Welcome back: the recovery of Australia’s Indigenous languages

November 26th, 2020 by Dharug* woman Jacinta Tobin is Buruberongal (belonging to the kangaroo, the people from around Richmond) and Canamadagal (belonging to the possum, the people from near Prospect). But growing up dyslexic in Emu Plains in the 1970s, she didn’t know the names of the western Sydney clan groups of her ancestors, or know they were "Dharug dhalang" – Dharug speaking. "Before I knew I was Aboriginal, I thought I was from outer space," says the 51-year-old, whose fair skin hails from her Tobin father’s Irish roots. Her mother’s Indigenous heritage dates to both Yarramundi, chief of the Richmond tribe, and Bennelong, who served as an interlocutor between the Indigenous people of Port Jackson and the British settlers. It's a role she continues in a way today, as a teacher of Dharug, the Indigenous language spoken in the Sydney Basin and one of more than 700 spoken before 1788. She was a teen when she discovered her mother’s Indigenous background. Since then, as a musician gifted with a good ear, she has learnt and now teaches the Sydney language largely through song. "Kids pick it up straight away – adults are usually the same as singing is the quickest form of remembering new words. Like studying French, you start by singing Frere Jacques." "Most people are surprised to learn they already know some Dharug words: wallaby, wombat, woomera, boomerang, bunyip and coo-ee, which means ‘I am here’ and even boogie – to bathe or swim – as in boogie board." But Tobin wanted to know more about the language her grandparents and great aunts and uncles were forbidden to speak for fear they’d be taken away by "whitefellas". She began learning her mother tongue by visiting an elder, aunty Edna Watson in western Sydney, who taught her the best place to start was with Aboriginal place names. As they made their way through the list of Sydney suburbs with Indigenous names – Bondi, the sound of a hard crashing wave; Coogee, meaning stinky seaweed/smelly place; Parramatta, where the eels lie down; Cronulla, the place of pink shells – Tobin soon heard the lyricism in the language. "A lot of our wording is onomatopoeic, like mimicking the sound of bird or an animal found on that country. The Dharug word for kangaroo, buru, is the sound the kangaroo makes when it jumps, so my clan the Buruberongal, were the gal (people) belonging to (beron) the kangaroo (buru)." Tobin, who now lives in Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, studied social ecology at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury campus, where there is a Yarramundi Road, named for her ancestor. She had an inexplicable pull to this land of the Hawkesbury River, and even wrote a song about Yarramundi before she knew they were related. She loved the ebb and flow of the sound of the area's Indigenous language, although it was almost extinct. "We lost two-thirds of our tribe within five years of European settlement, so it was as hard for the language to survive as it was for the people to survive smallpox, rabies, massacres and poisoning," she says. Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald

Bringing a language back to life

November 24th, 2020 by With fewer and fewer fluent speakers of the Crow language, advocates for revitalizing it hope a free online dictionary can aid people already working to bolster their skills and make learning the language more accessible. On Thursday, a group of linguists, native Crow speakers and programmers launched the app after four years of work on the project. The dictionary contains more than 10,000 entries and audio of Crow language speakers demonstrating pronunciation. It is free to download on Android and IOS devices. The group that spearheaded the project — a coalition of the nonprofit Language Conservancy, the Crow Nation, Little Big Horn College and the Crow Language Consortium — celebrated the app’s launch during a virtual event that included a demonstration and remarks from participants in the project. The hope, said Crow Language Consortium Board Chair and Project Director Janine Pease, is that the dictionary app will be useful for people currently trying to learn the language, inspire learners who don’t have access to a fluent teacher, and meet younger generations where they already spend a lot of their time. “Technology is really accessible to our youngsters,” she said. “What really is important, is it can step into the grand scheme of media and technology but have the quality that delivers the language.” In the past, Pease said, she was hesitant about using technology to teach the language, preferring one-on-one methods to “rekindle the way language was learned for generations upon generations.” “Because of where we are in history and time, we need to take advantage of each and every tool we have,” she said. There are other dictionaries of the Crow language, also known as Apsaalooke, but in many cases they aren’t as accessible as the online app, either out of print and hard to find or too expensive for many language learners. The new app’s launch comes as Crow fluency rates have dropped from 85% in the 1960s to 20% today. Fluent Crow speakers currently number about 4,200, while some tribes have only a handful of fluent speakers remaining, Pease said. Worldwide, about 90% of the approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken are expected to become extinct in the next 100 years, according to the Language Conservancy. In the last 400 years, more than 200 Indigenous languages in the United States have gone extinct, according to the nonprofit, which works to help endangered languages endure. Read more: Montana Free Press

