Aborigines

The Aborigines Lost in Translation

The Australian Broadcasting Commission’s wokerati want me to use Aboriginal words in my everyday discourse. They’d like me to say at dinner parties that I grew up in Boorloo (formerly called “Perth”), moved to the press gallery in Ngunnawal Country (“Canberra”) and finally settled down in Naarm (formerly “Melbourne”) out near ‘Mirring-gnay-bir-nong’, (“Maribyrnong”) which translates as ‘I can hear a ringtail possum’.

As the ABC puts it in their 2019-22 Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), it wants Aboriginal languages and cultures normalised to become a part of my daily life, creating openings “to start conversations and to embrace and form personal connections with Australia’s ancient cultures.” (p6).

The ABC’s inescapable avalanche of Aboriginal words and acknowledgements and tributes is, it says, just

the first stage of a longer journey … The overarching project of fostering a richer and more inclusive national conversation that the ABC is committing to will take many years and will continue beyond the end of this Elevate RAP and into the next. It is one small contribution to the broader journey to reconciliation. (p6).

A key goal is indoctrinating small kids to kow-tow to the Aboriginal Industry. For example, ABC Kids launched 27 episodes of Little Yarns where tots learn a word of two while absorbing the ABC’s version of Aboriginality – “family, nature, culture and belonging.”[1] Play School took up the pledge with “Specials…including the landmark episode, Acknowledgement of Country, celebrating Aboriginal culture and language.”[2]

ABC classroom materials combine the usual Disneyfied version of Aboriginal culture with wallows in victimhood and massacres. A small example: Aboriginal songwriter and activist Della Rae Morrison, born in Narrogin, WA, praises kids singing their pop-rap songs in Noongar, and says, “We almost lost our language since the stolen generation, and my grandparents being told in the missions that they can’t speak their language, and if they did, they’d have it flogged out of them. So I’ve grown up with my grandmother never speaking the language to me.” Is there evidence for such floggings – at which missionary centre, and when? Bob Hawke’s uncle, Bert, was a Labor Party organiser in those parts from 1928 and held the nearby seat of Northam from 1933-68. Was he uninterested in such (alleged) barbarity in his bailiwick?

The same program says only 250 out of 30,000 Noongar speak the language, presumably the remote elderly, so its survival prospect is dim.  

Radio National Breakfast ran a piece last January quoting Sydney University Linguistics Professor Jakelin Troy with her prescription that every Australian school should teach an Aboriginal language. She is described by the ABC as a Ngarigu woman (the Ngarigu inhabit Snowy Mountains country). Professor Troy says thousands of school students are already studying a local language, and she has designed a K-10 syllabus across all school ages nationally.

In the article she emphasises her own Aboriginal status a dozen times, e.g. “her community is starting to use their language again”; she has learnt a corroboree ceremony song in “my language”; “I greet people in my language”; and young Australians love engaging with “who and what we, as the Indigenous people of Australia, are.”

The Dark Emu Exposed research group has sought to validate her Aboriginality claim, writing, “Extensive genealogical investigations into her maternal and paternal family trees has failed to find even one Aboriginal ancestor. In our opinion, based on these investigations, allegations that Jakelin Troy is not Aboriginal by descent appear to be valid. We are unaware of any genealogical evidence that has been made public by Professor Troy herself to substantiate her claims for her Aboriginality.” I assume her claim is based on her own valid research and Dark Emu Exposed is in error. But I think it’s in her own interest to answer the query with documentation, rather than allowing it to distract from her Aboriginal language advocacy.

The ABC RN Breakfast item also quotes Professor Felicity Meakins, a Queensland University linguist. She says that “the languages have been silenced as the result of brutal colonial policies” including via the stolen generations. She wants curricula to support bilingual education, i.e. Indigenous and English language. She warns that Australia could come under critical scrutiny from the United Nations’ UNESCO for loss of local languages. She wants them to be learnt and spoken not just in schools but “across a wide variety of domains”, including the arts. She cites how WA’s Noongar have translated versions of Macbeth into the Noongar language.

The ABC really means business with its RAP. Its progress is monitored both by Karen Mundine at Reconciliation Australia and the ABC’s own Bonner Committee reporting direct to MD David Anderson.[3] The ABC is quite frank about its intended transformation of the Australian way of life:

The ABC’s vision for reconciliation is an Australia in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names, voices and languages—and the culture and wisdom they reflect—become an everyday part of the national vocabulary.

