Friday, August 21, 2009

Another day, another set of things to do!

I have been running well behind on my history project, so have spent the last few days trying to catch up. At the moment I am still focused on trying to understand the Aboriginal languages of New England.

Yesterday on the train home I wrote some notes on a lecture by Professor Austin on extinction and revival in the world's languages. Did you know that a language dies every two weeks? I was struck by this. Peter Austin puts forward a simple structure for judging the health of a language. I read this after writing some notes on the way and the reasons why the New England languages declined, so immediately wrote some more to integrate this with Professor Austin's views.

In all this, what began as a simple building block - an analysis of language distribution at the time of European colonisation - has become something more. To understand distribution, I had to understand something about the languages themselves. In turn, this led me to look at who had recorded the languages, because this varied over time, leading then to the language revival movement. So my simple building block has become a multi-faceted piece trying to trace change and thought over time.

I think that I at least have the structure right now. I begin with an introduction to Aboriginal languages using some New England examples to illustrate. Then I look in a general sense at change and decline, followed by a discussion of those who recorded the languages. A review of languages and language distribution at the the time of colonisation is the next slab. The piece finishes with a discussion of the language revival movement.

There are still gaps. I am also conscious that I am not a linguist, so will make mistakes. But given my type of mind, I am finding it very interesting. It would have been a great error just to write on language distribution and the links between this and geography. It's not just that I have been drawn into a broader story In trying to understand the languages themselves as well as those who recorded them, I have also gained insights into my original objective.

I also find it interesting if also a little sad just how few people, including Aboriginal people, know about some of the things that I am writing about. I know that the world is a crowded place, but things get siloed into little specialist boxes and so become inaccessible to the broader community. There are some quite remarkable and fascinating stories.

This internet is a wonderful place. Yesterday I received an email from Canberra from another New Englander. He had read a post I had written, one of my earlier building blocks, on the Hunter valley languages where I quoted Norman Tindale. He said that Tindale was wrong and is sending me the book he wrote on Kamilaroi Lands. It also appears that he quotes one J Belshaw 1966 in that book! Gee the world's a small place.

Obviously I am an enthusiast by nature. Still, I take some pleasure in the fact that I have been able to interest at least a few people in Aboriginal languages in general and New England's languages in particular.

I need this. Yesterday Neil had a piece quoting some views of Professor Dodson. I read this while tired and also a little depressed. Fortunately I didn't respond at the time other than a comment. It is a perfectly reasonable post, while Professor Dodson's views deserve respect. At the time, though, my first reaction was to feel here we go again.

I have written a fair bit on Indigenous policy, although circumstances (the work I am doing just at present) mean that I have had to exercise care in recent writing. I have also suffered from fits of periodic depression at the way we keep repeating past mistakes. I write in bursts then say no more, it's just too hard, I don't want to talk about this.

I have argued for a long while that we need a new frame in considering issues associated with Australia's Indigenous people, although my approach is not necessarily the same as Professor Dodson's. Central to this is the need to see Aborigines as people, not a cause, to recognise and respond to diversity.

I don't think that the policy writing I have done has had any real impact, although it has been useful at specific points in ways that I may write about at some later stage. The research and writing that has had at least a little impact has been my very specific New England stuff and this because I have been able to interest people, to get them to see connections and to personalise.

People find it hard to understand the big stuff. They respond to the personal and local.

Crikey, It really is time to get to work!


It is always a good idea for any researcher to exercise a little humility when working in a new area. New England history is not new, Aboriginal languages are.

I spent a little time digging into the Austlang web site. This is a remarkably good site for anybody with an interest in particular Aboriginal languages because it presents the available information. It will save me a fair bit of time. However, it also means caution in presenting new ideas. So many people know far more than me.

I also spent a little bit of time searching on the Aboriginal language revival movement. This strikes me as a bit of a mine field.

As a historian I have no problems in presenting arguments, explaining why. As a commentator, I find it a little sad that some Aboriginal groups have succesfully excluded non-Aboriginal children from school based Aboriginal language courses in particular schools.

It is bad enough, I think, that Aboriginal language should (as appears to be the case) have been relegated to the Aboriginal studies stream. I say relegated because from my experience, at least in NSW, these courses are not well regarded by the general student body.

I was also concerned that some of the curriculum material I saw was, I thought, quite misleading in historical terms. I will reserve my position here, however, because I was doing a quick scan.

Speaking again as a commentator, if (as I think its should) Aboriginal studies is going to become a mainstream discipline then it has to be rigorous and open and welcoming to non-Aboriginal students.

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