Episode 4 transcript:
Beyond words

Speaker 1:

Hold on to what you have. Hold on to your languages, preserve them, protect them, promote them. You should be proud of your languages because your languages speak about you.

Speaker 2:

I think it's really important that all of us, indigenous people and the broader Australian community really understand how fascinating these languages are, how they're an important part of Australia's linguistic landscape and should be valued by all of us.

Charlotte Mackay:

This is The Secret Life Of Language, a podcast from the University of Melbourne's School of Languages and Linguistics. I'm Charlotte Mackay.

Peter Hurst:

And I am Peter Hurst.

Charlotte Mackay:

The world speaks some 6,700 languages, yet 96% of these are spoken by only 3% of the world's population, and 4,000 of those languages are spoken by indigenous peoples, who make up less than 6% of the global population. Meanwhile, conservative estimates suggest that more than half the world's languages will become extinct by the end of this century, and the majority of those under threat are indigenous. In fact, it's believed that indigenous languages die at a rate of one every two weeks.

Peter Hurst:

And endangerment aside, there are many reasons to research the languages of the world's indigenous peoples. In this episode of The Secret Life Of Language, we talk to researchers of language and culture, people who go out into the field often in very remote areas of the globe about what they do and why they do it.

Speaker 5:

[foreign language 00:01:43].

Charlotte Mackay:

That's a recording of [inaudible 00:01:52] of Vanuatu. The languages of Vanuatu are a specialty of Nick Thieberger, a linguist and associate professor at the University of Melbourne. We had a chat with Nick recently and asked him why it is important that indigenous languages be studied.

Nick Thieberger:

We'd like to know all about human languages from all over the place in the same way that a botanist would need to know about all the flowers and plants and biologists would like to have a record of every taxa. Our research is stronger if we can base it in as many languages as possible because there's always one language that's going to be a bit strange. It's going to do something a bit unusual. And that says something about humans because all languages are human faculty. So if something happens in a particular language, then that says something about what could happen in any particular language and that's something we need to know. So making records of these languages and making sure that we have access to them is good from a scientific point of view as well as from a social responsibility point of view.

Peter Hurst:

Nick, your work on the social responsibilities academics have to the communities they work with is well known and it's been recognized internationally. Could you describe it means to be a socially responsible researcher?

Nick Thieberger:

Look, the way that linguists have worked in the past is that they've gone somewhere and they've written a grammar and then not much gets back to the community. And I think in the last generation, we've learned a lot about being more responsive and more responsible to communities we work with. And so that involves doing things like finding out what people actually want as well as doing our research.

Peter Hurst:

So what is the state of the languages say in Vanuatu, are they thriving? Are there still children learning?

Nick Thieberger:

Well, there are over 130 languages in Vanuatu and in general, they're all doing pretty well.

Speaker 7:

[foreign language 00:03:42].

Debra McDougall:

Solomon Islands is an archipelago nation, probably more than 200 islands and it's positioned between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and it's part of the world that is this absolute hotbed of linguistic diversity. So it has 72 languages for a half a million people.

Charlotte Mackay:

That's Dr Debra McDougall, a social anthropologist who specialises in the societies and cultures of the Solomon Islands.

Debra McDougall:

But one of the distinctive things about the Solomons is that it's got two really different language families, one's the non-Austronesian family that as with migrations to Australia, the date for when the original speakers of these languages keeps getting pushed back sort of 30, 40,000 years. The farthest extent, so the farthest distance than anyone travelled in that ancient time was the Solomon Islands. And then much later, 5,000 years ago you had this migration of Austronesian speakers. So you have these two really different language histories combined in the Solomons and then under British colonialism, English became the national language and the lingua franca of the country is English based Creole called Solomons Pidgin.

Debra McDougall:

But something that I've often found people misunderstand when you say, oh, there's 72 different languages spopken in the Solomons, the vision is of 72 little blocks of people of different languages all living together and not having a lot of interaction with others. Maybe they'll have a little bit of interaction in the next language group, but the actual reality on the ground is people are intermarrying and they always have been intermarrying around regional lines and now it's even more broad and diverse - even in languages that are not endangered in terms of numbers of speakers, there's massive, very swift change and a lot of anxiety in the Solomons about lots of borrow words coming in.

Charlotte Mackay:

English, some English?

Debra McDougall:

Some English and from Pidgin, so swiftly changing as well as actually endangered.

Peter Hurst:

Charlotte, why is it the Solomon Islands has so many languages given that it's such a small place? I mean that doesn't seem to be the norm for the rest of the world. What's going on?

