlined earlier, and there needs to be highly significant input from the local community. 
For any child proficiency in their home language is considered important to their identity, their self-esteem and their cultural connections to land and country, but it is equally important that young people are able to converse in English. That is where the tension exists—between the balance, I guess, of how to have young people who are English literate but also being able to speak in their home language. Families and communities for indisputable reasons want their children to speak their home language but also have a desire to have their children be able to be engaged in mainstream society and have life opportunities. There is a tension there. Strong language skills in English support the government's vision of a socially inclusive society, as well as being able to provide employability skills, and literacy and numeracy being a part of that skill set that all students need.
In the words of comedian Eddie Izzard who took the piss out of the monolingual mindset, Dr. Day clearly is one of those who would say: "Two languages in one head??!! No-one can live at that speed!! Good lord, you're asking the impossbile!"

On the plus side, the DEEWR mob did plainly acknowledge that they have no evidence to say that the "First Four Hours of English" policy is bringing any benefit:

Dr STONE:  Four hours and three is it, or four and two—whatever that new ratio is that they demand. Were you consulted and are you happy with that as a curriculum development or a development in pedagogy in those places?

Mr Goodwin:  Certainly the Northern Territory government makes decisions, as Dr Day intimated, abouthow it runs its schools. My area in the department was not consulted by the Northern Territory department, but I would not put any store in the lack of consultation there, because we do not tell jurisdictions how run their schools. I think that decision is actually a few years old now and was made by the Northern Territory government in 2008. No, my area, as I said, certainly was not consulted. I do not know whether the minister at the time was consulted. Sorry, what was the second part of your question? 

Dr STONE:  It was whether you felt that that was a good development. Is there any assessment or
evaluation yet which says, 'Yes, this is in fact leading to more children retaining home language and
learning English, retention rates of kids at schools, parent engagement in the schools and so on'? Is there any evidence yet of how that new regime is working? 

Mr Goodwin:  There is no evidence that I am aware of. There may well have been studies done, but certainly nothing has come across my desk.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of the inquiry's public hearings that will be held in the NT in April and May. I'm especially looking forward to them getting a bit of media attention (which they better had!), because I think there will be a lot of questions asked about the NT Government's pathetic treatment of Indigenous languages.

March 07, 2012

Rain is raining

I'm in the middle of another quick trip to Ngukurr and this afternoon, as I had some quiet time to work on my own, it started to rain. Immediately, a relevant Marra phrase sprang to mind:

Gubijiji jil-ajurlu!

It is another nice little example of what a lovely language it is. While boring old English has the noun 'rain' and lazily uses that to make the verb 'to rain'/'raining', Marra is cleverer. There is the noun, gubijiji, and a special verb, jil-ajurlu, which means 'it's raining'.

So if I wanted to translate gubijiji jil-ajurlu into English in a literal way, I'd end up with:

Rain is raining.

What a primitive language English is! :-P  The rain is lovely though...

February 24, 2012

Facebook in Kriol!

Ever since I became addicted to Facebook 6 or 7 years ago, I've wanted to have the interface available in Kriol. (You can have it in French, Pirate, Upside Down English and Icelandic, but all the small languages like Kriol missed out).

Well, now you can! A very clever fellow wrote some code that lets you translate some of the most common words and phrases on the Facebook interface into whatever language you like. So I whipped up a Kriol version and hey presto - here's what my Facebook looks like now:

It's really easy and fun, and it actually does make me more inclined to write stuff in Kriol. It's available for anyone to install on their own computer and absolutely free. So, if you want to have FB in Kriol too, here's what to do:

Installing Facebook in Kriol on your computer:
So far this only works on computers where you can download and install a little file. It won't work on mobiles etc.
1. Make sure your Facebook account's language is set to "English (US)". (To check, go to the down arrow in the top right hand corner, then "Account Settings" and then "Language")

2. What Internet Browser do you use? So far, I only know how to make this work on Firefox and Google Chrome. If you don't have these browsers, then you can download them very quickly and easily.  If/when you have Google Chrome, you can go straight to Step 3.

If you use Firefox for your Internet browser, then go here: and install the "add-on". Then go to Step 3.

3. Follow the link: and click "install" in the top right hand corner. You might need to close the browser and re-open it, but basically that's all there is to it. Your FB should now have Kriol all over it!

