May 28, 2014

The subtle devaluing of Aboriginal languages

I just had a small talk conversation with a stranger that went something like this:
Me: I'm a linguist and I work on Aboriginal languages.
Them: Oh cool, what languages do you speak?
Me: Well I know bits of all the languages around here (i.e. Ngukurr) but Kriol is my strongest language apart from English.
Them: But do you know other languages too?
Me: Oh well yeah I know a bit of German and I was an exchange student in Iceland so I learned Icelandic a long time ago...
Notice that when I tell them I know Aboriginal languages, it doesn't satisfy or fully answer their question? They want to know more: what other languages do you know, as in what real languages do you know. I've had this conversation many times. Enough to recognise it as a clear sign that Aboriginal languages aren't seen as equal to foreign languages.

This subtle devaluing is revealed in other ways too, such as when Average-Jos refer to Aboriginal languages as 'dialects' in casual conversation. Here's another dialogue I've had many time before:
Me: I work on Aboriginal languages
Them: Oh, there are heaps of dialects, aren't there?
Me: Languages. They're distinct languages, actually.
As Ruth Singer pointed out in the comments of her and Rachel Nordlinger's very excellent recent article:
... Indigenous languages are affected by a general prejudice pertaining to Indigenous cultural assets. I find that people often refer to them as 'dialects' perhaps because this term does not imply anything with as much status as a 'language'.
These are such subtle put-downs that denigrate Aboriginal languages that you'd barely even notice. And I also find that people who talk like this are almost always well-meaning. When I tell people that I know Icelandic, I can see the gleam in their eye that I've given them a great answer and I feel validated or a bit special. "Wow, how did you learn that?" The flipside though is that I feel rotten that telling someone that I know some Marra and speak Kriol fluently is insufficient and I don't know what else... obscure, irrelevant, a waste of time?
I'm sorry to any readers who recognise themselves talking like this. I don't mean to make anyone feel bad. This way of speaking about Aboriginal languages is incredibly widespread and common so I would never hold it against anyone. But I do hope that I've demonstrated that even friendly conversations reveal that it's very common for Aboriginal languages to be subtly devalued and not afforded the same status as foreign languages.