BY coincidence two programs on SBS (SBS is Australia's Special Broadcasting Service) in August 2002 showed how the languages of marginalised peoples were deliberately and cruelly suppressed. The programs were 'The Celts' and '500 Nations - The Story of the Native Americans'. Recently, too, 'Letter from Scotland' appeared in Voice of the Land, referring to the situation of Gaelic.
As the author wrote, "We are inspired by the struggles of native peoples in many countries." It is also possible to learn from those struggles, and to see underlying patterns. These insights allow us to put our situation in perspective, to anticipate problems, and perhaps adopt or adapt strategies which have worked for other languages.
In the experience of Native Americans, Australians, Maoris and Celts the suppressors have mainly been English speakers (French, in the case of Bretons), but the same patterns exist in other cultures. These patterns often include physical invasion of the native lands by more powerful groups, which assume that their languages are superior to those of the dispossessed.
The next step is to rationalise this assumption by economic or educational arguments. Phrases such as "You'll get nowhere without English" or "Opening to the wider cultural world" come to mind. On the other hand, the suppressed people, if they have any choice in the matter, go along with the dominant assumptions.
Tibetan parents acquiesce in the Chinese education of their children because they know the political situation has determined that there is no economic future in the Tibetan tongue. Afrikaans parents are said to have lost enthusiasm for their children's education in that language now that it has diminished influence. Economic considerations are usually paramount. That is why English governments banned Welsh speakers from public office in Wales: to make the language lose status.
When a dominant culture is monoglot it assumes that the minority should assimilate by forgetting their language. Ignorance of the multilingual abilities of humans could account for this, together with resentment at not understanding what is being said in a place that they assume is "theirs". Or, perhaps worse, a belief that the other language is "primitive".
On this matter of ignorance it is encouraging that the NSW Board of Studies is promoting the study of Aboriginal Languages as a mainstream subject. By experiencing the diversity and subtlety of other languages prejudices will be weakened. The argument of 'usefulness' will, however, be maintained. What 'use' is a language spoken by only a few hundred people?
One of the positive aspects of modern education is its attention to the importance of conservation of natural resources. Linguistic education can extend that understanding to our cultural resources. If people can appreciate that fringed lilies and frogs have as much right to exist as economically important organisms they might extend such concepts to the alarming loss of language diversity. But that by itself will be insufficient.
English-speaking children are not given the choice of opting out of their language. It is understood by their educators that deprivation of culture is a freedom too far
Love of language is a rarer commodity than love of land. Ask a bilingual child which language it just spoke and often it cannot say, because the message, not the medium, is what it is conscious of. This child-like indifference to language carries through in many cases to adulthood. Without a commitment to speak a language for its own sake the only motivation is functionality. This is why children can be taught a language such as Irish and yet use nothing but English in everyday life.
Those who understand the value of linguistic diversity must look beyond the classroom to a society in which, as adults, the speakers of a local language will find utilitarian reasons for speaking it. Recognition that a language's survival is essential to survival of group identity makes speaking it a political act. This is acknowledged by the suppressors when they call those who speak it "nationalists", using that word as a term of abuse. Minor languages can therefore have a political usefulness.
'Economics' in its original sense meant 'housekeeping' and this is where language must have currency, or 'economic value'. To the extent that Aboriginal communities do their own housekeeping, and do not let economic activity fall into the hands of others, they will maintain the value of their linguistic currency. The family group and women in particular are essential to this process.
If outsiders who cannot speak the language dominate key operations of the language group, such as shops, councils, hospitals and building projects, all will defer to them. Multilingual people always, unless strongly politically motivated, defer to monolinguals. It is a case of 'ignorance is power'. To ensure that key economic activities are conducted in Language, deliberate expansion and invention of vocabulary is necessary where it does not arise spontaneously.
Though difficult, language groups should attempt to maintain a pool of monoglot speakers, particularly young children, who will themselves give functionality to the language. When 'bilingual' education policies are devised, make sure they don't just apply to speakers of the minor language. Children can afford to be bilingual once they have a sound grasp of the grammar and vocabulary of their native tongue, which may be at about seven or eight years of age. Any sooner, and the language loses its raison d'etre within the family.
