# 10, specifics

     Part of the work I have been doing at the language centre has involved investigating the strategies employed in Miriwoong to ask a question. Nitty-gritty linguistic work like this is carried out with the aim of fully understanding and documenting the structure of the language and also patterns of use of the language. Documenting language in this way is an important part of the process of language maintenance and revitalisation in that it feeds into the development of resources for language learning. I emphasise that language documentation is only part of the process as in language maintenance and revitalisation there is no substitute for families actually speaking the language amongst themselves, and passing the language on to their children.
What about questions?
     When you are looking at questions in a given language it is helpful to consider the ways in which a language asks a question that seeks information – this is called a content question, and the ways in which a language asks a question that seeks confirmation – this is called a polar question. In English, to seek out information you are most likely to use a ‘wh-word’ such as who, what, where, why or when at the beginning of a sentence. If you are seeking confirmation, you might use the sound of your voice to communicate your intention. That is, you would use rising intonation on the part of the sentence for which you are seeking confirmation.
“You’re going to the beACH tomorrow?”
Or else you would use an auxiliary verb like do, will or are to ask this same question.
“Are you going to the beach tomorrow?”
     Beyond the formal features of language, you can also look at the pragmatics of questioning and the conversational routines which characterise asking and answering questions. Diana Eades has made some invaluable observations about the pragmatics of seeking information in Aboriginal modes of communication. Typically, information seeking is done in an indirect way, with the person being questioned having no obligation to answer a question in full detail. Eades (2013) suggests that this characteristic of discourse stems from a tension between public and private domains in social life. Within Aboriginal communities there is little privacy in the physical sense. Big families live together and in small communities you can’t do anything without someone noticing. Privacy is maintained through patterns of seeking and sharing information. Direct questions such as “Why did you do that?” are absent from discourse and questions seeking out background information such as “Where did you go?” and “Who were you with?” are not expected to be answered in full detail. In other words individuals maintain privacy by with-holding information about the motivations for their actions, and the nature of these actions. The person asking the questions is responsible for patching together the who, where and why, making conjectures about motivations and perhaps even setting chins wagging!
    Eades has written about Aboriginal use of English specifically. However there are traces of a preference for indirectness in Aboriginal languages such as Miriwoong, that has surely carried over into ways of using English or Kriol. For example, it is not uncommon for a Miriwoong speaker to say something like “Gamawanygoo goorririj”, which literally means ‘I don’t know where the car is’, instead of asking ‘Where is my car?’ The question is dressed up as a statement, which others in the conversation may choose to respond to as either a statement or a question. Of course, this indirect manner of asking questions is not unique to Aboriginal languages. “I could have sworn I left a block of chocolate in the fridge”, is not a simple and innocent wondering out loud in genuine confusion. However, in many Aboriginal languages, and in Aboriginal English it is a prevalent feature of communication.
     Pragmatics is an adventure into the labyrinth of culture. I am the first one to jump at the chance for adventure, but I am also learning that you have to do the ground work to be able to have the adventure. So I have spent most of my time digging through Miriwoong language samples to pin down the formal aspects of asking questions. If you don’t understand the form of a language, then there is no chance of understanding the meanings encoded above and beyond the literal meanings of language. That is to say the pragmatics of language.
     When you are doing linguistic analysis it is inevitable that you will compare the language that you are looking at to your native language. The novelty in discovering how languages do things, like asking questions differently, or even how they do things the same way never wears off! In my case, my native language being English, I get a double dose of English influence because the literature on language typology that I have been working with is couched in English terms of reference. For example, there are eight canonical forms for interrogative words who, what, where, why, when, how, which, how many/much (Dixon, 2012). Some languages, like English, have individual terms for these interrogative words. Other languages have a single word referring to who, what, where. Some languages have no individual word for which….and so on and so forth. In a way, English terms provide an outline for concepts that all languages seek to express and with this point of comparison it is possible to see how some languages stay within the lines or go beyond them.
How does Miriwoong do it?
     Miriwoong is quirky in many ways. I won’t give you all the gory details about how you ask a question in Miriwoong, just a little sampler. One quirk is that there are three different terms to ask the question ‘Where?’. First you have the term gama, which you would use to ask the general question ‘where?’ Then you have the term gabiyi, which you would use to ask ‘where to?’. Finally you have the term gala, which can be used to ask about an unknown woman ‘who?’ or else about the location of an unknown woman ‘where?’. Three terms in Miriwoong, which distinguish between location, movement to a location or location of a person, that equate to a single term in English. (Technically there are actually 5, because there are also individual terms to refer to an unknown man, or to a person whose gender is unknown). Why? Well, why not?
     You may well be asking yourself how a Miriwoong speaker can tell when their interlocutor is using the term gala to mean ‘who?’ and when they are using it to mean ‘where?’ The answer is CONTEXT. Miriwoong is a language that relies heavily on the context in which it is used for interpretation. Imagine that you are standing with your brother and you see someone off in the distance. It appears to be a woman but you can’t tell exactly who. You ask your brother “Gala ngelany?”  as you want to know who that is off in the distance. Now imagine that you are standing with your brother by a big mob of people and you ask “Gala?” In this instance you may well want to know who the person in question is, but you may also want to know where she is in that big mob of people.
     I am often reminded how important context is in the use of and interpretation of Miriwoong in the conversations I have with language workers. The other day we were talking about the different names for rooms in the house and I was practising my Miriwoong by making up sentences. I asked my bajook (‘mother-in-law’) how I would say ‘My Mum is cooking dinner in the kitchen’. She gave me a sentence which translated as ‘My mum is cooking’. I tried again.
“How would I say My Mum is cooking in the kitchen?”
     She replied something along the lines of “Well you wouldn’t say in the kitchen because its obvious she is cooking in the kitchen”. Fair point. Not to mention that the concept of kitchen – a room designated for storing and preparing food – is an entirely Western concept. Noticing the importance of context in decoding Miriwoong has been a bit of a revelation for me because my native language, English, has the habit of being specific. When you are speaking English you are constantly providing little traces of context and explicit meaning, such that you can take English out of the immediate context in which it was used and still identify this context and the meaning of the text itself. More is less. The habit of describing the context in text is the backbone of our great literary tradition. Or perhaps the development of a literary tradition ensured that English became a specific, and context-independent language, whereas languages such as Miriwoong have only recently begun to be written down.
     The idiom “Are we on the same page?” neatly encapsulates the way English speakers conceive of mutual understanding, and the role of language to this end. Understanding is based on reading or writing the same language. If you have read the same page of text, then in theory you will understand each other. Unfortunately mutual understanding is not always so simple! I am not sure what an equivalent expression would be in Miriwoong. What I am sure of is that it has little to do with metaphors relating to written language. A conversation I had recently with my bajook in answer to the question “Where are you staying?” got me thinking that mutual understanding may be based on a common perspective of the world as opposed to a description in words of this world. Having posed the question, she deftly drew up a map of the area of the town which I had begun describing to her and then marked a spot on the map where my house is. “Here?” she said. And indeed she had marked the exact location of my Kununurra camp.
A Miriwoong conversation

A Miriwoong conversation

Needless to say there is more to communication than words!
Dixon, R.M.W (2012) Basic Linguistic Theory Volume 3: Further Grammatical Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

# 9, Experience. experiences. experiencing. experiental. experienced (maybe never).

     Imagine there was no such thing as the Oxford English Dictionary and you had to describe to someone who didn’t speak English natively the subtle differences in meaning between walk, stride, saunter, amble and stroll. How would you do it? How would you really get at the essence of what these words mean? How would you make it clear when you use one over the other? All involve a walking action, but there is something in the finer details of how you are moving that is different. When you are STRIDING you are walking with purpose, and when you are ambling or sauntering you might be walking aimlessly. When you are strolling, you are probably strolling with someone…
     There are various ways you might go about conveying the meaning of a word. I have just tried to describe the meaning of words using more words. You might try acting out the word, if it conveys an action or drawing it if it describes an object. You might tell a story to convey the meaning. In the act of describing meaning you are also convey snippets of your own personal experience and also the collective experience of those that speak the same language. The action that you act out for strolling, is the motion you imagine when you hear that word. The teapot you draw is a version of that object you see when you hear that word. The story you tell might to convey a feeling, like joy or a concept, like law, that is not easily translated, is intrinsic to your sense of the meaning of those words. Language has memory, absorbing as it does personal experience and collective experiences.
     Sitting in on a dictionary workshop at Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg) this week, my mornings have been  punctuated with momentary look-ins to the Miriwoong experience and some collective Miriwoong memories. In this workshop, which will run over about 2 weeks, fluent Miriwoong speakers, the language workers and the two key linguists working at MDWg are going through the current dictionary with a fine tooth comb to check all existing entries, and select a shortlist for a second dictionary which will be released to the public. From the 15, 000 entries in the Miriwoong dictionary only 1200 can be included in the public dictionary, which is the limit for a dictionary in a smartphone app.
Copies of the Miriwoong and the Gajirrabeng Dictionaries are held at the language centre for use by community members

Copies of the Miriwoong and the Gajirrabeng Dictionaries are held at MDWg for use by language workers and community members

