Audio, transcript and quotes from the 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival panel session with Andrew Westoll, Wade Davis, Susan Hawthorne chaired by Faith Baisden.
BWF 2011 Transcript
Some interesting quotes from the discussion:
Language loss is the canary in a coalmine: it’s really the indicator of a greater trend, which is the erosion of cultural diversity. And I think the reason we’re so concerned about the language loss is not only because a language is not just grammar and vocabulary; it’s by definition a flash of the human spirit; it’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes in the material world. You know, every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social and spiritual possibilities. And language loss has been a constant in history, just as species have gone extinct.
People often say to you, ‘Why does it matter if a language – you know, if a language is sort of spoken by a handful of people, is there a value in its revitalisation? Can it truly be revitalised?’ Well, it’s important to remember that even the gesture of attempting to revitalise a language suddenly brings children to the knees of the grandparents, suddenly validates the integrity of the culture. And even if a small group of people in Australia, who probably may never again speak their mother tongue completely, just the fact that the society recognises the vitality and legitimacy of that language is important in terms of this overall gesture of restitution that Australia has embarked on.
These cultures are not destined to fade away as if by natural law; they’re not failed attempts to be modern; they’re dynamic, living peoples that, in every case, are being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. And that both is an optimistic observation, because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction we could be the facilitators of cultural survival, but it also puts a responsibility on us to do precisely that.
I think with the internet and with technology the way it’s going, the protection of languages has a huge potential to just accelerate
About 80 languages are spoken by 90 per cent of humanity.
Every two weeks somebody dies and carries with them into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue.
In 2009 the Federal Government did agree to release a National Indigenous Languages Policy … we can now go to government or different departments and say, ‘Here is this policy. You have to work to that. You’ve got to make changes in what you’re doing.’
Genocide is universally condemned, the physical extermination of a people; but ethnocide is not only not condemned, in many corners of the world – the World Bank and elsewhere – it’s promoted as proper modern development policy. And the last sacred cow, that no-one’s prepared to go after, is education and literacy. This is assumed, universally, to be only a positive force, but throughout the world, in fact, literacy is very often the frontline tool for acculturation and assimilation.
I agree it’s very important to have languages recorded, but we also, I think, have to be very wary that those languages don’t then get colonised … And then the problem is that, once things get colonised, they get distorted, and so things that once meant something, the meaning changes; or perhaps the language is used for some purpose to know something that was previously passed on between members of a community and now is put outside the community for anybody to buy. So I think we need to be quite political about how these things are done and not just go in with our tape recorders and willy-nilly put them up there on the internet.
We could document every language and put it into a digital archive. What good will that really do humanity if the people that speak the language have been eradicated or assimilated or violated.
If I can just give you a little bit of hope for what’s happening in Australia, our groups are supporting community-based projects, so with not so much the focus on the academic and the linguists, it’s about getting back to community and getting the hand-helds out there and training young people – people of all ages. It’s really great to see the young people sitting down with the elders, so the young ones are using their technology and getting the elders to speak to them and capturing it that way. There’s not enough of it being done; we need to encourage the government to give more money to these programs; but, you know, it’s a tiny amount that they’ve got available.
I just wanted to say that, in Australia here, anthropologists, many anthropologists, have been very puzzled because of the great number of languages there are in this country. There are at least 300 Indigenous languages and just as many, or many more, dialects. Now, in some areas, there’s small groups of people teaching the local language. Aboriginal people quite understand why we had so many different languages: because of the importance and sacredness of the land and the language that belongs to it. And there’s small numbers of people who are teaching the Indigenous language in the schools. And what I want to say is if this could be increased. Because what it does [is] it teaches the children a greater respect for the land. It teaches children to, hopefully, start to take on responsibility for that land they live on because they’re learning from the Indigenous people the very important nature of the land and how we need to go about healing that land now.
And if that could happen on a larger scale throughout the country, I think Aboriginal people are so willing, so very willing, to share their knowledge with other people who’ve come from elsewhere. And unfortunately we see people who are only too willing to limit their own intellect and stay within their own terms of reference, when Aboriginal people are so willing and available to share what knowledge they have, and especially to health land. I mean, just a brief comment: I mean, women’s languages are so important, and there’s always been women’s language in this country, and I’m sure in other cultures as well; only it needs to be recognised in a very positive manner, and that hasn’t always occurred.
The only other thing I guess I’d like to say is that my dear sister, who is deceased now, but she had a message for people which I think can be understood in any language, and her message was, in terms of healing the country and making a contribution to healing what’s happening in the world today, she asked the question, ‘Will you be an honourable ancestor for our future generations?’