The next generation is bringing Australia’s ancient languages into the future

November 21st, 2020 by Before colonisation, over 250 First Nations languages were spoken in Australia. Now, just over 100 are still in use and 90 per cent are considered "endangered". "Without your language, you're nobody," Ms Holden said. "Your language describes your country and your culture. That's why it's so important for us." Ms Holden is one of a dozen committee members working for First Languages Australia, a national organisation working to reclaim and revive Indigenous languages across the country. "We have to protect our languages … for a long time we weren't allowed to speak our languages, and that's how we're in the predicament we're in now," she said. Researchers from the University of Melbourne are also trying to tackle the issue, starting the 50 Words Project, which aims to record 50 everyday words in every Indigenous language possible. The project has been running for a year and currently has around 65 First Nations languages recorded. Researcher Rachel Nordlinger said the project is breathing new life into ancient languages, many of which have been dormant for decades. "Indigenous languages are a really crucial part of Australia's heritage … they've been the languages of this continent for more than 65,000 years," Professor Nordlinger said. The online audio library is linked to an interactive map which shows the country each language comes from. Researchers hope the language library will be used as an education resource, and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages can be embedded into the school curriculum. "Obviously 50 words alone isn't going to preserve a language," Ms Nordlinger said. "It's just a tiny little snippet of a language, but all of Australia should be really proud and fascinated by these languages." Read more: ABC Australia

Losing elders to COVID-19 endangers Indigenous languages

November 14th, 2020 by Eliézer Puruborá, one of the last people to grow up speaking the Puruborá language, died of COVID-19 in Brazil earlier this year. His death at the age of 92 weakened the fragile hold his people have on their language. Indigenous languages in Brazil have been threatened since the Europeans arrived. Only 181 or so of the 1,500 languages that once existed are still spoken—each mostly by fewer than a thousand people. Some Indigenous groups, especially those with larger populations, such as the Guarani Mbya, have managed to maintain their mother tongue. But the languages of smaller groups, such as the Puruborá, who now number only 220, are on the verge of dying out. The pandemic is making this tenuous situation worse. There are estimated to be more than 39,000 cases of coronavirus among Indigenous Brazilians, including six among the Puruborá, and as many as 877 deaths. COVID-19 is taking the lives of elders such as Eliézer, who are often the language keepers. The coronavirus also forces isolation on community members, prevents the cultural events that keep languages alive, and undermines the slow progress of language stewardship. (The coronavirus gets dangerously close to the isolated "Arrow People.") For the Puruborá, preserving their language and culture has been a long struggle. More than a century ago, rubber tappers acting under the auspices of the Indian Protection Services, a federal agency that administered Indigenous affairs, arrived on their land in the Amazonian state of Rondônia. They put Indigenous men and boys, including Eliézer, to work collecting latex from rubber trees and doled out women and girls to non-Indigenous rubber tappers as prizes. Portuguese was the only language allowed to be spoken. (In Brazil, Indigenous people are fighting to keep their children.) “Everything to do with our culture was forbidden,” says Hozana Puruborá, who became the leader of the Puruborá after her mother Emília died. Emília was Eliézer’s cousin; when they were children, the two cousins, both orphans, whispered to each other in Puruborá when no one else could hear. “They kept their language alive in hiding.” In 1949, Indian Protection Services declared there were no more Indigenous people in the region because they’d been “mixed” and “civilized.” Officially, the Puruborá had disappeared. Read more: National Geographic

Can online classes during the pandemic bring back an endangered language?