It will know that this has been achieved when the words, stories and traditions of Australia’s First Peoples have been so embraced and integrated into the way Australians speak as to be unremarkable.[4]

The language push, incidentally, seems to involve yet another revenue stream for the Aboriginal Industry. The ABC’s dousing of words onto their airwaves is always preceded by “rights and release forms enabling Indigenous communities to retain the copyright and ownership of their cultural knowledge and languages.”[5]

Perhaps this ABC exercise is well-meaning but dopey? Yes, judging by Gary Johns in his impeccably-documented book this year, The Burden of Culture, a synthesis of 30 years’ research. Johns has been writing and researching in this field since 1990 when, as a Labor member of parliament, he was a close observer of the Coronation Hill debacle.  That was when the Hawke government, in search of green second preferences, made a decision on false evidence preventing mining on Aboriginal land.[6]

Johns describes the bilingual push as counter-productive to progress for the 20 per cent stagnating on their jobless homelands (the other 80 per cent are doing fine in suburbia). “Aboriginal languages were not built for the modern world,” he says. Language revivals just grant new powers and sinecures to the Industry’s city-based elite. The past decades of bilingual efforts in remote schools merely “gave licence to Aborigines to not only reject learning English but not attend school.” At some NT schools, Aboriginal kids’ attendance rates are as low as 14 per cent — and the government is loath to enforce attendance.[7]

Bilingual education even in the NT resulted in time-consuming translations and low English proficiency, and all but ceased in 2008. Earlier, a similar approach in WA was abandoned. These clients can only progress by proficiency in English – both spoken and written. Without literacy, they can’t engage and thrive in the wider world. “To not immerse [in English] is to cruel the chances of Aboriginal children,” Johns writes. He’s sad to see the decline in homelands, from mission-schooled literate grandparents to illiterate offspring and grandchildren. Worse, some communities now take a pride in resisting English literacy, given they can and do live on welfare.

The idea that Aboriginal kids and adults can somehow benefit from learning and reviving a near-lost local language is fanciful. There are few native speakers able to teach, and most text versions of such languages are just word lists of animals, foods and body parts, abstracted from dialogue. Any motive for kids doing the work involved is likely to dissipate by the late teens. The feds currently allocate a mere $20 million a year for such programs, a vote of little confidence, he writes.

Some documented local languages like Mudburra (aound the Barkly region, NT)  involve only a tenth of the words used by a typical English speaker. Indeed there are only about ten speakers of Mudburra. Johns says only 25,000-34,000 Aboriginals speak local languages, and the percentage of speakers in 30 years has fallen from 16 per cent to 10 per cent. Only about eight languages out of 141 have more than 1000 speakers, including two Kriol languages – whereas viable languages need around 100,000, according to some overseas yardsticks .

In any event, mobile phones and readily-available vehicles are causing young people to hugely modify their local language into a Kriol or pidgin. Bess Price, of Alice Springs and a fluent Warlpiri speaker, refers to young people’s Warlpiri as ‘baby talk’ – inventing language to suit their own world. “Are young Warlpiri reading Facebook in Warlpiri?” Johns wonders. An Aboriginal participant in a research project commented, ‘Leave the culture to us and you just teach our kids to read.’

If a language dies, it just means that people are using a different language. To keep up the narrative of ‘saving the language’, bureaucrats cite various academic studies (of dubious worth) claiming improved well-being. For example, researchers claim the Barngarla people of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula have been rescued from “linguicide” and dysfunction by language counsellors using “decolonising methodology”. But after ten years’ well-funded but circular work, the results from the sample of only 16 clients were a blank. “A men’s or women’s shed would be a lot cheaper,” Johns remarks. “Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, Pat and Mick Dodson, Megan Davis and others of the professional Aboriginal spokespersons have moved well beyond their community. I do not know whether they have been reintroduced to their language.”

Preserving the languages is very expensive and unlikely to succeed. Only a linguist would worry about losing them. Of the top ten languages being renewed in Australia, the number of speakers varies from 40 to 450, but child speakers number only 12 to 130. A ”recovered” language at Port Macquarie had not been spoken for 150 years but revived from the writings of a European Christian. Much is made of local languages surfacing in music, TV and movies like Ten Canoes. But NITV, an Aboriginal channel on SBS , has a risible 0.2 per cent of the television viewing audience.[8]

“These language initiatives are not without their problems,” Johns writes “In February 2021, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, for the fourth time, extended the special administration of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Aboriginal Corporation. Based in Alice Springs, the media corporation was placed under special administration in March 2020 in response to its poor financial position and growing debt, exceeding $2.7 million. Further, without English, none of these programs or the corporation would have succeeded.”

