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.