December 04, 2011

Conferenced out but what fun! (Langfest recap Pt. 1)

After sweating it out in Katherine and Ngukurr over the past few months and doing lotsa really enjoyable and good work with the Ngukurr mob (which I haven't shared nearly enough of on this blog), I've now landed back in cold country (Canberra) just as the rain starts in the north and makes travel difficult again for a few months.

I timed my return to Canberra for Langfest - a series of linguistics conferences held by various national language and linguistics associations - and I'm sitting here tired and fatigued from five long days of stimulating linguistics presentations and the endless socialising that happens throughout these events. Despite my fatigue, it's all been really great and I'm going to attempt a bit of a recap here. I could write a minor thesis on all the talks I went to and the ideas they threw up, but I'm just going to start writing and see how I go. Maybe a reader or two will stay with me!

The first two days were for the Applied Linguistics conference (joint annual conferences of ALAA and ALANZ - the applied linguistics associations of Australia and New Zealand). It started on a great note with an excellent plenary by Andy Kirkpatrick from Griffith Uni who talked about English as a lingua franca in SE Asia. This was a topic I'd never thought about before but Andy's material was very engaging. Two tidbits from the talk stuck with me:

He talked about education in the Philippines and questioned the value of teaching in English and Filipino when most students spoke neither language, but often spoke a local language (e.g. Bohol) plus a regional language (e.g. Cebuano). Apparently the rate of students dropping out of school around year 5 is horrific which is probably a result of such an linguistically alienating education system. This resonated very strongly with me, thinking about the NT where Aboriginal languages are restricted from being the language of instruction and attendance rates are also horrific. This was comforting in a weird way - comforting to know that the crap we are dealing with in the NT isn't  unique but just what happens when Mother Tongue Education is ignored.

Andy also talked about Chinese education in SE Asia and commented on Kevin Rudd and his Putonghua ("standard" Chinese, cf. Guangdonghua and other varieties) skills. In Australia, his bilingualism was not widely respected. Andy condemned Australian attitudes towards Rudd's Chinese speaking and attitudes towards bilingualism in general, saying that many Aussies feel that "when you speak another language, then you're siding with the enemy". I was aware of this attitude, but what I, like most Australians, wasn't aware of was the Rudd's Chinese-speaking talents caused a huge ruckus in Singapore who apparently freaked out at "an Anglo speaking better Mandarin than anyone in Singapore cabinet!". Maybe if more Aussies realised that K-Rudd's Chinese gave us international cred like this example shows than fewer would have disparaged it.

I spent a lot of the Applied Linguistics conference listening to talks about Aboriginal English and work going on in education with Aboriginal and Islander kids who don't speak English the same way most of their Anglo teachers do. There are some really interesting projects going on. I particularly liked the research that Ian Malcolm discussed by Sharifian which compared the ways Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids retold a story. The research demonstrated that each group brings their own 'cultural schema' to the task. For example, Aboriginal kids would pay attention to details in the story like that the woman in the story was a widow but the Anglo kids would focus on other aspects. I like research on Aboriginal English that goes beyond listing grammatical and phonological features and this was a nice example.

On the other hand, I do sort of cringe at quite a bit of research on Aboriginal English. In my experience, it's not a label that many Aboriginal people feel comfortable in applying to themselves and the way they speak. There's a real danger in pigeon-holing Aboriginal people with the label, as Aboriginal English is nowhere near as prestigious as Anglo English and also many or most Aboriginal people are sophisticated code-switchers who are very competent users of more standard forms of English and are rarely if ever monodialectal. But still, it's an interesting field and sensitively-done research can be really revealing and exciting.

Okay, well I'll have to call this Part One of my conference recap as it's now 1am and I have be up and ready for Uni in a few hours!  Goodnight all. Hopefully I get around to telling you more about langfest tomorrow.