     Deciding what to keep in the public dictionary shortlist is no trivial task! The first guiding principle is utility. The words that  are most useful for communicating about life in Kununurra and surrounds must be included. If we had to go through the same process for English, we would have to include walk, because this conveys the general concept of walking, and the definition of all related words relies on this one. The inclusion of stride, saunter amble and stroll would be a matter for debate. They couldn’t all be included! The second guiding principle is structural integrity. The relationship between words which reflect the underlying structure and processes that characterise a language must be considered. For example, going through the same process with English we would want to include the noun light because this forms the base of other words such as lighter, the one you use to light a candle, and lightening. If we were to use luminescence instead of light the processes of deriving words and meanings, would be obscured.
     Discussing each entry goes a little bit like this – the word is mentioned, the fluent speakers might nod their heads in recognition. The language workers may contribute with “…yes I heard that word from the old people….” If the word is unfamiliar Frances Kofod will name the Miriwoong speakers who she has recorded saying these words. Authority of elders past reaches into the present in these moments. If a respected elder has been recorded saying a word that’s equivalent to a full stop. The fun begins when the definition of a word is not clear, or there are other words with similar meanings.  Hopping around the room trying to get to the bottom of how two words meaning ‘to jump’ differ. The stories that begin with, “you know when you…” or “it’s like when your walking and you turn a corner and disappear out of sight. Not like an aeroplane that flies across the sky and disappears out of sight…”
     It is going to take time for the public version of the Miriwoong dictionary to be released, but if you would like to peruse the dictionary of an Aboriginal Language, there are a couple of online dictionaries here.
     Yesterday, right in the moment that I walked into the workshop words meaning ‘to be happy’ were the topic of discussion. There are several words to express the concept of happiness in Miriwoong, but when are you gooloo-gooloo and when are you nganjil-nganjilb? As it turns out the former term can be used to refer to happiness generally, whereas nganjil-nganjilb does not simply convey the state of being happy, it also encompasses the source of happiness. “You know that feeling of calm when you come back to your family and your land…?” I suppose in English you might describe that as relief, elation, security… all three, but not exactly any one of those word-concepts. I am not expert. How do you feel when you return to your home and your family?
     A couple of weeks ago, on a field trip with the language workers, the local ranger group and a number of Elders, this word nganjil-nganjilb had also come up. I was standing with a Miriwong speaker, holding onto our tents in mock fear as high winds welcomed in a storm. The prospect of a storm had sent a current of joyful electricity through the camp and people were charging this way and that trying to keep things from being whipped up by the gusts. Sure enough the storm hit with fat rain drops soothing the scorched red earth. This particular trip was the first time that the Elders had returned to country in a long time and it was as though their presence had bought on the storm. Rumbles of thunder, a big-belly chuckle, and leaves sent flying like confetti. The word that had come to this Miriwoong man’s lips in this moment was nganjil-nganjilb.
     The beauty of speaking the same language as someone, and living within the same culture and geographical location is with words you are able to relate similar experiences and revisit similar memories. Spending time with Miriwoong people on Miriwoong country I am able to go beyond the core meanings of words and appreciate the more peripheral aspects of meaning that a word conjures. If I haven’t made it clear already, to connect with a language on a more meaningful level you have to know its habitat and its people.
     At this point in the yarn, I want to take a moment to reflect on two mythologies surrounding the origins of language. First there is the Miriwoong version in which the creator shaped the land, and embedded the language in the Earth. And then he put the people on the earth to learn the land and the language, and thus communicate shared experiences in the land. In this way language and land and people are inextricably linked. Not only does this story lend weight to arguments in support of why Miriwoong people, and also other Indigenous communities should be supported in maintaining their language, it also suggests that for Aboriginal people language is a symbol of belonging and interconnectedness.
     Compare this to the Tower of Babel – the biblical account of how different language came to be spoken in the world. To put it bluntly, speaking one language made mankind too powerful and so God gave groups of men and women different languages, and dispersed them throughout the world. In this story language is a symbol of persecution, disempowerment and displacement. There is no link between land and language, and the possibility of sharing experiences through language is fractured and thus must be built up from scratch.
     I doubt that this story of persecution, disempowerment and displacement has filtered through into my own relationship with my native language English. However being on Miriwoong country, and understanding what language means to Miriwoong people has made me look closely at my own relationship with English.
     What does your native language mean to you?
     For me, I use English to communicate with friends and family. We exchange ideas, emotions, experience and memory. English connects me to my ancestors, and connects me to family of the future. It affords me a good education, job prospects and the list goes on. In fact, as a lingua franca of the world I can communicate with people far and wide if I wanted to. This is a great thing. Right? Why protect endangered languages when learning English will unite the world, afford global citizenship and set the saloon doors of opportunity swinging? And it’s inevitable right that English will take over. Right?
     I am not so convinced that the spread of English is such a great thing. You might have seen that one coming…. Sure some people’s bank balances are bulging as English drives a global economy, but there is more to life than life savings. The bottom line to all my banging on about how experience is embedded in language, and more specifically in the meaning that we ascribe to words is that worlds of meaning are maintained locally, within communities. I might even throw a spanner in the works and say that this community should sit comfortably around 150 – the figure given by evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar for the number of people that a human being can maintain a meaningful relationship with. The spread of English is not only a threat to endangered languages, spoken by small communities of people, it might also be a danger to the English language itself. When I am talking about dancing to my sister, we have similar ideas about the type of dancing that I am referring to. When I am talking about joy, when I am talking about sorrow, I know that we are on the same page. What happens when the language that houses these local worlds of meaning is used to communicate across vast oceans and tracts of land? In this instance what are we really communicating about? Facts, and figures. Actions, and reactions. But what about the stuff of heart-to-heart conversations? I suppose what I am really asking is what is happening to English in this globalised community of ours?
     Let me paint a grim picture for you. On the one had the core meaning of English words must remain intact if we are to communicate successfully across culture, space and time. On the other hand, the more peripheral encyclopaedic knowledge associated with a word, including our experience of the concept attached to these words, and the subtle variations in meaning, are not assured the same protection. I would argue that using English as a lingua franca, to communicate across the globe has the potential to water down the human element in this language. English comes to be seen as an instrument to achieve ends, not a language connected to a culture, a collection of experiences and a gallery of memories. Just the other day I was reading an article about the factors that motivate young students in Bahrain to learn English as a second language, and the instrumental value of the language was the prevailing factor driving these students. In short learning English enhances your prospects for further education and a job. As for other languages such as French, or Spanish, students may be more inclined to learn these languages because they are interested in Spanish or French culture, they idolise Spanish or French speakers, and in learning these languages hope to share in the Spanish and French experience.
     On this account, the spread of English has serious implications for meaningful in English in the global chat room. Maybe I am over-reacting. May not. Either way, one very good reason to protect endangered languages from the threat of English is that these languages have memory. A language with deep memory is a vehicle for meaningful communication within families and communities in the present, and an artery connecting generations past with generations to come.