Many indigenous groups, though numerically small, are able to maintain functional languages because they still relate to lands, seasons, foods, rituals and social structures that are relevant to their lives. They are often isolated from influences which weaken that relevance. The most serious corrupting influence is television. Radio, used constructively, can aid language groups, as it is an accessible technology.
Where a culture has been thoroughly infiltrated by colonists, such as in Wales, the language becomes diffused and fragmented- individual speakers have no ready means of identifying their shared culture because the everyday assumption is that the person you are addressing is unable to speak Welsh. This happens when the percentage of speakers drops below a critical threshold; so also in the case of Aboriginal languages, this is a more significant factor than the actual number of speakers in an area. The advantages which Aboriginal languages have include large areas over which control can be exercised concerning who enters, recognition of others of the same group, and practical self-determination in the education of children.
Herein lies a danger. I remember speaking to a young lady who was representing publishers of books by Aboriginal authors. We discussed language matters and she said that Aborigines were quite capable of determining their own priorities, and if they chose to have English, rather than their local language, taught to their children, so be it. My reply would be: "beware of the illusory choice".
English-speaking children are not given the choice of opting out of their language. It is understood by their educators that deprivation of culture is a freedom too far. The choice is illusory if it is determined by a sense of inferiority, or fear that their children will be disadvantaged. It is not a free choice, and as far as the children are concerned, it is no choice at all- it is robbing them of the chance to decide, as adults, whether they wish to contribute constructively to their culture.
The SBS film on Native Americans showed how children indoctrinated in boarding schools looked upon their traditionally-living brethren as 'backward'. The future, they were led to believe, lay in assimilation to mainstream attitudes. So loss of language can lead to the sad phenomenon of the 'assimilado', who often is more extreme in his opposition to the native culture than the colonists themselves.
Many Australians cannot get their heads around the idea that equality doesn't have to mean sameness. There is no doubt that the underlying assumption of the 1967 referendum was assimilation. Aborigines were formally recognized as equals, but any idea that they could celebrate their uniqueness by way of flags or maintenance of languages was not so welcome. The old slogans, familiar to minorities everywhere, are invoked: "isolationist, divisive, backward-looking, splittist" and so on. There exists an external threat, therefore, to local control of language education.
Some people have genuine concerns that attention to languages other than English will disadvantage students. Such concerns do not seem to be supported by research into the academic achievements of mono- and bilingual students overseas. Facility in more than one language improves skills in other areas.
I would like to make it clear that in expressing these ideas I am not advocating the ideology of multiculturalism which, ironically, is the enemy of indigenous groups. By invoking anti-discrimination laws and making accusations of racism, multiculturalism can be and has been used against those who try to maintain their identity. Multiculturalism as practiced is the pretence that there are no power differences between groups. Large and powerful national cultures can afford to boast about their broadmindedness in harbouring other cultures. Their unstated expectation is that cultural enclaves will eventually assimilate.
Small groups cannot afford that hypocrisy. They know that they will be the ones to be assimilated to the incomers unless they maintain control of their territory. Australian indigenous people have that option on their lands. Tibetans, Bretons, Welsh, Gaels and many other minorities within supra-national states do not have that lifeline.
A variety of cultures can and should survive on this Earth, but this can only work by respecting the rights of each group to defend their identity on their own territory. Demanding that they be "inclusive" of more powerful groups which move in on them is folly, when those groups have irreconcilable attitudes and no intention of reciprocating the gesture.
Therefore, it will be in the long-term interests of Australia to encourage non-indigenous children to become familiar with Aboriginal languages so that they, to some extent, will be assimilated to the original cultures of this land, and come to think of them as part of our common heritage. A new and richer idea of what it means to be Australian will develop. Promotion of languages, in other words, can be the opposite of divisive. The question is whether such language-and-culture courses, like English, should be compulsory.