October 12th, 2020 by The pandemic has steered a lot of learning online, and language classes have been no exception. But learning an indigenous language with few native speakers left — such as Abenaki, spoken by Vermont’s original inhabitants — presents a unique challenge, and precarity is its own brand of pressure. Language teachers hope that lessons learned during the pandemic will set them up for future success. In the 1990s, when Jesse Bruchac was beginning to learn Abenaki, there were nearly 100 speakers within the Odanak community, an Abenaki reserve in Quebec. “Other than a very short list,” said Bruchac, “every single one of those people has passed away.” Many indigenous languages across the continent have been eroded by efforts to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream society. That meant speaking the dominant language, English. Pressure came from outside the community and also from within, as Abenaki parents saw more opportunities for their children if they learned English. At many schools, the use of indigenous languages was not allowed, and teachers would punish students for speaking them. “It’s very hard to keep a language that’s been beaten down for generations going because of the psychological impact it has on the community,” said Conor McDonough Quinn. Quinn is a linguist who has been teaching Abenaki alongside Bruchac at the University of Southern Maine for the past four years. This is the case for Abenaki, said Quinn, and also for his own ancestral language, Gaelic. For some Abenaki families, Bruchac said, “the value had been lost. It was not seen as an opportunity. People only seeing Abenaki as holding them back has been a big part of the history.” That’s been changing in recent years, as a new generation is reclaiming the language. But Abenaki is a challenging language to learn, in part because it is so different from English, but also because opportunities for immersion are limited or nonexistent. “There’s no place you can go where you can be immersed in it, where it’s the dominant language,” Quinn said. “That option just doesn’t exist. That is the problem that language courses offered at Middlebury College attempt to solve. This past summer, the college hosted a pilot program of an Abenaki course, taught by Bruchac and Quinn, where students enrolled in a two-week immersive course. Read more: VT Digger

How Technology Helps Preserve Endangered Indigenous Languages

April 18th, 2020 by Of the 537 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 139 of them still have speakers of their native language, and more than 90% of those languages are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050. Languages carry tribal knowledge, culture, humor, conversation styles, spirituality, and traditions. When language speakers decrease dramatically and parts of the language is lost, it must be “refashioned” into the new language using different words, sounds, and grammatical structures—if the transfer is even possible at all. “Linguists’ work in communities when language shift is occurring shows that for the most part such refashioning, even when social identity is maintained, involves abrupt loss of tradition,” University of Texas professor of linguistics Anthony Woodbury writes. “More often, the cultural forms of the colonial power take over, transmitted often by television.” In response to the threat of language loss, some Indigenous tribes are turning towards accessible technology to save and revitalize their languages. Language revitalization is grounded in education and accessibility; if language resources aren’t available and there are no designated ways to practice that language, how will it continue to be used? Some tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, have held language courses for several years, but many tribes face barriers to developing language programs of their own. There may not be any remaining elders who speak the language well enough to teach it—the Cherokee and Navajo Nations are the two largest Native American tribes who have retained the most speakers of their languages. Then even if there is an elder available to teach, they may lack resources to set up structured, systemic language classes. Then, there is the added challenge of accessibility—if the classes take place at a high school on the reservation, how will tribe members living off the reservation access the information? That’s where technological solutions can help. Read more: YES! Magazine