# 8, window into another world – Part 2

     The last you heard from me I was about to launch into a yarn about how the structure of language can influence the way we think. It is a long yarn, partly because I am still trying to make sense of it myself. So bear with me as I venture down the garden path.
     Each language encompasses a unique world view. It is not just about being able to name all the culturally meaningful things that you see in the world using words. The structures of language are like a frame that guide our perception of the world: the way we break the world down into meaningful units, the way we conceive of relationships between objects and people in space, the way we experience time passing. The peaceful Pirahã of the Amazon are claimed to have no linguistic strategy to talk about the future, meanwhile I am madly conjugating verbs into future tense as I plan what I will be when I grow up.
     Having introduced the notion that language influences thought, I want to make the point that it is not a fact. It is a notion that I get easily carried away with, because I am convinced that this is the case. I have seen how language can reflect unique facets of indigenous culture and if culture is the surface representation of common ways of thinking about the world then there must be a link between language and thought! An example of this is the language of kinship which reflects the kin-based social structures of Aboriginal groups in Australia. In the maintenance and revitalisation context, the relationship between thought and language is a particularly salient argument for why languages should be protected. An endangered language is also an endangered world-view. I am not saying that all is lost when a language goes to sleep. A conversation with a young First Nation Canadian man, who does not speak his native language and yet maintains strong connection to his culture reminded me of this. What I am saying is that one’s native language provides a very direct link to the world-view which underpins your culture.
     To give you a little bit of history about the thought-language dance, this thought-provoking notion is the central tenet of the theory of linguistic relativity which has a long and tumultuous history that began in the flickering candle light of a 13th century study. Roger Bacon’s to be precise. Flesh tone is not universal. Maybe Roger and Francis are related? That is all I might know about Roger Bacon. My point is that men and women have been pondering the notion for centuries, and will continue to do so for centuries to come. Back to the theory – some love it and those who believe that language and cognition are separate (i.e. Chomsky and co) are not so convinced. In recent times, renewed interest in linguistic relativity has given rise to Dan Slobin’s (1996) ‘thinking for speaking’ hypothesis. The hypothesis is a weak version of linguistic relativity which suggests that our language influences the manner in which we articulate experience, in the moment, by guiding us towards certain features of experience. The individual has some choice in what they say and how they say it, however they are limited by the options that language provides for expression (cited by Cadierno, 2010). In other words, language does not necessarily determine how we think in general terms, but in the act of speaking it does. There are only so many ways one can talk about skinning a cat.
     If you aren’t sure what to make of linguistic relativity or ‘thinking for speaking’, I will briefly explain how language can influence online thought, using the example of how different languages talk about actions. (When psychologists or cognitive scientists talk about ‘online thought’ they are talking about the thoughts the inform your immediate actions and words). Broadly speaking languages express motion in one of two ways (Talmy, 1985). There are satellite-framed languages such as Chinese and English, in which the Motion and Manner of an action are expressed by the verb, and the Path of the action is expressed in another part of speech. Then there are verb-framed languages including all Romantic languages in which Motion and Path are expressed in the verb, whereas Manner and Cause of the event are expressed by another part of speech such as an adverb or a gerund. For example:
The man ran into the house.
– the verb ‘ran’ conveys both the Motion, what was he doing? A: going and the Manner, How was going? A: running.
– the preposition ‘into’ gives information about the Path.
L’homme est entré dans la maison en courant, literally ‘the man entered into the house running’.
– the verb ‘est entré’ describes the Path and the Motion.
– the gerund ‘courant’ describes the Manner of the action.
     So how does this difference impact on the way we think and talk about experience? Cadierno (2010) provides a summary of research in this area with the key features of language use being that native speakers of satellite languages (as speakers of English that includes you and me) tend to provide more detailed descriptions of the Path of an action within a clause, and also more frequent and varied description of the Manner of an action. Speakers of verb-framed languages tend to provide more description of the static scene in which an event takes place. In addition they tend to use neutral verbs to describe manner, and elaborate on the manner of motion only when necessary. Where English would describe how the snail crawled slowly, in uncharacteristically bland manner, French would have you describe how l‘escargot est allé tout lentement. Literally ‘the snail went very slowly’. In short, language provides us with options for describing the reality we exist within, and as we acquire this language we train our attention to those features of reality which are readily expressed with vocabulary and grammatical structures available to us. Maybe learning a second language expands our thinking for speaking repertoire!? Miriwoong has a complex and highly functional system for expressing action, which is making me think more about how I would habitually talk about movement. Not only that it is showing me that there are other ways that the intricacies of human movement can be expressed! And I am not the only one who is having their mind expanded through the privilege of learning and Australian Aboriginal language!!
     I don’t know enough about the Miriwoong verb system, and how action is generally described to be able to suggest which category Miriwoong might fit into. From what I do know it seems that Miriwoong may require a category of its own.  To express actions in Miriwoong requires two types of ‘verb’ which form a single unit. One verb describes the motion and path of an action. There are a fixed number of this type of verb to describe the limited types of motion an action entails and also the path, be this ‘stationary’, ‘going along’ and so on. The second type of verb describes the manner of an action. The intricate ways in which motion, manner and path are intertwined must surely reflect a world-view in which human action and interaction is central to existence, and in talking about the world around you this action is a focus.
For example,
ned ginayin ‘He is leaning on his elbow with his head in his hand’
     Unpacking this a little further, ginayin can be rendered as ‘he is staying’. Strictly speaking this action does not involve any motion. As for ned  ‘to lean on elbow with head in hand’, this is the second type of verb I referred to which describes the nature of the action – its manner. Three letters to describe a complex series of human actions – bending elbow, tilting hand, resting head in hand. The example given here reminds me of a discussion I had with a group of native Spanish speakers, in which they were waxing lyrical about how efficient English was in areas such as the expression of actions. In English you can describe a nodding action with the single verb nod, whereas in Spanish to describe this same action you would use a phrase that also includes the reason why you are nodding. For example hacer una señal con la cabeza, literally ‘to make a sign with the head’. English may be compact in comparison to Spanish, but looks ungainly when compared to Miriwoong.
I will indulge in one more example to make my point
ginayin yidoong  ‘he has his head down’
     This example is perhaps less impressive than the last, but the context in which I learnt the meaning of this verb is worth mentioning. I was sitting down with the language workers doing an activity to practice conjugating verbs. I was having trouble distinguishing between the verb yidoong ‘put your head down’ and a similar verb, which means something along the lines of ‘to be sleepy’ and had been acted out to me as ‘nodding off to sleep’. One language worker came to the rescue, explaining the difference as follows – both verbs imply the you move your head down towards your chest. The difference is that one verb conveys the notion that you are putting your head down and closing you eyes to listen, as you might in a big mob of people who are in discussion – this is yidoong, whereas the other verb conveys the notion that you are nodding off to sleep. Tying the meanings of words to concrete examples and actual experiences, is something that I occasionally lose sight of in the study of linguistics. Treating language as an object is just one side-effect of linguistics. In reality language is closely tied to experience, and when we are using language we are constantly referring back to these experiences.
     Words, their meanings and the ways they are arranged together in a sentence in order to communicate are the site of cultural and existential differences. When you lose a language, you lose a unique way of conceiving of, and existing in the world.
Cadierno, T (2010) Motion in Danish as a Second Language: Does the Learner’s L1 make a difference? In H. ZhaoHong & T. Cadierno (Eds.) Linguistic Relativity in SLA: Thinking for Speaking , Bristol, New York,Ontario: Multilingual Matters.
Talmy, L. (1985) Lexicalization patterns: semantic structure in lexical forms. In T. Shopen (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description: grammatical Categories and the Lexicon (Vol. 3, pp.36-149) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Slobin, D.I. (1996) From “thought and language” to “thinking for speaking”. In J. Gumperz and S. Levinson (eds) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language (Vol. 17, pp. 70-96) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ZhaoHong, H. & Cadierno, T. (2010) Linguistic Relativity in SLA: Thinking for Speaking Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

# 7, window into another world

     Another average week at Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring has rolled by. This past week I have been out on a field trip to Ngamoowalem Nature Reserve. The purpose of the trip was to take Miriwoong language on to country, and to teach the local ranger group language which is directly relevant to their daily work. Flora, fauna, place names and ways of talking about things in specific locations.
     I have done a little bit of camping in my time, but this campsite was way out of the ordinary. Along with the generator powered TV, after hours entertainment for the modern ranger, and the industrial fan which was put out of a job when we were hit by the first big storm of the wet season, there were a couple of things which stood out.
     Growing up in a big city, not particularly close to suburbs which carry the multicultural banner with pride, I have seen kids raised one way. Or at least variations on the theme of this ‘one way’. I have been raised in this way myself. Seeing the way that the children and the adults in our campsite engaged with one another, I did wonder how Aboriginal communities raise their kids… In one of the few studies of child rearing practices in Australian Indigenous communities, Annette Hamilton has described the autonomy of even the very youngest children, the importance of group membership and the responsibility of the group, or extended family. Hamilton, raising her own children alongside Anbarra women living in Maningrida in North-Central Arnhem Land, writes:
     “I had never thought it possible for children to have so few restraints and their parents so few anxieties about them.” (1981:120 cited by Simpson & Wigglesworth, 2008:2)
     Helicopters and cotton wool are certainly not in the parenting kit for these Anbarra women. The ‘few restraints’ Hamilton mentions highlight the value placed on a child’s autonomy, and reading between the lines, parents’ lack of anxiety stems from the knowledge that all members of the extended family network are responsible for raising a child and ensuring their safety. Indeed for parents generally, letting children exercise independence in their play and travel is associated with the neighbourhood a family lives in and also social norms. Living in a safe, and supportive community reduces parental fear, and enables parents to give their children the freedom to play and explore independently – activities which is instrumental in the physical and psychological development of a child.
     Reading an anthropological account is one thing. Seeing human behaviour play out in real time is another lesson altogether. The things that I noticed, such as the ways that children and adults were interacting, and the way that people positioned themselves in space, forced a reflection on the seemingly banal details of my own life which are in fact the finer details of my culture.  Similar to the Anbarra people, the respect for the autonomy of Miriwoong children features in an approach to child-rearing that is still alive and well today. There was no nervous clinging to mum’s skirt hem, although there were plenty of skirt wearing mothers to choose from. Our campsite was roughly divided into three spaces – a women’s space, which included married couples, a young men’s space, and children occupying the fluid spaces in between. The kids formed a little gang and rarely stopped for breath in their exploration of the campsite and surrounding bushland. We ‘adults’ were shackled by the heat, and sat still and heavy  in the shade.
Welcome shade for the ladies