A few other notes
  • only some parts of the Facebook interface are available for translation. A lot of bits will still be in English.
  • I did the translations myself, based on Roper Kriol (as spoken in Ngukurr), and I did them very quickly, so there might be mistakes. If you have suggestions for improvements or notice something that sounds funny, then please tell me and we can work on fixing it up.
  • Feel free to pass these instructions on to anyone who might be interested.
This was very easy to do, so if you want to do it for a language that you know, then go for it! It was developed by a guy named Kevin Scannell. He just send me a little file and some instructions. I translated a bunch of phrases, sent it back to him and that was it! His contact details are available here:

Lastly, here's another example of what my new Kriol Facebook looks like. I love it!

If you have a go at doing this yourself, I'd love to hear how you go with it.

January 31, 2012

The NT is a hotmess

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Calling the police in the NT now goes to a centralised call centre in Darwin where the people who answer the calls have zero local knowledge. Elders in Lajamanu want to contact local community police but instead get a nitwit in Darwin asking ridiculous questions. (And would the police have Aboriginal language-speaking interpreters on stand-by? Don’t think so!). Nobody outside of Darwin wants this new centralised police call centre.

School starts today. Thousands of kids who speak Aboriginal languages are denied receiving an education in their own language. Attendance in remote schools is worse than ever and the Federal Government is rolling out the “No School, No Food” policy which has been shown to *not* work. The Ed. Dept is now recruiting teachers with no teaching qualifications, bringing in more outsiders who are clueless about working in remote Aboriginal Australia, even if their heart is in the right place.
The Australian Human Rights commission says the Super Shires might be worse than the intervention. From Mick Gooda:
I have not heard one person say anything positive about what has happened. People feel totally disempowered by it and if we don't do something about getting ... governance structures back into the communities, the outcome of this amalgamation will be probably worse than the Northern Territory Intervention.
Barack and Julia think it's all a bit of a laugh.
Darwin, 2011
Phase two of the Intervention, labelled “Stronger Futures”, is being put through parliament. A senate inquiry has begun and many in the NT just want to see the Intervention and its remnants gone for good. Take a look at the submission from Ramingining elders to see how those subjected to these policies feel:
The intervention has been here for 5 years and what did it do? We got fences on our houses, but no new houses. Not for Yolŋu, only Balanda. No extra jobs.

We want our right to self-determination. We don’t want to be controlled from the outside.

We want our community councils back, and our assets returned. We want to be able to have a say in the foundation of any laws that effect Yolŋu in our communities.

We want bilingual education brought back. Every study shows that it is better for our people. We want elders to have a say in curriculums so it is relevant to our lives.

…we need our laws to be recognised along with Balanda laws.Our law is the basis of our society. We want our law recognised. We want our law holders to be recognised.

We are the land holders in our communities.
It is our land, it is our community and it is subject to our law.
We will not be assimilated by these policies.
Meanwhile, our politicians are more worried about some bratty kids who burned a bit of fabric with some stars on it…
 … 3000kms away.

Ah, the magic of the NT. You’ll never never know, if you never never go.

January 11, 2012

Mums and aunties (if only it were that simple)

Hi everyone!

So I'm in Canberra at the moment trying to be a studious linguist and get this PhD done. I have my mid-term review coming up where I'll be giving a seminar about words you use in Marra and Kriol to talk about family (kinterms).

Can I just say, unequivocally, that Marra people have an amazingly complex way of talking about their family. I mean, I'm not surprised by this as Marra people, like all Aboriginal people, place so much importance on family and maintaining family relationships. But still, I'm slightly blown away by the kin terminology Marra people use. To demonstrate this, I'll try and explain how Marra people would talk about people who in English, we'd call mum or aunty:

So, if I was speaking Marra and wanted to call out to my mum or talk about my mum, I'd use the word gajirri. I'd also use this word if I was calling out to or talking about any of my mum's younger sisters. If I was calling out to or talking about my mum's big sisters, I'd need a different word: ngajamu. In English,  ngajamu would be my aunty. But, my father's sisters - who I'd also call aunty in English - are not my ngajamu or gajirri, but I'd call them barnarna.

So we have three words here:

gajirri (mother, mum's little sisters)
ngajamu (mum's big sisters)
barnarna (dad's sisters)

However, if I wanted to talk about the people that are *your* mother, mother's little and big sisters or your dad's sisters, I need different words:

bibi (your mother and her little sisters)
jamulmarr (your mother's big sisters)
marrimarr (your dad's sisters)

Then, if we're talking about someone else's mother, mother's sisters or dad's sisters, we need different words again:

garrnya (someone else's mother and her little sisters)
jamulnganja (someone else's mum's big sisters)
marringanja (someone else's dad's sisters)

Phew! And these are just nine of the 100 or so different kinterms used in the Marra language. Crazy and awesome.

P.S. Hi mum! :-)