Charlotte Mackay:

That's a really good question, Peter. It's actually one that we put to Debra when she was in the studio.

Debra McDougall:

I think probably one of the really powerful determining factors in why there's so many languages in this part of the world is that there haven't been states until quite recently, so you haven't had that unifying homogenising force until quite recently. And states are not very powerful and education systems haven't really pulled people out and succeeded in killing all the minor languages. So that's one thing I think that helps to make sense of linguistic diversity.

Charlotte Mackay:

Debra has firsthand experience of living among the Ranongga people of the Solomon Islands.

Debra McDougall:

So in a rural village, like the one I lived in around Ranongga for several years, you have speakers of two dozen languages, living cheek by jowl. Children grow up speaking the language of the kids around them, speaking the language of a mother or father if the mother or father speaks to them, and especially if they go and visit their grandparents in some island hundreds of kilometres and language families away. So it's not just diverse in that different people are speaking different languages, but even little kids are usually understanding in rural areas a couple of indigenous languages and then eventually gain fluency in the Solomons Pidgin and to some degree English. So it's really multi-lingual and linguistically diverse.

Nick Thieberger:

The onslaught of the sort of settler colonial society really damaged indigenous communities in Australia and language was one of the casualties of that. So particularly on the east coast, the languages have suffered the most. So where languages are still being spoken strongly in Australia is in the desert, the top end, the Kimberly and parts of Southern sort of central Western Australia and Queensland I suppose in Torres Strait. So the further you are from the initial onslaught of the settler expansion, the stronger the languages are. In Australia, I think the figures are something like less than 20 languages that are still being passed on to future generations.

Charlotte Mackay:

That was Nick Thieberger speaking about the impact of European colonisation on Australian indigenous languages during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Peter Hurst:

Yeah. Nick goes on to explain how these forces have also influenced language development in the Pacific as well.

Nick Thieberger:

Melanesia is a particularly exuberant diversity of languages. Papua New Guinea with 900 languages, Solomon Islands with 70, New Caledonia with 30, Vanuatu with 130 and all the Polynesian languages out to the east as well. It's just a wonderful resource for these countries that unfortunately they often see as a debit, but that's part of the sort of colonial discourse I suppose is that the indigenous cultures and languages are seen as being not up to the modern world. And so they have advisors coming into the Pacific and telling people they need to speak French or English if they want get on and somehow that means they shouldn't speak their own language when of course, most cultures in the world were multilingual in their normal state and people were, people still are quite capable of having many languages in their heads, not just English and French.

Peter Hurst:

Now because English is not under threat as a language, English speakers often don't really understand what it's like to speak a language that's not widely spoken and that's under threat. So Nick's going to explain what it's actually like.

Nick Thieberger:

Put yourself into this thought experiment. If the Japanese had won the second world war, we would have been as a population of English speakers suddenly subjected to the rule of Japanese. And how would we feel about English at that point? We would have this strong attachment to English, we would want English to be spoken by our children, we wouldn't want to speak, we would resist speaking Japanese. So just think of that. And that's the situation that Aboriginal people in this country have been in for a very long time. They've had this other culture and language imposed on them. And now I think there's this sort of Renaissance of confidence and understanding that these cultures need to be not just preserved, but used all the time. These are things that people want to do. They want to speak their languages. So it's an active social justice in many ways to facilitate that.

Charlotte Mackay:

As Nick explains, cultural confidence is central to Aboriginal people's livelihood and wellbeing within the dominant culture.

Nick Thieberger:

There's been much more recognition by speakers of these languages that they can do this and they don't have to just roll over and accept metropolitan languages, that they can do it. There's nothing stopping them, they can do it. And having done that then, it really does lead to a bit of a, I'd say cultural confidence in their own languages. And then writing songs, there's hip hop, there's all kinds of stuff going on using people's own languages. For a lot of these people, they live in their own communities. They're not going to move out of those communities very much. And in fact, what they do need is their own community. They need that language, then they need confidence in their own language so that they can operate in that broader society as well and not feel alienated and not feel marginalised. So this is all going to, in the end I think create better societies because we have people who are confident in who they are and they're able to operate both in their own domains and in the dominant culture.

Debra McDougall:

One of the really sad things is that this marvellous multilingualism, which we know makes people smarter and more adaptive and less likely to get Alzheimer’s and all of this is really framed as a deficit in the Solomon Islands education system. So teachers are allowed to teach in whatever language students understand, but they're teaching English. So they will use either the local language or more often Solomons Pidgin to teach English even in the English classes. So no one's speaking English. Students will learn pretty swiftly Solomons Pidgin, most of them, and they learn some English words. Their entire schooling is taking place in a language that no one is really speaking.

