Strengthening Australia's Indigenous languages: the relationship between community and linguists

Bell, Jeanie
Bell, Jeanie
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Starting Page
Ending Page
Alternative Title
Of the 250 traditional languages once spoken on the continent of Australia as recently as 100 years ago, there are now today only 20-30 languages considered to be healthy and viable into the foreseeable future as full languages. ‘Prior to British invasion, linguists estimated that there were approximately 230 languages, with between 500 and 600 dialects being spoken throughout the continent. (Fesl:1993, p8) While today many languages are being revived and maintained in different ways for future generations, the current situation with the lessening of fluent speakers and the intergenerational transmission of languages is of increasing concern to the remaining speakers and traditional custodians. of these languages. In this paper I discuss the work being carried out in Australia by Aboriginal women dedicated to the cause of language revival and maintenance in their endeavours as trained linguists, language workers or community researchers. These women are also language activists on behalf of their communities and they regularly work with non-Indigenous linguists who have an interest and concern for the futute of Australian Aboriginal languages. While many of the relationships between University trained linguists and community language workers work well in many situations, at times tensions do arise particularly if the Aboriginal member of the language team believes they have little power to negotiate their role and contribution to the project in a meaningful way. These Issues between the two groups can lead to further discontent if they are not addressed openly and with the pursuit of a satisfactory outcome. As a qualified linguist and an Aboriginal community person, I believe there must be more discussion around pertinent issues such as the control and management of language materials, intellectual proprerty rights and the return of products back to the community. Dialogue needs to happen in a non-threatening way for either group, ultimately fostering more productive relationships. Aboriginal people who participate in linguistic research projects or revival and maintenance language programs may feel powerless due to a lack of training and/or knowledge and understanding of linguistics or simply because they don’t have a high level of speaking competence in their own language which they may have for many decades had little or no access to. In order to strengthen their negotiating position within a language research team or language project there needs to be a more widely accepted and endorsed inclusive collaborative approach from beginning to end. In discussing particular issues of contention related to language work happening in many communities around Australia, I place the discussion within the current framework of Indigenest research methodologies as framed by leading Indigenous researcher Smith (2001), with a specific focus on intellectual and cultural property rights, and the ‘reporting back’ of results to Indigenous communities. As Smith states in her ground-breaking publication ‘Decolonizing Methodologies' (2001:p15) “Some methodologies regard the values and beliefs, practices and customs of communities as 'barriers' to research… Indigenous methodologies tend to approach cultural protocols, values and behaviour as an integral part of methodology. There are diverse ways of disseminating knowledge and of ensuring that research reaches the people who have helped make it. Two important ways not always addressed by scientific research are to do with 'reporting back' to the people and 'sharing knowledge'. Both ways assume a principle of reciprocity and feedback.” In conversation with Australian Aboriginal women involved in language and culture business in their respective communities, similar ideals as those expressed by Smith (2001) are strongly stated. While they work to maintain these ideals through a community focussed approach and practice in the development of their language programs may not be explained by them in the same way as described by Smith (2001) their work nonetheless closely reflects her philosophy. For instance when I spoke to Vicki Couzens, a widely acclaimed Aboriginal visual artist and cultural warrior, at her art gallery in Port Fairy in SW Victoria, adjacent to her own traditional land of the Keeray Wooroong people, she spoke of how she actively promotes the use of her Ancestral language in many different ways through her multi dimensional artwork within and across family and community situations. "But with cultural remembering in the way the old people take you on journeys in your dreams, you are given a certain role and we grow into that there are certain things that happen along the way. That's what motivates me it is so central and language is at the core of that culture and all the information if held in the language.' (pers.comm. with Author:2008) For most non-Indigenous linguists a scientific interest in Australian languages is motivated by a specific semantic, grammatical or typology feature in one or more of these languages, which often requires research involving ongoing investigation and analysis. While many wish to give back to the local Aboriginal language community, they may also concerned to document and analyse the dwindling numbers of endangered languages worldwide and linguistic diversity for future generations. However there are concerns about the usefulness of this work to the community if the linguist involved does not understand the needs of the language community. Eira states in a paper she delivered at a FEL Conference in Malaysia in late 2007 the following: "Nonetheless, when linguists particpate in work on endangered languages, we focus on the language itself - collecting language, analysing language, its grammar, its words etc. This has the effect of ignoring the ground of language endangerment. More importantly, it ignores the ways in which our work can actually perpetuate the status quo of unequal relations between groups. Because we still interact from a position of authority in the languages we are working with, we are maintaining the dominance of an outsider instead of acknowledging and supporting the authority of the community in their language." (Eira:2007) In order for this very valuable work to continue to benefit Aboriginal community people who are struggling to keep their traditional languages alive and strong, and for both Aboriginal community members and linguists to receive meaningful reward from this process, it is critical that there be an ongoing dialogue around the critical issues facing all of us involved in this area. 'Rather than attempting to impose our research interests, our project was formed as listening to the community's needs, forming lasting relationships.' (Otsuka and Wong: 2007) Bibliography Eira, C., 'Addressing the ground of language endangerment'. Working together for endangered languages: Research challenges and social impacts. Proceedings of Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference XI. Kaula Lumpur, October, 2007. Fesl, E. M., 'Conned' University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1993. Smith, L.T., 'Decolonizing Methodologies: research and Indigenous people.' University of Otaga, New Zealand. 2001 Otsuka,d Y. and Wong, A., 'Fostering the Growth of Budding Community Initiatives: The Role of Linguists in Tokelauan Maintenance in Hawai'i' in Language Documentation & Conservation;, Vol 1, No 2 (December, 2007) University of Hawii (online Journal).
Geographic Location
Time Period
Related To
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Rights Holder
Email if you need this content in ADA-compliant format.