Welcome shade for the ladies

     Sitting heavy, yes. But tuned in. Eyes in the back of maternal heads was a given. Every now and then my ‘sister’ who is usually softly spoken if she says anything at all, would dish out a caution to one of the kids. Hey little girl don’t swing on that Boab branchStop throwing rocksKeep away from the fire. It didn’t matter that the kid in question was not her own in the biological sense. It seemed to me that the source of discipline was less about restraining behaviour and more about being safe, which is no trivial matter living out in the harsh Kimberley landscape. And safety is everyone’s responsibility. I realised this when an aunty, seeing her niece tottering across the red sand, motioned to her grand-daughter to walk alongside the toddler to make sure that if she fell in the hot sand she was promptly set back on her feet.  Aside from cautionary advice, just about that only instruction that I heard repeated to the kids was rangga-ranggab. Listen…. And it goes without saying that in listening these kids are also absorbing the unique world-view enshrined in their traditional language, Miriwoong language.
     As I pick up more of the language I am beginning to get glimpses of what the world looks like through the Miriwoong filter. The attention to detail evident in the rich vocabulary for flora and fauna on Miriwoong land is the first thing that leaps out at you…..
     David Newry had said in a planning meeting for the ranger training trip “Everywhere I walk I see language“, and indeed camping out in the Ngamoowalem Nature Reserve every significant feature of the landscape has a name.  The types of earth – desert sand, quick sand, white river sand, black clay soil. If you know the soil, then you know what to look for when you’re hunting. The patterns of weather – Rain and torrential rain. The varieties of palm -the edible, the medicinal and the toxic.  The species of goanna – a dinner favourite. Whoever gets the tail you’re in luck! The different types of bird. There must have been thirty that David described to us in the lead up to the trip! Every now and then during the bush lessons, David would fall silent and then ask if we could hear “that?” – that distinctive bird call. Levi Strauss (1966), criticising the widely held belief of his era that Indigenous ways of living and conceiving of the world were inferior to modern society and science in his forward thinking The Savage Mind, points out that traditional cultures have a detailed knowledge of the landscape they live in, including flora and fauna, that rivals the specificity of scientific classifications. On Miriwoong/Gajerrong country I am beginning to see this level of detail. Flora and fauna that I didn’t know the names of in English, I can now talk about it Miriwoong.
     Consider for a moment the Miriwoong word nalm ‘to make links, to learn language’. Which meaning came first? Unlike English, there is no etymological dictionary available. Regardless, the metaphoric extension of the meaning of this word to include both making links, and learning language is apt. For Miriwoong people learning language links them to their land through the ability to describe it. It enables them to forge links with people in the present as it enables them to communicate their experiences of a common landscape. Learning and using language also links generations through the knowledge and experience that is embedded in language, and also in story and song.
     Attention to detail, evident in the lexicon of a language, is the view out the window. The structures of our native language, influencing as they do the way we filter and express our experiences in the world are the frame and the stained glass. And that is a Miriwoong yarn for another time.
Simpson, J. & Wigglesworth, G. (2008) Children’s Language and Multilingualism: Indigenous Language Use at Home and School, New York, London: Continuum

Greasing the wheel

More than a few words about our language, the social discourse we get swept up in, and the ripples….

Last week a thirteen year old boy committed suicide in Kununurra. He was a young Aboriginal boy with a family, a long future, a present and a short past. His death rocked the community, and the language centre. Although I did not know this boy, I too was shaken as I grappled with my sense of a natural order, the what and the why? I thought of my thirteen year old sister and the bubbling conversations that I have with her about her horizon. I remember she once turned to me and said “Gret, do you think I can be a tennis pro and a pop singer at the same time.” My response, “Of course you can!”

In trying to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic event I started reading and as I followed the (digital) paper trail my heart grew heavier.

In a first article I read about the findings of a report into deaths of children and young people in Queensland . Key findings of the report are that child suicide rates have risen since 2009. Suicide is more prevalent for boys, and is the leading cause of unnatural death for the age group 10-14 years. As a cause of unnatural death, the rate of suicide is 5 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children than their non-Indigenous peers. Clearly the Kununurra case is not an isolated case. Even more concerning is the impact suicide can have within a peer group. One woman working at the language centre described the ‘domino-effect’ of child suicide that had been seen in previous years.

In the report, reasons given for the high suicide rate amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Queensland report were multiple and complex. These included the use of alcohol and illicit substances, behavioural problems and previous suicidal thoughts and behaviours. As stand-alone risk factors for a child these issues can be managed, however they are more often than not “further complicated by the ongoing experience of social and economic disadvantage, and a loss of cultural continuity.” (p.73) As I read on, the image of social and economic disadvantage in some Indigenous communities came into focus. Domestic violence and misguided government funding  a 30% increase in reports of child abuse and also out of home-care  in the NT, an 18% increase in the rates of incarceration of Aboriginal women over the past two years… It is difficult to tell where the causes begin, and the effects ends. The reality is that these facts and figures represent a web of cumulative risk factors, that is sustained or short-term exposure to singular or multiple sources of adversity, that challenge the personal development of an individuals and by extension families (Wright & Marsten, 2006). Cumulative risk severely compromises the abilities of families and individuals to exercise resilience and break the intergenerational cycle.



Human beings are incredibly resilient. They have the ability to overcome any number of challenges set across their path. Men, women, adolescents and children.

So what is resilience?

Resilience can be defined as a positive pattern of adaptation in the face of past or present adversity (Wright & Masten, 2006). In other words one’s capacity to overcome severe challenges and get on with life. It is relevant to make clear at this point that resilience is not a stable characteristic of individuals, it is a dynamic and complex process which one can set in motion by making use of available resources in order to successfully overcome adversity. These resources include personal strengths and support structures within the family, community and also the prevailing attitudes of broader social discourse, which give rise to protective policy and infrastructure. A child who is being bullied at school can plug in to a supportive family network in order to adapt in positive ways to the challenges that they are facing at school. A school ethos which condemns bullying can also be a protective factor in this instance. A child whose home life is unstable can seek stability and support from their network of friends and teachers at school, or other mentors in their community. Equally, a child who has witnessed domestic violence, or been a victim themselves, with the appropriate support, has the capacity to adapt in positive ways to overcome these experiences.

In terms of the process of resilience, the difference between adults and children is that adults have some agency in choosing the environment they place themselves in, the voices they listen to, the advice they take, and that which they reject. Thus adults have control over the protective resources they have access to. Children do not have this same agency, and in this sense they are vulnerable, as is their capacity to exercise resilience.

I am in no position to render the facts and figures coherent of social and economic disadvantage in some Indigenous communities across Australia, nor am I qualified to propose strategies to deal with the impacts of cumulative risk for communities, families and children. For what it’s worth, I think the best approach to dealing with intergenerational trauma is to build resilience within the family unit, while also addressing the problems that face some Indigenous communities. Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Forrest and a team of experts have recently released a review of and recommendations for Indigenous economic and social policy, which promises to build this capacity for resilience, in addition to addressing current issues such as unemployment. The report clearly resonates with some communities as it has received positive feedback from Indigenous groups across Australia . An even more constructive development in this regard is the work being done through the Federal Government’s ‘Empowered Communities’ project, which is a channel through which Indigenous leaders and communities can provide their own answers to questions surrounding the present and future of their communities. What I do want to talk about is another risk factor threatening Indigenous Australians and Indigenous children, which has recently been drawn to national attention in a brilliant ad campaign. Racism.




Racism in the backyard

There is no doubt that racism towards Aboriginal Australians is pervasive in Australia today. The negative press tramping along a dominant “suggested articles” trail in the Australian media plays no small role in shaping sweeping generalisations about Australian Aboriginal groups, and obscuring all the positive developments that are also taking place in many if not all Indigenous communities across Australia. The Aboriginal people I meet in Kununurra, the friends I am making, are proof of the positive, and some whitefellas I have come across in Kununurra are in the back yard sweeping. Gated communities, passing comments, sneering remarks about Kimberley Kriol, to the tune of “if I were to learn a language it would NOT be Kriol.” For the record, Kriol, which is a language spoken by many Aboriginal people living in Kununurra is not a bastardised form of English, as English is not a bastardised form of Latin. Kriol is a language in its own right, with system and structure to express humour, creativity, tenderness, anger and all else that is part of meaningful human communication. And how could I forget the calculating stare of the man working behind the counter at “Thirsty Camel” slowly counting out the change for the Aboriginal man buying a six-pack of VB, or the police cruising the streets looking for trouble. No guessing who they are looking out for.

Don’t just take my word for it. A recent survey conducted by BeyondBlue , which was completed by over 1000 non-Indigenous Australians, provides evidence to suggest that racist attitudes towards Indigenous Australians are still prevalent in Australia. If you believe that Aboriginal Australians are “sometimes a bit lazy” and receive an unfair advantage in support from the Australian government, then you are not alone. The major challenge in dealing with racist attitudes and the discriminatory behaviour they give rise to is captured by chief executive of Beyond Blue, Georgie Harman, has said that people may not realize that they are discriminating, and they do not understand the negative impacts it can have on the mental health of Indigenous Australians. Overt prejudice giving rise to discrimination, such as race-related verbal abuse can be nipped in the bud because we can see it, and we can speak out about it. Covert prejudice, of the variety that Harman is referring to, be it counting the change or worse still standing by to watch a Yolngu man drown, may be invisible even to the perpetrator of this prejudice. Was just making sure I have got the right change, or didn’t want to put myself in danger. Regardless of whether it is visible or not, discrimination scores a deep wound.

It may seem that there is a vicious cycle turning in some Indigenous communities in Australia, but deeply entrenched negative or condescending attitudes towards Aboriginal Australians at both an interpersonal and an institutional level are the grease that oils this wheel of intergenerational trauma. The average Australian may not be able to work directly to reduce the rate of Indigenous incarceration, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. What they can do is check their opinions, dig deep to uncover covert prejudice, and check the language they use to talk about or talk to the Aboriginal brothers and sisters.



How racism affects mental health

As I understand it, the effects of overt racism and more covert prejudices make their way into the personal psyche through the channels of personal narrative and the imagination.