Speaker 9:

[foreign language 00:12:10].

Charlotte Mackay:

Now let's look at the importance of local languages in the context of community identity.

Peter Hurst:

I asked Nick about how a community can maintain their local language in the face of a dominant language, usually from the colonisers.

Nick Thieberger:

What we have to do is get through to these people realistically that they can do both, that you don't have to abandon your language. It makes everybody stronger if we have these languages still and these people still have a sense of identity and they don't have to abandon their identity and become English speaking Australians. They can be whatever their own language is and speak English and many other languages. Australia, like many Anglo societies has this monolingual disease I would say, this idea that you must only have one language and that any other language interferes with your ability to speak English. I grew up in a multilingual household. It's just wonderful to be able to travel and speak to people in their own languages and you can hear that it hasn't affected the way that I speak English.

Charlotte Mackay:

Did you know that in the Solomon Islands there has been a revival in interest in learning one's mother tongue? Debra spoke to me about it and explained that it was driven by grassroots movements and a desire to be able to study religious texts.

Debra McDougall:

So a Ranongga man named [Alfia Somberly, 00:13:36] brilliant guy, did a BA in mechanical engineering on a Fulbright scholarship in the US from a really poor, very backwater back away place in rural Solomon Islands. And then turned his attention away from science and engineering onto language and translation. And it was him who was doing this Bible translation. He started to really focus on grammar. So the underlying structure of the language, which is not very common in any vernacular language education in this part of the world. It's often just phonetics and can you spell it out, can you sound it out? But he was working on grammar, so developed over 10 years a set of language books really delving into the grammar, the language, how's the word formed? How's the sentence formed? How's part of discourse formed? So Alfia Somberly developed a language in Ranongga to describe the grammar using kinship terms and using tree branch term, this beautiful grammatical metalanguage.

Debra McDougall:

And a really interesting example of a grassroots movement that is doing what all the policy experts say should happen, which is you gain a really firm foundation, not just in how to spell out and say your language, but how it's structured and then you move on English. It's fascinating because the Ranonggan movement that I'm tracking grew out of a Bible translation and all of this work happening in Honiara is actually through Somberly's Bible school, which is called Island Bible Ministries. But what's interesting about that Bible school is it's almost entirely focused on texts and that means all the denominations are joining this Bible school. Even those with radically different theologies. And through the study of the Bible, people are becoming really, really interested in language itself. When I interview young people about why are you going to spend money and study your own language, young and old people, it was, well it's going to help me in English, it helps me understand the Bible, helps me speak well in my community.

Charlotte Mackay:

In the Solomons, Bible classes and workshops completely independent from the department of education have sparked an interest in learning local grammar and they are very popular. Debra estimates that about a quarter of the island's population of 6,000 people have attended some of these classes.

Debra McDougall:

There's something quite different about grammar because that's not something that people immediately perceive. So what does it mean to take your own language and think of it as an object of study? And it seems to be really quite empowering for people. And it's not about preserving language per se, it's about understanding its underlying structures. And that has been effective in a way preserving and getting lots more stuff happening in those languages. But it also kind of allows a different kind of abstract thinking. So I've really been struck at young men in particular saying, "Studying my language changed my life".

Peter Hurst:

In terms of language revitalisation, having people within the community like Alfia is so important because they lead the effort within the community to get their language spoken. But it's also important to realise that for many members of the community, they don't really need to formally learn their community language. What they really want is just a connection to it, at least it at the beginning anyway. One of my colleagues is Greek and his grandma's village, they spoke a Greek dialect which is no longer in use.

Peter Hurst:

So when he was visiting there, he took a dictionary that preserved all the different words that were once spoken in that village. And he was just sitting there reading them to his grandma and she wasn't all that interested until all of a sudden she just burst into tears. And what he had done is he had just read the local dialect word for goat, but his grandmother remembered her own grandfather using that word, a word that she'd forgotten. And so for her, the connection to her local language was just a handful of words that uniquely belonged to her and her community. And that's all she really wanted.

Nick Thieberger:

I think we're seeing increasingly people are aware of the state of their language and the fact that the younger people are speaking a metropolitan language. So in the Pacific there are pidgin languages like Bislama and Solomons Pidgin. In New Caledonia it's French and they're aware that their languages are under threat from these larger languages. So it seems to me that in this last generation as well, there's been a bit more activity to go back to learning languages. Hawaii is a classic example where there's really been a lot of revitalisation of Hawaiian. New Zealand also where Maori speakers now really are making a great effort to use Maori in as many different contexts as possible. And it's happening in Australia. There are a number of examples in Australia of languages being revived from often very scant materials. So in Adelaide, the classic example of [Garana 00:18:28] is being revived from some early missionary materials, really very little conversational material. But nevertheless, the effort is going on.