The next chapter of Indigenous representation in video games

April 6th, 2020 by Carl Petersen is a member of the Oohe Nunpa (or Two Kettles) band of Lakota — a tribe indigenous to the North American Great Plains — and a 21-year-old self-proclaimed “Gen-Z/Millennial.” But his childhood wasn’t the always-online one you might expect. His first dial-up connection was to Rapid City, South Dakota, a town 180 miles from his home near the city of Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. After realizing that a month of “just checking his email” cost almost $2,000, Petersen’s dad canceled the service. That isn’t to say that his life was devoid of the web — he’s an avid gamer, and has logged 6,000 hours in World of Warcraft, despite not having a good connection at home until he was 16. “I’d play on a 600-millisecond latency,” he says, then “lug my PC into town to download the newest patch.” The towns on the Cheyenne River Reservation are a far cry from your typical American communities: Despite the reservation being nearly twice the size of Delaware, there are more than 100 miles between Eagle Butte and the closest Starbucks or McDonald’s. That isolation is typical of many reservations in the U.S. (and of reserves, their Canadian equivalents) — and the result of centuries of government policies that stripped Indigenous people of their cultural heritage and restricted many aspects of their lives. Now a senior at Dakota State University, Petersen is developing a game of his own, Tipi Kaga (Tipi Builder), with the help of a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant. The grant is awarded annually to help young Indigenous Americans pursue dream projects, with Petersen’s being to “create video games to ensure the survival of the Lakota language.” In practice, this means he’s using the grant to launch Northern Plains Games — a video game studio located on the Cheyenne River Reservation — with the intent to develop games made by, about, and for Indigenous people. Tipi Kaga is the studio’s first game, and is designed to teach conversational Lakota by having players build a traditional Lakota tipi in real time, with instructions spoken in Lakota. Read more: Polygon

Talking about the future of teaching Indigenous languages

March 17th, 2020 by The Auditor General’s report on education in the territory released in February painted a dismal picture of Indigenous language education. “After our audit in 2010, the department acknowledged its need to review its policy for Indigenous language and culture-based education. It completed this review in 2014, which found that its model was not leading to fluency for Indigenous students,” the report noted. The numbers of Indigenous language teachers in the territory, relative to the total number of teachers offers one explanation for the low educational results with the territory’s nine Indigenous languages. According to an NWT Bureau of Statistics report from 2014, the most recent year for which official language proficiency data is available, the Indigenous language with the most speakers over 15 years of age is Tlicho, which had 2,235 speakers. Next is South and North Slavey, which had 1,443 and 1,081 speakers respectively. Inuvialuktun had 601 speakers, Chipewyan 562, Gwich’in 335, Cree 275, Inuktitut 201 and Inuinnaqtun had 195. Compared to the report’s findings in 1989, proficiency has declined in some languages, but it has also increased modestly in more than half of them. Language education by the numbers There are 631 teachers working across the territory and of those 70 are Indigenous language educators, Meagan Wohlberg, spokesperson of the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) told News/North. Of that group, 53 are teachers (mostly full-time and some part-time) and the rest are educational assistants and Elders who help out in classrooms. Read more: NNSL Media

Author hopes informal lesson book will help turn Indigenous language speakers into language teachers

February 29th, 2020 by An Ojibway language teacher and author is hoping that anyone who can speak an Indigenous language can use her new book to teach others. "It could be used by any group at all — Ojibway, Cree, Dene, Inuktitut — it'll be applicable to any language in the world," said Patricia Ningewance. Ningewance is from Lac Seul First Nation in northern Ontario and her new book is titled Reclaiming Our Territory, Word By Word: Grassroots Language Teaching. The book is meant to help guide fluent speakers, who may not be trained teachers, in how to pass on their language skills on in their families and the community. The book is written in English and lays out 63 lessons that are structured around everyday, practical conversations like 'Where do you live?' 'Where did you go?' 'Who do you love?' With the book, Ningewance is hoping that speakers looking to teach others informally won't worry about whether they can read or write their language, or can explain the grammar. She just wants people to begin to speak the language with others. Inside her new book, Ningewance writes "we fluent speakers will be gone in 20 years or less so we must teach the language to the next generation." Becoming a student again It's been over 30 years since Ningewance released her first book: Survival Ojibwe: Learning Conversational Ojibwe in Thirty Lessons. For years, she has taught beginner/introductory, intermediate and advanced Ojibway courses at the university level and is constantly thinking about better ways to teach the language. Read more: CBC

