January 29, 2014

Linguists supporting communities: We did it well before. Did we lose our way?

The other day a discussion topic came through via email about 'supporting community researchers in the field'. The discussion topic was introduced as:
The ways that linguists work with communities is starting to change. The idea of doing research on or in a community is shifting to doing research with the community. The movement towards community-based and participatory fieldwork models in Linguistics mirrors shifts in other disciplines such as health research.
Okay, I know the above was just a quick way to introduce the topic but it tapped into a bigger issue and I felt the need to write the following... *steps up on to soapbox* 

Disclaimer: I'm not criticising the many of us who do linguistic fieldwork and try our best (often with great success) to increase local involvement, exchange skills and knowledge and so on. Nor am I criticising the organisations who do deliver great training and do great community-based work. Nor am I implying that this is a redundant topic of discussion - the more this is talked about the better. I simply want to add to the discussion (albeit in a bit of a provocative way) and offer some discussion of where we're at with non-Indigenous linguists working on Aboriginal and Islander languages.

I want to delve further into the statement that "the ways that linguists work with communities is starting to change". While this may be true on a global scale, I argue that in the Australian context we have actually been going backwards for the past 20-30 years in regard to community development and community-based aspects of linguistic work. (The great work of RNLD is a notable exception). The recent discussion topic listed a bunch of references describing how to do collaborative research in community, but they were from international scholars. Let's not forget that in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Australian linguistics was a world leader and, I'd say, well ahead of where we are now in terms of community development, training and engagement. I don't think it's a case of things "starting to change" in a new direction. I think it's a case of 'been there, done that', and we've lost our way a bit and how do we get it back. I'm referring here to precedents like the School of Australian Linguistics (SAL) that started in the 1970s in what later evolved to become Batchelor Institute. They pioneered providing linguistic training to speakers of Aboriginal and TSI languages (see Black and Breen 2001). Wasn't it SAL's fantastic work that provided skilled Aboriginal staff who were the backbone to the NT's bilingual schools which at one stage numbered over 20? And one of SAL's star students was the author of the *only* peer-reviewed linguistics article ever written *in* an Australian language (see Bani 1987). Institutions like bilingual education and SAL/Batchelor Institute were marvels in terms of linguistics training and community development for Aboriginal and Islander people and their languages compared to what we have today. They also laid the foundation for the many community controlled language centres that popped up around Australia. Then we had the groundbreaking 1984 statement of the Linguistic Rights of Aboriginal and Islander Communities by the Australian Linguistic Society (taking a stab in the dark, my guess is that many young linguists don't even know this statement exists). Then there's David Wilkins' groundbreaking article on "Linguistic Research under Aboriginal Control" (1992). David was one of a bunch of pioneering linguists who in that era were, in my view, leaps and bounds ahead of the efforts that most linguists make today to give primacy to Aboriginal people in our research. Others that spring to mind are Jean Harkins (1994) and Diana Eades' fabulous PhD research done under the supervision of Michael Williams (1983). All this work exemplifies Australians leading the way globally and really put Aboriginal and Islander people in the co-pilot seat when it came to linguistic research. But slowly, a lot of it this has been in decline in recent decades and has declined under our watch. Bilingual programs have been largely abandoned. Batchelor Institute's language and linguistics section is a shadow of its former self. A number of Language Centres have become dysfunctional and/or declined. And through these declines, we have failed to compensate with equivalent new programs or institutions nor have we built up the engagement of Aboriginal and Islander linguists with our universities. I am skeptical that a majority of contemporary linguists are aware of AIATSIS's Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Communities, let alone adhere to them. If we did all follow AIATSIS' guidelines, then we would already be engaging better with community members we work with in the field and the need to even discuss this topic would be diminished.