Peter Hurst:

I spoke to Nick about the effect that social media has on indigenous languages. I asked him whether social media had the effect of preserving local languages or whether it should be considered a threat to them.

Nick Thieberger:

Look, I think the jury's still out most likely on what the total effect is. I sort of think that people are taking this media and making it their own so that there is a lot of indigenisation of these platforms. The idea is that because English is the dominant language, that it will be seen as the prestige and therefore drive out the local language. But I have more faith that people can use English on the internet in some way and it doesn't have to affect their language. And they understand multilingualism so they can operate in their own language. They know that the domain of the internet might be dominated by English, but that doesn't mean that they have to succumb to that, and they could subvert it if you like, by using it in their own languages.

Nick Thieberger:

And there's even a Facebook side in the language that I work on that's devoted to the dictionary. So as I'm working on the dictionary here in Melbourne, I can put queries onto the Facebook page and people in Vanuatu will answer sometimes straight away. And so it's a wonderful collaborative approach. A lot of these languages weren't written much, didn't have much role for literacy except maybe in church materials. So now they're writing in the language. The Facebook page is also a great way of encouraging writing. It's a whole new approach and it's interesting that the internet is always seen as a threat to small languages because of the dominance of English, but at the same time, you have these little nooks and crannies in the internet where people are using it in their own languages.

Peter Hurst:

That's really interesting, the way these really new technologies, especially with more and more stuff just being sort of video.

Nick Thieberger:

Yeah, that's right. In some ways it's a real democratising of technology that anybody can make a video now. You've got a phone, you make a video and this is happening. There are all kinds of things going on and so one of my concerns is that we try and capture that in some way and keep it so that it's not all just transient. So YouTube we hope is fairly long lived, but there are lots of things just happening on Facebook and Instagram and other places which are very transient.

Peter Hurst:

Yeah. One of the things I've noticed on YouTube, there's all those videos where people are quite proud of their nonstandard British accents. So like things like Geordie and Liverpudlian accents and yeah, they are quite proud of them. They get on YouTube and they try and teach people how to speak using their accent. And this seems relatively new because I know historically they were devalued, people didn't like them, but now it's quite a marker of pride and people are proud to have those accents.

Charlotte Mackay:

In the intro we spoke about one of the key reasons for studying these languages, which is the fact that many indigenous languages are critically endangered. Let's get more into that. You spoke to Nick about that.

Peter Hurst:

Yeah, I did. And this is what he's got to say.

Nick Thieberger:

There are some that are no longer spoken and there are some that have very small communities, but in the Pacific in general, it's the case that there are a number of languages that are under threat and sea level rise isn't going to help that. So there will be relocated communities in the Pacific and once communities are relocated, then that potentially puts their language under threat as well because there'll be put into a place with the speakers of other languages. So there are languages that ceased being spoken in the last generation or two. So the records that we have of those languages are even more valuable. There's an example from Aceh, all the west coast of Aceh. The recordings that we have in our collection, those communities were all affected by the tsunami. People were killed or they were relocated and many of those languages are no longer spoken.

Nick Thieberger:

There are about 7,000 languages in the world. And in the Pacific, if you take Papa New Guinea into account as well, there's about a quarter of the world's languages, which is pretty impressive. And of those, it's really hard to say how many are under threat. But Australia is a particularly bad example. The onslaught of the sort of settler colonial society really damaged indigenous communities in Australia and language was one of the casualties of that.

Peter Hurst:

Wow. That's dire.

Nick Thieberger:

It's dire when you consider there hundreds of languages in Australia. We don't really know exactly how many there were but figures range between 300 and 1000 I suppose, depending on how you slice languages and dialects.

Peter Hurst:

Earlier Nick spoke about documenting these languages both for insight into how humans understand the world but also as part of the social responsibilities researchers have to the communities they're learning from. I asked Nick about PARADISEC, the repository he created to store all this language data.