How New Indigenous Languages Are Changing Australia

February 4th, 2020 by Before European colonization, as many as 300 languages were spoken on continental Australia, reflecting the cultural diversity among its original inhabitants. Today, only about 40 to 60 of these languages remain, with more than half of them no longer learned by any children. Yet the dynamic nature of language is giving some indigenous groups and linguists something to cheer about: Younger indigenous generations are driving the rise of a new crop of languages — ones that fuse aspects of traditional languages with modern English. One of the most widespread is Kriol. Spoken by about 20,000 people, mostly concentrated in northern and central Australia, it first gained serious recognition from linguists as a new, separate language in the 1970s but has only more recently become a means of communication between governments and indigenous populations. In 2014, national broadcaster the ABC began airing Kriol news bulletins, marking growing recognition of what experts believe is a steadily growing number of Kriol speakers. The language is distinct from the creoles common in the Americas. Linguists are also beginning to find more languages that have sprung from Kriol and draw heavily from traditional languages. The two most prevalent examples are Gurindji Kriol and Light Warlpiri, both of which have about 500 speakers and have evolved as a result of language mixing among indigenous groups. Light Warlpiri was recognized as a separate language only in 2013. For many, like Olive Knight — who hails from a small indigenous desert community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia — these new languages represent a positive identity marker and a “happy compromise” between traditional languages and English. Knight’s own native language — Walmajarri — has around 1,000 active speakers, but those numbers are declining. Read more: Ozy

Can This Indigenous Language Thrive in a Digital Age?

January 30th, 2020 by On any given day, people throng the busy market in Concepción, Paraguay. Shoppers peruse the multicolored array of fruits and vegetables and occasionally pause to chat with the vendors or inquire about a price. Old women eye up potential buyers of yuyos, traditional medicinal herbs that they assure will cure any ailment, from hangovers to high cholesterol. As people shop, gossip, and barter, they speak overwhelmingly in Guaraní. The most widely spoken Indigenous language in the country, it is used by more than 5 million Paraguayans. In a country of 6.8 million people, that’s a substantial number. Guaraní is unique for several reasons. It’s the only Indigenous language in the Americas spoken by a majority of the non-Indigenous population. It has also survived centuries of colonialism and repression. But beyond the streets or rural areas, Guaraní is conspicuously absent. Although written works in Guaraní exist from the 17th century forward, today it is primarily considered an oral language. And that, says anthropologist and Guaraní activist David Galeano Olivera, is a problem, particularly as societies become increasingly digital. “We all live in two worlds: the concrete world and the virtual one,” Galeano says. “We have to think about what would happen if, in the virtual world, everything happened in Spanish and nothing in Guaraní. For me, that would mean that Guaraní didn’t exist anymore.” Galeano has refused to allow the language to rest on such shaky foundations and so is working hard to bring the language into the digital realm, as other language advocates have done. In 2013, for example, he, along with Guaraní speakers from state and private groups, created a Guaraní version of Mozilla Firefox, or Aguaratata, as it is known in the Indigenous language. The effort represented more than two years of work and required translating some 45,000 terms. Galeano’s work and collaborations with academics and enthusiasts around the world have a common goal: to keep Guaraní alive. Guaraní is not just a language but an integral part of being Paraguayan, he believes. “It’s impossible to understand Paraguay and its past, present, and future without Guaraní,” he says. This digital effort marks just one chapter in this resilient language’s history. But it could be a model for how other Indigenous or threatened languages the world over could survive in the age of the internet. Read more: Sapiens

‘A way to keep our language alive’: How the Atikamekw Nation uses Wikipedia to promote its language

December 11th, 2019 by What started out as a high school computer science project has grown into the only active Wikipedia in Canada operating in an Indigenous language. Wikipetcia Atikamekw Nehiromowin includes over 1,000 articles, sound clips and photos representing life, history and culture of the three Atikamekw communities in Quebec. "They cover common words, the cities of Quebec, and we also started Atikamekw toponymy [place names] focused on forest animals, vegetation and genealogy of our community," said Thérèse Ottawa, co-ordinator of the Wikipetcia project since 2017. "It is a young Wikipedia, and there is still a lot to do." The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger lists the Atikamekw language's vitality as vulnerable, where most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains like at home or at school. Ottawa said that's why a project like Wikipetcia is important to give language and culture a presence online where the majority of young people are spending their time using French as a second language. "Our young people are more inclined to take refuge behind their devices than to go on the territory," said Ottawa, referring to the direct link between the language and land. "Hence, the importance of joining them via their technology for the transmission of language and culture. Wikipedia is, in my opinion, an excellent platform for that," she said. Read more: CBC