eProfessor Jane Simpson loves dictionaries and the gateway to the past that they can unlock.
She is part of the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at Australian National University (ANU), which is currently documenting Indigenous languages in the Pacific region.
Indigenous languages in Australia could number between 300 and 700, depending on the definition of language versus dialect, she said.
However, only 13 languages are believed to be still spoken by children.
“If a language isn’t spoken by children, then its chances of surviving are pretty grave,” Professor Simpson said.
Removal of children spelled death knell for languages
From the 19th century onwards, the removal of Indigenous children from their families, coupled with the denigration of Aboriginal language and the push to learn English, spelled the death knell for many local languages.
Professor Simpson said in many areas, communities were making very strong efforts to bring back their languages.
In the South West of Western Australia, there is a move to revive Noongar while in South Australia, there has been a very successful program to bring back the language of the Adelaide plains.
“Where possible, we work with communities where the language is still spoken to collect, define and categorise words,” Professor Simpson said.
“Where the language isn’t spoken, we trawl through historical archives and old grammars and dictionaries.
“Also, we trawl through novels and popular accounts [because] often, they have words or phrases that are preserved in reports of conversations.
“We collect those and assemble that material into a dictionary.”
She said dictionaries are great resources for documenting, not just the natural world, but also the social world.
Dictionaries hold ‘amazing range of words’
In the Adelaide Plains area, where Professor Simpson began her studies, the last Indigenous speaker died as a child in the 1920s.
Luckily, there was enough documentation material that people have been able to reclaim and to build upon.
New words have been added such as “computer” and “telephone” to cope with modern life.
“I got hooked on dictionaries when I was a young student,” Professor Simpson said.
“I came across a dictionary that had been published in 1840 by two young men who had come from Germany as missionaries.
“They recorded an amazing range of words, which really helped throw light on how the people were living at the time.
“Words for plants they were eating, words for customs, words for land tenure; they had discussions of land tenure.”
Noongar revival aided by early research
In the South West, local Aboriginal people have been striving for a number of years to preserve the Noongar language.
A dictionary has been produced and classes are currently being held.
“A lot of material was recorded by an American linguist, Gerhardt Laves, in the early part of the 20th century,” Professor Simpson said.
“It’s very good quality material [and] lots of words are still spoken by people.”
Photo: A map of Indigenous languages throughout Australia. (Supplied: Aboriginal Studies Press)
Indigenous children have opportunity to be bilingual
According to Professor Simpson, in areas where Indigenous languages are still strong, children have the opportunity to become bilingual or multilingual.
“In Western Australia, in the Western Desert, there are a lot of children who speak [the local language],” she said.
“They need to have education in their mother tongue when they first get to school so that they can understand the teacher.
“Language needs to be used as a bridge to learn English.”
Professor Simpson said many communities were keen for children to learn traditional languages as part of their schooling.
She said any child learning another language benefits in several ways.
“It gives you a way of reflecting on your first language,” Professor Simpson said.
“It gives you a meta-linguistic awareness and it really helps your cognition to be bilingual.”
In the Asia-Pacific region, there are hundreds of languages, some only spoken by very small groups.
“Social changes are very rapid and if we don’t document them now, they will disappear very quickly,” Professor Simpson said.
“Our centre is attempting to document languages here and in the Pacific region.”
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- Article submitted by:
- Sharon Kennedy and Hilary Smale