Nick Thieberger:

So PARADISEC is the Pacific and regional archive for digital sources in endangered cultures. It's a project now that's been going for 17 years and it really came out of this idea of being able to get materials back to source communities in ways that they can access them. So using my own material as a sort of example, digitising cassettes because I was still recording on cassettes in those days and putting them online, having clear access conditions so that we know who can access it and for what purposes it can be used and then building a repository so that we could do this for lots and lots of other recordings as well. So initially we were finding tapes made in the fifties and sixties, seventies by researchers in Australia working in the Pacific, working in Indonesia, Papa New Guinea. And there was nowhere that was a proper home for these tapes. So they were really in filing cabinets or in deceased estates.

Speaker 10:

[foreign language 00:24:09].

Nick Thieberger:

And we're getting these types and digitising them, putting them online with permissions. And that's just kept going since 2003 and there are now over 11,000 hours of recordings online in about 280,000 files. And it's all mostly openly available to registered users of the collection. And once we built a framework, an online framework for doing this, we were getting materials from all over the place deposited. We have stuff from Africa, from India, from Canada, from Italy, because there are so few digital language archives in the world. And now we've started getting Australian material because we're part of an ARC Centre Of Excellence. And we have materials from Australia in the collection as well. We've got over 1200 languages represented in the collection. We're trying to find recordings that are at risk because analogue tapes now are slowly falling apart and we don't have the playback machines. So we're going out actively trying to find recordings from as many different languages as we can and digitise. And that's why we have over 11,000 hours because we have all of these collections that we've been able to find in various parts of the world.

Speaker 11:

[foreign language 00:25:35].

Charlotte Mackay:

Metadata is an important part of the cataloguing process. It describes when the audio was recorded, where it was recorded, and who's on it, meaning that researchers and community members can find the recordings they need quickly and efficiently.

Nick Thieberger:

So I think what we've learned in the last say 50 years is the fragility of this data and the need to really make sure that we can preserve it in some way. And that is have it in different locations and store it in a way that will preserve it until the next storage system comes along. So we know that none of our storage systems at the moment will last more than let's say five years. So we always have to keep moving everything onto the next storage media.

Peter Hurst:

Well I asked Nick about whether the indigenous communities find any use at all with this stored language data.

Nick Thieberger:

So I've had this experience where someone comes to my office just for some other reason and then discovers a recording. So there's a guy from Papa New Guinea who I met and he came to my office, we were talking about items in the collection. We looked up his language and it was his grandfather who was speaking and he was so moved. And then I gave him MP3 copies of all of the recordings in that language. And he told me that he didn't sleep that night. He just listened to these recordings all through the night. And you've got to think about the fact that these languages have very little evidence of their existence on the web. So speakers of those languages go on the web, they see every other culture in the world, but there's nothing about their own. And so having this, sometimes some hours of recordings in your own language is really quite maybe even empowering. It's saying that these languages have value, that they have some presence on the web and it validates that for the speakers of these languages.

Charlotte Mackay:

So we've heard that community involvement is an essential aspect of language documentation and that social media can play a really important role in gathering data around different languages. But when you're in the field, how do communities contribute to the documentation of their languages?

Nick Thieberger:

One of the things that we've been doing a lot of work on lately is what you could call capacity building. That is training speakers of languages to do their own recordings, to do their own transcriptions. To think about making archival copies of everything so that it'll be there into the future. I've had some younger students come and work with me and they've developed relationships with younger people who are much more computer literate and they are making recordings and doing transcriptions in the language.

Peter Hurst:

Nick, the collection that you're putting together as part of PARADISEC is forever growing and I understand that it's gaining international recognition.

Nick Thieberger:

This is a really extraordinary collection. We're on the UNESCO memory of the world intangible cultural heritage list. It is a very big enterprise and it should be funded, but unfortunately it's not. We've had three year long research grants in the life of the project and then we get bits and pieces of funding from various places. Most of the work is done on a sort of piece by piece basis. We've got nearly 70 terabytes of material. So the storage is funded by the federal government through its national research platforms. And we have other servers that are funded by the federal government in various ways, but the people that run it are paid for by various odds and ends of grants that we've been able to patch together. We're still looking for that I suppose a big bequest would be the thing that would keep this project going into the future.

Speaker 12:

[foreign language 00:28:56].

Peter Hurst:

The Secret Life Of Language is a podcast from the University of Melbourne School of Languages and Linguistics.

Charlotte Mackay:

Producers for this episode are Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel from Profactual, Gavin Nebauer, Peter Hurst, and me, Charlotte Mackay.

Peter Hurst:

Recorded and mixed at the Horwood studio by Gavin Nebauer, licensed under Creative Commons, copyright 2019 The University of Melbourne. I'm Peter Hurst.

Charlotte Mackay:

And I'm Charlotte Mackay. Thanks for listening.