Personal narrative is a concept which has been taken up by researchers in psychology and related fields such as applied linguistics and education, because of the evidence it provides of identity work. As Benson et al (2013) put it, “the coherence of our identities lies in the stories of our past, present and future, that we tell to ourselves and to others” (p. 25). The narratives we weave are attempts to make sense of the multiple, pluricultural identities we may acquire by virtue of living in a modern, globalized world. Noel Pearson (2014) has pointed out that for Aboriginal Australians, a bicultural identity is not a choice, but a fact of existence in a country in which Western society has superimposed itself over traditional ways of thinking and being in the world.

To tell our stories,  we draw on the categories made salient to us by our historical and sociocultural context, media representations and immediate experience (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Through these stories we express who we are now, and who we hope to be in the future. I am talking about how I want to be a linguist learning about Aboriginal languages and world view right now, and how maybe in the future I will become a teacher. I am making use of the opportunities available to me – education, internships, advice. I am absorbing public opinion on language and education through the media. I am listening to what people have to say about my hopes and dreams and present actions. It’s all part of my story. It is easy to imagine how negative and racist discourse directed at you could make their way into your personal narratives.

Imagine being a native Kriol speaking kid in primary school, whose teacher makes a point of ‘correcting’ you every time you speak up in class, rather than recognising that Standard Australian English (SAE) is your second language, and one that you may need to be taught explicitly. In those shoes I wouldn’t be keen on school. Or what about an Aboriginal man in the pub overhearing a group at the next table laughing at an Abo joke? Real funny. These experiences and the vocabulary that comes with them are the narrative resources that are being packed onto the shelf for all generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Hotel Kununurra was a segregated pubs until about 10 years ago, but I reckon there is still segregation in bookstores across Australia. It is unacceptable, and I hope to see things change in my lifetime.

A construct which is related to personal narrative is the self concept – who we know ourselves to be, based on actual and perceived capabilities, informed by the imagination. The self concept is not necessarily something we share with the world, and the aspects that we do share are projected in the things that we do and say. It is fair to say that the self concept is a powerful motivating force, which derives much of its power from the imagination. Consider the following quote:


 “Throughout history of mankind, humans are driven by their imagination and their ability to see images of the desired future. Leaders, poets, writers, composers, artists, dreamers, athletes have been able to be inspired, stay inspired and inspire others through such images. These images, once shared, have the power to become a force, and in that sense an inspiration for social development and growth, for intentional change at many levels of social organization, not just for the individual.” (Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006: 633)


We imagine what we have experienced in the world, and in this sense the imagination is the tool that mediates our self and reality. It is the tool we use to paint a vivid picture of ourselves in the present moment and project future ideal selves. Our ideal self is that self we hope to become. The gap between our present and our ideal self, in turn has the power to motivate us in the present moment to bridge this gap. When the future you imagine is peppered with negative encounters you have in your present that result in low feelings of self-worth, even the feeling of being invisible, one can see how devastating the effects might be. When the future self you imagine is obliterated by these negative encounters, what then?



Personal Interventions

It has been suggested that factors which contribute to the resilience of those who face discrimination and oppression are a strong cultural identity and comfort and competence relating to non-group members (Wright & Masten, 2006). For Aboriginal people, comfort and confidence can only come from positive encounters with whitefellas. Cultural identity can be bolstered by the sense that those from different cultures are opening to understanding, and have respect for your culture. It’s not complicated stuff.  A happy encounter may be the first line in a page-turner. You just never know.



Institutionalised racism

Moving from the personal to the institutionalized racism which shapes Australian politics, and again feeds into the internalised orientations that we may have towards Indigenous Australians, I want to bring up Noel Pearson’s views on the question of what it means to be an Aboriginal Australian today, and the types of influences that shape this concept.


“Indigenous policies to date have been premised upon exclusive and hierarchical conceptions of “race”. They proceed from historical assumptions of indigenous inferiority and incapability. These assumptions convinced governments that Indigenous Australians are incapable, and too often, they have convinced our own people” (Pearson, 2014:48)


Not only do Indigenous people face discrimination in the streets of their home towns, government policies pertaining specifically to their social and political existence, informed as they are by race-based notions of inferiority and incapability, are inherently discriminatory.  These policies have also made their way into the self concept and the personal narratives of Indigenous people. Pearson talks about the way that government interventions in Indigenous affairs have denied Indigenous people the right to choose how they will exist in the modern world, and how they will adapt to Western ideals and values while protecting their language and culture. I would argue that Indigenous people are also denied this existential choice, through discrimination in the media and through personal encounters, which reduces the social capital – the identity building resources – that Aboriginal people have access to.

Returning to the what and why of child suicide in Indigenous communities, I am a little closer to understanding the heavy burden that some of these children bear – challenging their capacity for resilience, their personal narratives and their hopes for the future. If you have stayed with me all the way, then perhaps you are beginning to understand it too. Or maybe you already knew?

Pearson has reminded us that there only one race, humankind. Many cultures, one race. Institutional recognition is one thing. However recognition of this at an interpersonal level, for both non-indigenous and Indigenous Australians will be the true vehicle for positive change, and the telling of good old yarns in our Australian future.


Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Multicultural Mental Health Australia or the Local Aboriginal Medical Service


Benson, P., Barkhuizen, G., Bodycott, P., & Brown, J. (2013). Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad (P. Benson, G. Barkhuizen, P. Bodycott & J. Brown Eds.): Palgrave Macmillan.

Boyatzis, R. E., & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 624-642.

Markus, H. R., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41 (954-969).

Pearson, N. (2014). A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a more complete commonwealth. In C. Feik (Ed.), Quarterly Essay: Black Inc.

Wright, M. O. D., & Masten, A. S. (2006). Resilience processes in development: fostering positive adaptation in the context of adversity. In S. Golstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of Resilience in Children. New York: Springer.


# 6, information sharing – Part 2

So Miriwoong language and culture are under lock and key right?
     Not exactly. What appears to be restricted on the surface, challenging my notions of sharing of information, freedom of information, wiki-leaking of information is in fact generous where it is appropriate. The impromptu lessons that I am privy to on any given day are a good example of this.
     Within the community Miriwoong is shared through appropriate channels. Some of these programs I have already mentioned, but I will list just a few so we are all on the same page. At daycares and in school, Miriwoong is taught by Miriwoong women. On the radio there is a ‘word of the week program’ presented by the language workers, in Mirima national park there is dual signage. Anyone who wants to learn about the Miriwoong language and culture has the opportunity, so long as they recognize that this language belongs to the Miriwoong country and the Miriwoong people, and they accept that there are certain people who are able to teach the language, and certain ways in which it must be taught. According to the second National Indigenous Language Survey (NILS, 2014) most Aboriginal groups working to keep their languages strong agree that whitefellas should be able to learn the languages too. However a minority believe that whitefellas should be able to teach their languages.
     As part of preserving the traditions associated with passing on linguistic and cultural knowledge, the Miriwoong people are  open to welcoming gardiya and nyaman into their social system (Palmer & Newry, 2006). The social system is one based on kinship. It’s not a simple case of biological family, with one mother, one father, a couple of siblings, two aunties on your mum’s side and so on. Yes the modern family is a nebulous concept, and for many people not a ‘simple case’
     But in Miriwoong society, the kinship system really is complex in that it extends to incorporate everyone. In this way everyone is related, either biologically or by metaphoric extension, on the basis of a common ancestor. The kinship systems of Aboriginal Australian groups has bamboozled anthropologists for decades, and I am not about to try and summarize how exactly the system works. Suffice to repeat the basic fact EVERYONE is related! I drove out to Lake Argyle on a fishing trip last week with two of the MDWg language workers, Evie and Ingrid (not their real names). Every community we passed they excitedly pointed out and explained which of their relatives lived their – aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers, cousin-sisters, cousin-brothers… Today on a field trip one of my Miriwoong sisters was explaining to me how we were related to other family groups who were hanging out by the river. She patiently climbed up and down family trees as I nodded like an Elvis figurine on a dashboard. I am learning. Slowly.
     In the Miriwoong way, if you know how you are related to someone, then you know how you should treat them, what degree of respect they deserve, whether you are on familiar or strictly formal terms, such as a mother-in-law and her son-in-law, and whether or not they are suitable marriage partners. The confusion of figuring out whether to use the ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ form, or signing off an email with ‘Kind regards’, ‘Yours faithfully’ or perhaps ‘cheeeeeeers love’ is done away with.
     My colleague and I were quickly adopted into the Miriwoong family. On the first week we were given skin names, which positioned us in the kin network that underpins Miriwoong social structure. To compliment this, one of the first things we began to learn about was kinship, which makes sense considering that kin terms are some of the first language that Miriwoong children are actively taught. In the Miriwoong way a mother and her sister’s are responsible for their daughter’s learning, and a father and his brothers are responsible for their son’s learning (Palmer & Newry, 2006). And so it has been that my Miriwoong mothers, and other female relatives have been ‘learning’ me. Kinship, fishing, picking mangoes…
     Our adoption was a perfectly informal affair. At one point during a language recording session Rosie, my fishing instructor, asked if I had been given a skin name. When I replied that I had not she gave my colleague, Hannah and I different skin names. Satisfied she said “now we are family”. Remembering back to the moment, I think I probably blushed, smiled to Rosie and then hurried off to jot my skin name down before I forgot it! Before naming us, Rosie might have reflected on how we had been behaving towards her, and thus how we may be related and also how we might fit into the broader kinship system. Rosie is my Miriwoong mother and Hannah is her Miriwoong grand-daughter.
     For the people that we are working with, who live in a society that functions on the basis of kinship it is helpful for them to know where we stand and how they might engage with us…  a glob of social glue is helping me along too. With a skin name, and the network of relations that it implies, I am slowly learning about the types of relationships I have with people, who will teach me, and who I might teach. One of the language workers I have been collaborating with, Ingrid, is my grand-daughter so in the Miriwoong way it is appropriate that we have a friendly relationship and that I share with her my Microsoft know-how.
     This simple act of welcoming us in to Miriwoong society speaks volumes for the openness and willingness to engage that so many Aboriginal Australians possess.
     In my second week at MDWg I met two more of my Miriwoong mothers. These women are community elders and fluent speakers of Miriwoong…. One takes the world in leaps and bounds. You can hear her chuckle from the other side of the campfire. Just like embers that charge upwards in heat streams and float back down to earth on a cool stream. The other has seen worlds of people pass by, including anthropologists and maybe also linguists flying in and flying out, and she doesn’t have a lot of patience for whitefellas, who in their curiosity end up approaching dignified Aboriginal elders like a museum display. Fair enough. I am trying hard to avoid museum visits! But there is so much to take in, that sometimes all I can do is sit in silence and watch. We had a bit of a communication break down on our first meeting when she was asking for something which I figured out was tea – the word nalijang jumped out at me from the cloud of chatter. And then when I was fumbling for the word for sugar she got short with me, just as my own Mum might have done if I was asking silly questions! YES. of course I want sugar!
     The logic underpinning the approach that Miriwoong people take to sharing information is well founded, and it is making me reconsider my militant approach to freeing information. At least in this context. My only concern is that reaching out to people who may want to learn and understand their cultural and linguistic heritage, and don’t have access to the language centre for whatever reason, is made more challenging. I am thinking of the women my age who are busy raising  kids, starting a career and inevitably managing the demands that are unique to those straddling the divide between Western society and their traditional society. Their absence from the language centre activities is glaring. Maybe they have enough support and guidance from family in this regard. Or perhaps, along with a majority of Aboriginal people who partook in NILS (2014), one of the major constraints on reconnecting with language is availability. Needless to say, access to language and cultural resources and teaching is an issue that every language centre struggles with. The government cuts to the Indigenous Language Support (ILS) funding stream are certainly not making things any easier.
      Warany. Biyarroora