I am being deliberately provocative here, but I think there's a point to be made that we don't need to look internationally for leadership in how to better do collaboration, community development and training in our work as linguists. I don't think we need to mirror what other disciplines do in terms of collaborative research. We paved the way! We've already proven historically that we can do it. I think what we should be about is trying to regain what we've lost in the past 20-30 years. Our professional body, the ALS, produces an excellent academic journal and hosts a great national annual conference but does next to nothing in terms of advocacy. Why do there seem to be more emerging and early career linguists gluing themselves to universities rather than getting out there and working for language centres, training and working in education, working for interpreting services, being content to work on collaborative community projects? (There are plenty of exceptions to this, I acknowledge that). Why do those that devote large chunks of their work to community pursuits seem to often be on the fringe of linguistics in Australia? The Joyce Hudsons, the David Wilkinses, the Rob Amerys, the Christina Eiras, the Anna Ashs and Amanda Lissarragues, the MaryAnn Gales, the John Hobsons, the Melanie Wilkinsons, the Jenny Greens, the Murray Gardes and RNLD's own Margaret Florey and so on... These guys are some of my heroes and represent best practice when it comes to non-Indigenous linguists doing collaborative linguistics in Aboriginal communities, but personally I don't think they get the recognition they deserve from our linguistics community.

Don't get me wrong, I love the work that linguists do in Australia in relation to Australian languages in all the diverse ways that we do it. And there are so many trailblazers and people doing great stuff around Australia right now. To know how to support community researchers and do community development, we don't need to look abroad or to other fields. We can look back at what was happening in Australian linguistics before, and also better recognise and learn from those who already do this stuff well and use that as a benchmark for where we should be. 

[/rant] *gets off soapbox* Thanks for listening.


AIATSIS. 2012. Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies. Canberra: AIATSIS.

Bani, Ephraim. 1987. 'Garka a ipika: masculine and feminine grammatical gender in Kala Lagaw Ya'. Australian Journal of Linguistics. 7(2): 189-201.

Black, Paul and Gavan Breen. 2001. 'The School of Australian Linguistics'. In Forty Years On: Ken Hale and Australian Languages. Eds: Jane Simpson et al. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 161-178.

Eades, Diana. 1983. English as an Aboriginal Language in Southeast Queensland. PhD thesis: University of Queensland.

Harkins, Jean. 1994. Bridging Two Worlds: Aboriginal English and cross-cultural understanding. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Wilkins, David. 1992. 'Linguistic Research under Aboriginal Control: A personal account of fieldwork in Central Australia'. Australian Journal of Linguistics. 12:171-200.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hello Greg,

great post. Some reflections from me (that reflect my lack of particular knowledge about contemporary linguistics).

Firstly, I think that linguistics is no different to most non-Aboriginal involvement in NT Aboriginal communities. It's marked by very poor institutional coherence or memory and, over the last decade or two, has become much more removed and disempowering - despite a proliferation of 'guidelines', 'statements', etc.
In this sense, it's part of a bigger problem of non-Aboriginal engagement - or lack of it - with Aboriginal people. The question is, how do we overcome this apathy in regards to engagement with Aboriginal people?

Secondly, as linguistics, and other disciplines, have become more atomised, so the scope of their work has become narrower and the means (understanding language so it can be taught, revitalised, used!) has become the end (understanding language for its own sake, with little thought for what this work contributes to the actual owners of the language - let alone the burden placed on over-burdened community members by yet more 'research' that delivers few tangible results to them). For me, any intellectual engagement in Aboriginal communities has to (or at least attempt to) be primarily for the benefit of the community members - and to be so, it should be supporting them to solve problems they have defined with solutions they have defined. In other words, the priority of linguistics should be community development and empowerment, not academic progress.
To continue your theme of controversialness (there's a new word!) Greg, in the case of linguistics, many see dying languages as a tragedy and then go in to 'help' to save them. While I have no doubt people want to keep their languages, there are also ceremonies, laws, relationships to land - as well as people! - that are 'dying', and sometimes those things are more immediately important to people. Coming in to help 'save' a language without an understanding of the larger context can be not only ineffective, but actually damaging.
(To emphasise, I don't doubt the worth of saving language or the centrality of language - a reason why seasoned linguists often have as good an understanding of community dynamics at a deep level as anthropolgists).

Lastly, and related, like many other fields of both academia and administration, I don't think linguistics has a clear idea of its context. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there's a very rigorous or clear idea of why languages are dying - let alone what can be done to reverse it. For me, the answer is very unclear, but lies in much broader ideas about powerlessness and re-gaining autonomy. Without working within a broader framework of (to use a very unfashionable word) liberation, I think a lot of work that outsiders do with - or to! - Aboriginal people is bound to be ineffective - or worse.

On your point that things in Australia used to be ground-breaking, I can only agree - and agree that a lot of what we need to do is merely remember the past and do the many things that have been proven to be effective!

Now I'll get off soapbox!