Foundation for Endangered Languages
FEL is a small academic association based in the United Kingdom. They have a small infrastructure and rely entirely on their membership contributions and a great deal of voluntarism. This made the success of Broome all the more impressive.
Broome is located in a remote (from the urban viewpoint only) part of Western Australia, on the Northwest coast of Australia. It is closer to Indonesia than it is to Sydney or Canberra.
It was particularly fitting for the conference to take place in Broome, as the Kimberley region is a heartland for projects that promote and document endangered indigenous languages. According to UNESCO there were approximately 250 aboriginal languages in Australia at the time of contact. Today there are about 90 languages of which 90% are considered to be at risk. The Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC), which played an important role in the conference, has provided spelling rules on 28 languages in their area. There was also sizeable representation from other areas of Australia, such as the Central Desert, the Northern Territories and even from moribund and extinct language interest groups from Victoria and New South Wales.
The conference provided a good balance between academic interests and community interests and voices. It would have been easy for the FEL to isolate itself from the social reality of indigenous peoples and focus on somewhat esoteric issues of languages that tend not to be known by anyone other than their speakers or specialists. FEL gave its full support to the efforts of conference organiser Joseph Blythe and the back up team from the KLRC to make sure that the conference was accessible to indigenous peoples and a showcase for their efforts at language maintenance. The event was opened by local elders, owners of the country, as well as leading Aboriginal rights activist, Pat Dodson.
Coming from Southern Africa, I was surprised and impressed by the wide spectrum of publications coming out of Aboriginal communities. In Africa, we often struggle to see good materials produced in dominant languages that are spoken by millions of people. Here in Australia, with state and private sector support, there is a lively publishing industry, some of it Aboriginal owned, that publishes books for language learning (first and second), on oral history and mythology, traditional bush knowledge (food and medicine are popular themes), life stories of prominent elders, as well as more technical works like dictionaries and grammars.
At the end of the conference, participants had the opportunity to go on a field trip to visit a number of the communities living in the Kimberley area. This again reinforced the reality of peoples’ lives who were the subject of the presentations. Participants could witness first hand the excitement of work done by groups such as the KLRC but also the reality of poverty and social problems experienced by many indigenous peoples around the world.
Through the conference process I had the opportunity to talk to Aboriginal activists and white Australians working on land rights, psychological services, and rural development. The parallels between the situation of rural Aboriginal communities and the experiences of San people in the Kalahari were striking and disturbing. There were the obvious parallels of cultural conflict between settlers and first peoples, issues of the generation gap inside communities and substance abuse problems. Listening to the detail of some of the socio-pathology was eerily familiar: types of murders and anger that is turned inward by communities. It was interesting to note that just as Australians were more advanced on their language work, they are also more advanced in some areas in the management of conflict and substance abuse problems.
It is not possible to speak of language endangerment amongst indigenous peoples without understanding the extreme psychological and sociological stress they endure in their relationship with dominant groups which have taken over their lands and have extraordinary power to influence peoples sense of self worth and cultural independence.
One of the highlights of the conference was listening to Aboriginal elders talk about their lives, their values, the old ways, their relationship with the land and the landscape, and the intimate ties between language and place. This theme was echoed in a number of the papers from around the world (notably Thomas Thornton’s paper on Tlingit place names). The kinds of issues we were listening to were reflected in papers about the Canadian far north, East Africa, Morocco and the Kalahari. These themes were reinforced in papers given by Joseph Blythe and Frances Kofod, amongst others.
The format of the conference worked well, with papers clustered according to themes and time for questions.
Most of the papers elicited excitement and discussions. The conference organisers might consider building in time for more panel and discussion styled sessions rather than only formal papers. The formal presentation format can be intimidating for people not used to that format, and there were some themes about identity and power that could have surfaced more clearly in a panel format.
I found that, despite the excellent quality of presentations, we were not hearing a lot about the causality of language endangerment and extinction. Having completed a review of language death / shift literature earlier this year for my PhD thesis, I was aware that theoretical and analytical work is scarce, in contrast with the rich literature of case studies. An exception was the paper by Hans Boas about the demise of Texas German varieties. Boas used a series of empirical research tools to identify variables associated with speakers maintaining German or giving it up. Boas then used these same criteria to examine another German language loss situation in a different part of the United States. This was a really useful contribution to the discipline. I felt, however, that we are all challenged to move from micro-observations to some kind of theoretical framework that is built on various contrastive studies of causality in different settings.
Boas’ contribution explained that particular scenario, but it did not move to a macro level where we are seeing the same pattern of language loss across North America at the same time. There are studies of a rapid demise of Norwegian, Gaelic, and other European languages at the same time in different places around the continent. There is a question still to be answered about why did this all suddenly happen between 1930 and 1950? Moreover, there has not been enough of an attempt to compare the loss of European immigrant languages with the loss of indigenous peoples’ languages in the same territories. Is the demise of Gaelic in Cape Breton of the same nature as the threatened demise of Mi’mac for example?
Boas’ contribution confirmed my thoughts that the dynamics of language loss cannot all be put under one sociolinguistic rubric. The reason that German speakers in Texas give up their language is fundamentally quite different from language loss in the Kimberley area of Australia or the demise of !Ui languages in South Africa.
The radical power interface between indigenous peoples, many of whom lived subsistence life styles of hunting-gathering or livestock pastoralism, and colonising forces of mercantile capitalism or agro-pastoralism cannot be seen as the same phenomenon as language shift within migrant communities embedded in language dominant groups in European, American or African cities. There may be common characteristics, but I would argue that the causality and the sociological process are fundamentally different. Aboriginal participants in Broome were clearly shocked when Boas, in answering a question, noted that most Texan Germans were not concerned about their language loss. It was just one of those things. For people whose language is deeply intertwined with their social organisation, their land use, their spiritual universe, it is hard to imagine language loss as ‘just one of those things’.
It would be worthwhile if the FEL could encourage more dialogue between concerned parties about the causality of language death and see where a theory of language loss, in its myriad of expressions, can be further elucidated. Included in this thought, is the need for more inter-disciplinary contributions to the dialogue. There was an excellent presentation on ethno-musicology at the Broome conference. Issues of history, sociology, psychology, music, economics, cultural studies, as well as linguistics are all relevant to understanding the tremendous complexity of the role of language in human society.
Organising an FEL conference is no small challenge and requires a team of dedicated people and some institutional support. I offered to bring the news back to San and other indigenous peoples organisations in Africa to see if it would not be possible for us to host the FEL in southern Africa in the coming years.
Congratulations again to all the people who made the VII FEL conference possible.
My participation in the VII FEL Conference was sponsored by Argyle Mining, which paid for the airfare, and by the University of Cape Town that provided R3000 to cover registration and subsistence costs. I express my gratitude to both agencies for making my participation possible, and to the FEL organisers for helping solicit the funding and making me welcome in Broome.
FEL too would like to thank Argyle Mining for their generous support. Nigel Crawhall, of the South African San Institute, proved an indispensable asset to our conference.
Picture painted for FEL by the many Aboriginal people at FEL VII; each section was painted by a different language group.