# 5, in the valley

Week 3 and I found myself in a valley.
     Mountains of self-imposed frustration towering above me. Frustration with the pace at which things move up here. I have hear Kununurra time described as “wait-a-while” time. Frustration with working in an environment that is unpredictable, and feeling entirely inefficient. Frustration with the pigeon steps I seem to be taking in learning Miriwoong. Why isn’t my memory like an ocean-sized sponge?! The memory is a curious creature and as humans it seems that we are constantly trying to tame this stubborn little organism. Thankfully the valley is a Mirima valley and when I take a moment to pause and look around I am reminded that life ain’t half bad.

Mirima National Park, Kununurra, Western Australia

Mirima National Park, Kununurra, Western Australia

     Coincidentally I have been reading alot about motivation in the context of learning a second language. As one expert in the field of second language acquisition has pointed out: “Without sufficient motivation even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot accomplish long term goals, and neither are appropriate curricula and good teaching enough on their own to ensure student achievement.” (Dornyei, 2005:65). In short, if we weren’t motivated we would be sitting very still. No mountain climbing, no cliff diving, no risk, no indulgence, no language learning. I am driven to learn Miriwoong and to contribute to the maintenance and revitalisation of Miriwoong language and culture, and this is a constant source of motivation that hangs around like the ozone layer. Zooming in on the immediate moments, in the act of carrying out daily activities, motivation ebbs and flows. Frustration can strike when you feel that you aren’t achieving the goals that you have set yourself. I am not committing as many Miriwoong words to memory as I had hoped and this is a temporary source of frustration. Fortunately, or not in some cases, the goal-oriented mind is constantly rationalising, and thus with each challenge it will develop new, perhaps more realistic goals and re-invigorate ones resolve to achieve. Such is the tide of learning, and learning language.
     I wonder what drives the language workers at MDWg to continue learning and working on their language? In general and in the day-to-day. No doubt they all have their own unique sources of motivation in the work they do to keep their language and culture strong. I have been reading about the history of MDWg and came across an interesting comment. In 1966 it was decided that Aboriginal cattle station hands would be awarded equal pay. What appeared to be a step in the right direction sent social justice reeling backwards as station owners responded to the new law by ending the contracts of their Aboriginal employees. As a result, many of the more remote communities on these stations were disbanded as families were forced to move into Kununurra for employment. The channels of intergenerational transmission of culture and language took a heavy blow. Miriwoong people in their 40s today were young children during this turbulent period, and according to Newry & Palmer (2003) they were the most severly affected in terms of access to kin, culture and language. Some of the language workers are part of this generation, and it is possible that in their work they see an opportunity to reclaim what gardiya (‘white man’) politics and gardiya ways of doing business denied them. If I were in their shoes, or walking the earth with their leathery souls this would put wind in my sails.
     Motivation is not necessarily a state which we enter in and out of solo. It can be a product of social interaction, and in the moments when I have felt most frustrated, the walls are torn down by the people I brush shoulder with – conversations, the impromptu lessons and the team work. I am constantly surprised by the willingness of the Miriwoong team I work with to share their knowledge and help me to understand their way of life. The other day I was retreating back into the air-conditioned office after my lunch break, when David Newry with his bright eyes and his electric mop of salt and pepper, a senior Mirima Council member, appeared at the door and it was time for a yarn. Back out into the sauna. We walked around the MDWG backyard as David pointed out trees and plants, and talked about the seasons in which they flower, the relationship they have to the landscape itself, the fruit or veg that they bear and the way that you might prepare this bush tucker. We may have satellites mapping the contours of the earth, predicting weather patterns, crop yield and all the rest, but the original inhabitants of this land are the eyes on the ground. They know this land intimately. They can predict weather patterns, they do predict ‘crop yield’, they know the contours of the earth because they have been making tracks across the vast expanse for generations. Recognition of the value of this information for land management among other applications is a source of pride for David, and it must be a source of motivation in the work he does for his language, his culture and his community.
     While I was furiously rehearsing the names of plant varieties that David had been telling me about, he moved onto the topic of community development. David has played a major role in the development of various organisations in the Kimberley region, including the Kimberley Interpreting Service and  MDWg itself. And when the high court came to Kununurra in the early 90’s to work on the Miriwoong/Gajirrabeng native title claim he was right there on the frontline with the suggestion, which is now common practice, of setting up court out bush, where his people felt comfortable, where they felt free to talk in their own way about their own land. He wonders what might have happened had he not been around to speak up and have his opinion heard…
     It’s true I spend much of my time absorbing information, being taught. But I am gradually coming to see that there are skills that I can share too. Every day is different, but if there were to be a typical MDWg schedule it would run something like this – working with the language workers in the morning on their individual projects. Then in the afternoon I put my linguist goggles on and sift through samples of language in search of patterns of language use. Specifically I am trying identify the strategies for asking questions that are used in Miriwoong. This week I have been working alongside one language worker, Singrid (not her real name) who is writing a cook book. There is no word for planning in Miriwoong, and as a nyaman (‘white sheila’) and a native English speaker with words such as ‘schedule’, ‘long-term planning’, ‘mid-term planning’ and ‘short-term planning’ at my disposal, one skill that I can share with Singrid is planning. I helped her write a ‘to do’ list at the beginning of the week and she took to it like a duck to water… I only hope I haven’t passed on my list-writing addiction! Probably not. Singrid’s desire to learn is palpable, and it is a real pleasure to work with her. She wants to master Microsoft word, and so another set of skills that I have been sharing with her are computing skill. Over the past weeks it has become apparent that learning by example is an appropriate ‘teaching’ method for the Miriwoong people. And so in our daily sessions we take it in turns as I demonstrate and Singrid does. I have to keep biting my tongue as my knee-jerk reaction is to explain everything with words, words, words! Motivation ebbs and flows between us. Computers can be friggin frustrating! But we are teaching each other alot and that in itself is reward enough.
     And did you know that you can eat the pithy contents of boab pod! I picked one up of the ground the other day and wondered at its furry exterior. Shaking it, the contents rattled like a kinder surprise. A far cry, from the short lived joy of a plastic toy (surprise, surprise!), the boab nut contains a mass of seeds held together by a white pith. The pith can be ground up and added to your morning muesli. And the seeds contain bush peanuts, also a candidate for morning muesli. Quinoa and other ancients grains make room on your superfood shelf.
Boab seeds

Boab seeds

Dornyei, Z (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

# 4, a note on information sharing

Garni woora-ngoong?! (‘How are you?!’)

…to which you might reply “Ngoondengi-thangany” (‘I am well’)
     Just back from a weekend fishing trip with some of the Miriwoong ladies. I am about one eighth of the way to a Kimberley tan, even slower to train my eyes to freshwater crocs with beady eyes and nostrils poking out of the cool spillway water and I am not sure if my lily-white feet will ever be tough enough the stroll across the scorching hot sand of a river bank… But the campfire smoke is under my skin, Miriwoong words are making their way into the automatic recognition region of my brain, and one day soon I might be able to claim that I have learned how to fish.
     My fishing instructor, Rosie, is a petite, grandmotherly, Miriwoong elder with a patient, face-wide smile who speaks Miriwoong and Kriol. Not only was this lesson one in which I would take the first steps to becoming a fully fledged fisherwoman, it was also a language lesson. In excited discussion in the lead up to the fishing trip she said she would “learn me to fish”, and learn I did….
     The lesson began when I followed Rosie out to a spot that she had chosen in the middle of the river, clambering over rocks and wading tentatively through a small but rapid rapid. Step two was helping bait the fishing line. No instructions, just a knife passed in my direction and a glance towards a hunk of beef bleeding into the rock that we were perched on. Step three was washing the fish post-gutting. There was one instruction here – stuff the fat from the bream back into it’s belly after washing. My first juicy mouthful of grilled bream over dinner was all the explanation I needed of this. And then Rosie asked me if I wanted to have a go at fishing? Without waiting for a reply she passed a fishing line in my direction and showed me where she kept hooks and sinkers. With two left hands I threaded up a hook and sinker and awkwardly made my first attempt to cast off. Laughter ensued, and my fishing reel was momentarily confiscated as Rosie cast my line a good twenty meters into the water and then looked over to make sure I had been watching. So when I say language lesson, it was not so much a lesson in verbal language, but a lesson in observing body language. And when I say a fishing lesson, it was no so much a teacher instructing a student, but a learner being guided by example. It’s been a while since I had a lesson that didn’t involve lecture slides and an hours worth of words. In fact the note book I had hopefully brought along with me to jot down camping adventure wisdom sat in my back pack untouched…
     I have yet to successfully catch a fish, although Rosie did give me the satisfaction of reeling in a cat fish that had taken the bait on her line. A mate of mine made the valid point that until I have actually caught a fish, I can’t really say that I have learned how to fish. The learning continues.
The day's catch, Lake Argyle spillway, Kununurra

The day’s catch, Lake Argyle spillway, Kununurra

     Work at MDWg is as relaxed as a fishing trip most of the time. However, there are some more serious issues which I have been mulling over since I started working at the centre. One of these is the issue of sharing information, which includes samples of Miriwoong language and also cultural knowledge, with the general public. MDWg doesn’t publish any of their resources – these are intended for use by the language centre and Miriwoong people exclusively. In setting up this bog, and prior to starting work at MDWg I was inclined to share as much information as possible, through examples of language and knowledge. I am driven by the conviction that through sharing this type of information, misconceptions will be debunked, and an understanding of the Miriwoong way of life will be fostered. I know I am not to only one who is curious, and eager to learn in order to bridge gaps between the various groups living on this island of ours.
     Moreover, there are Aboriginal groups doing language work who take a similar approach to sharing information. As the most recent National Indigenous Language Survey (2014) has found, there are Aboriginal groups in Australia who believe that the way forward in keeping their language strong involves increasing language proficiency and speaker numbers, and also establishing a stronger linguistic presence in their communities, and also in the wider Australian community. The survey finds that strong language has a role to play in promoting the wellbeing of individuals and communities because it can foster a sense of belonging (57 % of respondents), and empowerment (38% of respondents) and to a lesser degree to facilitate communication (5% of respondents). One interpretation of these findings is that the symbolic presence of Aboriginal languages in the public arena has a role to play in empowering and reinforcing a sense of belonging for Aboriginal people, and is thus an essential aspect of any program of maintenance and revitalisation. However, when it comes to putting Miriwoong out into the public arena, I am realizing that there are certain constraints put forward by Miriwoong elders which I must respect.
     Through various conversations with my colleagues at MDWg I am coming to appreciate why the sharing of information regarding Miriwoong needs to be monitored. There are three reasons why Miriwoong elders and speakers are wary of sharing their language and culture with the general public. Firstly, in sharing information their is always the possibility of exploitation. Let’s say a tour guide wants to throw a bit of local language and knowledge into their tour package. If information about local language and knowledge is freely available, then there is always the risk that this intellectual property may be used, or even inadvertently misused, without consultation of Miriwoong people. Secondly, having information about the language freely available online poses a threat to the integrity of the language. Imagine a teacher, with no knowledge of the potentially opaque relationship between Miriwoong orthography and pronunciation, looking around for resources that they want to include in a class on local indigenous language and culture. They come across some example sentences and present them to their students, with incorrect pronunciation and possibly also misinformation on the meaning and structure of these sentences. Furthermore, this scenario is entirely inappropriate as there are certain ways which Miriwoong people believe their language should be taught, including who can teach who, and what types of information they can share. Restriction of information on the basis of gender and also family relations is an intrinsic element of the Miriwoong cultural code. Thirdly, for Miriwoong people language and land are inherently linked, and taking the language away from the land is in a sense unnatural.
Let me clarify ‘in a sense unnatural’. Miriwoong people have a strong continuing connection to their land, and their language is the tool that they use to talk about this land. The link between land, language and knowledge is evident. Moreover, the Miriwoong people are the traditional owners of their land, and by extension they are also the owners of the language that is embedded in this land. Therefore to take the language away from the land, and to have it taught by non-Miriwoong people is a breach of ownership and would strip away the foundations of the language.
     Given these entirely valid reasons for being wary of sharing information, are there any strategies that can be implemented to put the language out into the community while also protecting its integrity and ensuring that the Miriwoong people receive appropriate recognition and reimbursement for use of their intellectual property? The answer is yes, and this is where MDWg comes in to the picture. Knut Olawsky has written about going public with Miriwoong in more detail here.
     Somewhat like the Académie Française, one role that MDWg plays is to moderate the flow of linguistic and cultural information to the general public in a way that respects Miriwoong cultural codes. The lynch pin of the operation is consultation and collaboration. Mirima Council members and also Miriwoong speakers are consulted about, or more often collaborate on the activities that the language centre pursues to share information about Miriwoong to the general public, including the radio show, dual signage in the Kununurra area and even a Facebook page . Unlike the Académie Française, or any prescriptivists for that matter, who take pleasure in complaining about misplaced punctuation and creative use of language such as text message banter along da lines of lolyolo n jus cos (to name just a few examples), and receive due criticism, the work that MDWG does to protect the integrity of Miriwoong goes beyond simplistic prescriptivist vs. progressive debates. Until there are children learning Miriwoong as their first language, and making their creative mark on their language, a prescriptive approach to the language is necessary.
     So if you want specifics on the language, this blog is not the place to find this type of information, unless of course I gain permission from the community elders. For example, the greetings I have used in this article were a suggestion that came from a Miriwoong elder and council member.
     Warany. Biyarroora* (‘Ok. You can go now’).
Fishing spot with a view

Fishing spot with a view

* There is no direct translation of ‘hello’, or ‘goodbye’ in Miriwoong. In English, politeness is linguistically encoded in these conversational pleasantries, however in Miriwoong politeness, or respect, is conveyed in other ways. Namely, the way you behave around, and the manner in which you communicate with certain family relations. For example, a man must treat his mother-in-law with the utmost respect, including avoiding addressing her directly. Other cultures might do well to take a page out of the Miriwoong book in this regard!

# 3, Kununurra sounds like…

Kununurra sounds like….an outback symphony in rehearsal.
     For starters there are the back yard boom-boxes pump music at most (all) hours of the day – plenty of Hip Hop and R n B, old classics, “…moving on up…”. Even Cyndi Lauper gets a turn from time to time. I had a surreal music moment on my first Saturday afternoon in Kununurra when, having climbed Thegoowiyeng which is a small peak to the East of the township, as I was doggedly attempting to  break the panorama into view-finder sized pieces, Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” reverberated up through the mega rock formations to my vantage point. The rock formations themselves seemed to be demanding Treaty. Then there are the back yard conversations and the back yard arguments, dogs barking and howling, and birds calls that I have never heard before. I have just discovered that there is an ice cream van in town. Every now and then the van wheels around the corner blaring the crazy frog song, the little mermaid theme tune…good old “Greensleeves” has been outdone.  
     In actual fact most week days my ears are filled with the sound of Miriwoong. Today I sat in on a recording session being conducted by a resident PhD student in which a fluent Miriwoong speaker was discussing a series of images she had been given with a group of language workers. I listened intently and tried to follow the thread of the conversation. Similar to a child learning language, though with the obvious advantage of my years of experience with language, I am slowly beginning to recognize individual words in what initially came across as a wave of unintelligible sound. Even more gradually I am learning what these words and the suffixes that attach to them mean. A suffix is a linguistic unit which adds meaning to a word and in Miriwoong suffixes do alot of the work that prepositions like ‘on’, ‘at’ or ‘after’ and conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’ do in English. For example, the title of the language centre Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring contains the suffix -gerring, which conveys purpose and might be translated to English as ‘for (action)’. The word woorlab means ‘talk’ and dawang means ‘place, home, camp’, thus you could translate Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring as the ‘Mirima place for talking’.
     As an adult language learner the first task I set myself was getting to know the individual sounds that make up the Miriwoong language and learning how these sounds relate to written samples of the language. An alphabet has been developed for Miriwoong which looks deceivingly like the English alphabet. However, there are many sounds in Miriwoong which are not found in the English sound system. For example when you see a ‘ny’, this is to be pronounced like the middle sound in ‘onion’ not like the last sound in ‘any’. Or when you see a ‘th’, this is to be pronounced more like a ‘d’ with the tip of your tongue pushed against the back of your upper front teeth. Have a go at pronouncing Thegoowiyeng. Go easy on the ‘w’, and pronounce the ‘oo’ like the middle sound in ‘boot’, not the middle sound in ‘foot’. Many spare hours of my first week were spent reading aloud, or rather sounding out words that I came across in Miriwoong picture books and on all the language posters and signs hung up around the centre – a body parts chart, varieties of fish found in the Kununurra lake, labels on the containers of tea and sugar in the kitchen, the signs to the sheilas, gawooleng ( ‘e’ pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘smitten’)  and the sign to the blokes, jawaleng

Thegoowiyeng, Kununurra, Western Australia

     If I wasn’t reading I was parroting words and whole phrases that I heard without necessarily knowing what they meant. Before they faded from memory I would attempt to write them down and do detective work on the written form. The language workers take great amusement in my attempts to get my tongue around some of the more challenging sounds, but they are also patient in repeating the correct pronunciation over and over and over again. Being a native-speaker of English, a language that has a long written tradition, the written form is like my anchor is this process of language learning. And then there is the transition from understanding the written form, and being able to sound it out, to understanding a fluent speaker. For anyone who has learned a second language you will probably agree with me that understanding the written word is a bridge and a wide river away from understanding the spoken word. The more you hear, the easy this seemingly insurmountable task of decoding the speech stream becomes.
     Fill you own ears with Miriwoong and other Aboriginal Languages spoken in WA…

# 2, Monday 08.09.2014

Day 1. I arrive at Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg) at 8am and the sun is already beating down.

     MDWg is a small establishment on the outskirts of town neighbouring the Kimberley Land Council, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre and Waringarri Radio. Hives of activity behind closed doors, in air condition rooms. The entrance is shaded by a generous garden. Turning around to look across the road my squinted gaze is met by a full-bellied boab tree and beyond this Ivanhoe Plains – a vast expanse of Kimberley bushland that seems to be shrivelling before my eyes. Bardenyirriny, the hot season, is only just doing its morning stretches!
A view of Ivanhoe Plains, Kununurra, Western Australia

A view of Ivanhoe Plains, Kununurra, Western Australia

     Stepping inside the centre, a relative oasis, a fellow volunteer and I are met by the head linguist Knut Olawsky and some other members of the Mirima team. The language workers arrive and the introductory conversations continue. In one conversation I discover that ‘Sydney’ cannot be used at the moment, out of respect for a man from the community with that same name who has recently passed away. From now on I hail from ‘Harbour Town’.
     Monday normally begins with a team meeting. Barefoot is the footwear of choice and I gratefully kick my sandals aside.  We are formally introduced to the Mirima language workers. There are five language workers employed by MDWg and many have been around since the early days. These are Miriwoong men and women who are expanding their knowledge of the language, while also working on documentation of Miriwoong, the development of resources to teach the language and also other activities which contribute to the maintenance and revitalisation of the language such as the weekly radio show. Language documentation involves working alongside the handful of remaining fluent Miriwoong speakers to record language samples, transcribe these samples and with this large database of language develop a comprehensive understanding of the structure of the language, and ultimately a published Miriwoong grammar. In turn, comprehensive linguistic knowledge informs the production of resources such as videos, picture books and posters. Most of these resources can be used to teach both Miriwoong language and also cultural knowledge because culture is embedded in the vocabulary of the language.
     One major challenge in revitalisation and maintenance contexts is that often the teacher is not far ahead of the students, especially if the students are young and absorb language at the same rate as red Kimberley earth absorbing raindrops. This may concern having appropriate teaching resources, linguistic knowledge or even a sufficiently extensive vocabulary. You might ask why the fluent Miriwoong speakers don’t take on the role of teaching? I will briefly discuss this here, however I will deal with the issue in greater depth down the track. In the case of Miriwoong, it isn’t feasible for elderly fluent speakers to be teaching school-aged students in a formal classroom context. Anyone who is a teacher knows how emotionally and physically draining teaching can be. Aside from using language in their own homes, these fluent speakers convey their linguistic knowledge in language documentation sessions as previously mentioned, and also during Master-Apprentice Language Learning sessions, in which they partner with the language workers to provide them with intensive language input, and promote fluent language use in everyday contexts. The teaching of language to kids* in the community is taken on by language workers, with the support of a facilitator, who (as I have mentioned) are in the process of extending their knowledge of the language, developing teaching materials and also exploring the possibilities of extending the vocabulary. Indeed one upcoming project which is mentioned at the morning meeting is vocabulary expansion.
     Vocabulary expansion would involve the introduction of about 1000 words into Miriwoong to foster language use that is relevant to the modern world. The current lexicon consists largely of vocabulary to talk about traditional activities such as hunting, as well as rich vocabulary to describe the surrounding landscape, plants and animals. While the existing vocabulary is highly relevant to some aspects of everyday life, the western world has introduced a plethora of new objects and concepts which require description. Kids need vocabulary to talk about their toys, experiences at daycare, favourite games. Young adults need vocabulary to talk about parties, movies, football, girlfriends and boyfriends. The park rangers need vocabulary to discuss pest management. And so on an so forth. In short, if language revitalisation is to be successful, and Miriwoong is to be spoken across all generations within the community, then the language must provide the means to talk about the minutiae of everyday experience.
     You may be asking yourselves, how exactly vocabulary expansion works? In answer to this question, expansion of vocabulary is a natural, adaptive process that occurs within languages. All languages have unique systems for developing new words to convey experience in an ever-changing world. An example that comes to mind is use of the word ‘lemon’, which I have recently learned can be used to refer to someone who is generally unpleasant or sour, and likely to put a dampner on good vibes. In this instance my English vocabulary has been expanded through the association of a new meaning to an existing word, which is metaphorically related to this additional meaning. Developing a large amounts of vocabulary in a short period of time is no easy task. The task involves working with linguistic resources available in Mirriwoong itself, or perhaps a neighbouring Aboriginal language or English if borrowing a word is appropriate. Mirriwoong has a system in place for borrowing nouns which involves adding a noun suffix to the ends of words. Another strategy might involve metonymy – naming a concept/thing using a word which is related in meaning to that concept/thing. Using ‘Harbour Town’ to refer to ‘Sydney’ is an example of this. For more on this topic have a look at “Gap Fillers” on this website developed by John Hobson and Susan Poetsch, linguists and educators who have worked in maintenance and revitalisation of Australian Aboriginal languages for many years, to provide guidance for the teaching of Australian Aboriginal languages.
     Making changes to the original form of a language undergoing maintenance and revitalisation, such as the development of new vocabulary, must be approached with caution as this raises questions about the authenticity** of the language. How many changes can be made before a language is no longer that same language? For example, Rob Amery, a linguist with a longstanding commitment to the revitalisation of Kaurna, a South Australian language, points out that introducing a base-10 counting system into Kaurna was potentially problematic because this counting system was not only a new set of words, but also represented a different approach to conceptualizing and categorising the world. With the approval of Kaurna elders, the new counting system was introduced. From another perspective one might argue that, had Kaurna withstood the pressure of linguistic and cultural domination by English settlers, Kaurna speakers may have adapted their counting system in response to the changing world around them in a similar manner. What is important in the case of Kaurna is that community elders accept any changes to their language. It is their language after all, and agency at all stages in the process of language revitalisation ensures that this sense of ownership over the language, and identification with the language is protected.
     For the Miriwoong language the circumstance are different in that there are remaining fluent speakers of the language and also partial speakers who have the final say on decisions related to language planning. As far as vocabulary expansion is concerned, close collaboration between a linguist, possessing expertise in the area of linguistic structures and processes, and speakers of the language would be essential. In fact no language sample is made available to the public without consulting these figures of authority. The MDWg project linguist Frances Kofod, having worked on Miriwoong for 30 years or more, speaks the language fluently and is also involved in the consultation process.
     The morning meeting ends with a discussion of the appropriate word for long-necked turtle, which is the topic for the weekly radio show. There are a couple of different options, one possible word is a generic term for turtle and another is a term which may have come from a neighbouring language. The fluent speakers will need to be consulted before a final decision is made.
     The remainder of day 1 is a kaleidoscope of new information and I leave work with my head spinning.
Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre

Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre

* At this point language is being taught to kids in the community through the mobile Language Nest. A team which includes language workers and a facilitator deliver Miriwoong immersion sessions to daycare groups and also some primary school classes as an extra-curricular activity. Based on the positive feedback from the schools, it is hoped that in the near future a full Miriwoong curriculum will be developed and ideally introduced into the schools as part of the LOTE (Languages Other than English) component of the general curriculum, as has been done for languages such as Gumbayngirr, which is a New South Wales language.
** I have only briefly touched on the issues of authenticity and authority here, however I want to emphasise that these are complex and highly salient issues where language maintenance and revitalisation is concerned. Furthermore the manner in which they are negotiated is unique to each different maintenance and revitalisation context.