Outside the cities, too many Aboriginals lack spoken and written English skills. Their need is not language and cultural revival – the culture has bad as well as good elements — but adult education and training for careers like plumbing and carpentry. That would remove them from control by the Aboriginal Industry. So the industry, such as the Lowitja Institute, continues to blame low literacy on “colonisation, exclusion and systemic racism” – purported problems for which the Lowitja Institute and its kin, rather than TAFE courses, should take charge, it says.

There are limits to recovering languages, he says. Should the English language as spoken by the First Fleet be recovered? In any event, discrete Aboriginal communities are shrinking and the growth is coming from latter-day identifiers in the cities and regions. Johns concludes,

There is no proof that reviving Aboriginal language has a beneficial effect on Aborigines. It may lift their spirits for a time, it may fascinate, but it will not unlock the knowledge they need to gain a foothold in the wider community. Aborigines do not need to revive dead languages, they do not need therapy to prove their worth, they need to learn English and skills so that they can be truly self-determining and escape the clutches of an industry hell-bent on pursuit of an ideology built on identity, which is destroying the dignity of Aboriginal people.

Adult education would be a far more productive course than language revival, and courses are readily available. They do not require capture by Aboriginal-owned and community-controlled organisations. Incompetence is no way to climb out of poverty.

What underlies this language-revival exercise? One answer is that the Aboriginal industry can no longer gain traction via cries of racism and discrimination, since Aboriginals (i.e. city-based identifiers) are now a privileged caste lauded from kindergartens upwards. Hence they want to switch from “race” to “culture” to keep the largesse flowing. Leading their “culture” propaganda is the taxpayer-funded cabal at the ABC. The wokerati there now see themselves – as set out in the ABC RAP – no longer just a news group but engineers of the Australian soul.

Tony Thomas’s latest book from Connor Court is now available: Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. For a copy ($35 including postage), email tthomas061@gmail.com.

[1] 2019-20 ABC Annual Report p30

[2] Ibid, p34

[3] “Evaluate the progress and effectiveness of ABC’s actions in ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names, voices and languages become an everyday part of the national vocabulary, and include the outcomes in the final RAP report.”

[4] ABC RAP 2019 p5

[5] Ibid p20

[6] Gary Johns was federal Labor member for Petrie from 1987-96, and a minister in the Keating government. Post-parliament he was a researcher for the conservative Institute of Public Affairs (1997-2006), an academic and an associate commissioner of the Productivity Commission (2002-04). PM Turnbull appointed him commissioner of the Charities Commission (2017-22).  He has also been a president of the Bennelong Society, a conservative think-tank on Aboriginal polices.  His books include Waking up to Dreamtime. Media Masters (2001), Aboriginal Self-determination. Connor Court (2011), No Contraception, No Dole. Connor Court (2016),[7] The Charity Ball. Connor Court (2014), Right Social Justice. Connor Court (2012), Really Dangerous Ideas. Connor Court (2013), and Recognise What? Connor Court (2014).

 [7] The Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages reported that only 14 per cent of very remote Aboriginal students attended school four days a week in 2020. Northern Territory News, 19 October 2021

[8] Unlike other community media which are wholly in French, Viet, Hindi, Mandarin etc, NTIV continues in English rather than local language with subtitles. This suggests NTIV is just a taxpayer funded benefit for high-profile city Aboriginal identifiers.

15 thoughts on “The Aborigines Lost in Translation

  • DougD says:

    In his 1999 report to the NT Education Dept, Learning Lessons, former Labor senator Bob Collins, was critical of the move to teach in Aboriginal languages. He said:
    “The review has found substantive evidence that Indigenous educational outcomes are
    deteriorating from an already low base”. Particular comments were:
    • advice from employer bodies that, more than ever before, they are unable to find
    people who meet basic literacy and numeracy entry criteria for employment and
    training
    • a repeatedly stated observation from Indigenous elders that their children and
    grandchildren have lesser literacy and numeracy skills than they do.
    The percentages of all students in years 3 and 5 in urban schools who achieved national reading benchmarks in 1998 was 78 and 71%. The figures for Indigenous students in non-urban schools were 6 and 4%.
    Perhaps Collins has been cancelled because of his liking for little children.

  • Blair says:

    “In any event, mobile phones and readily-available vehicles are causing young people to hugely modify their local language into a Kriol or pidgin.”
    Ditto, Torres Strait.

  • Phillip says:

    One of the failures of my education curriculum at the time (and I think still is today) is the removal of a compulsory second language like French or Italian. Australia suffers from a self righteous belief that we only need one language to survive. I regret not having been taught or studied Italian, Latin or French because outside of our little country is a big world where those languages are powerful and therefore the Aussie citizen would do well to reinforce his skill set to advantage.
    I can only speak one language, so I am envious for and encourage all Aussies to be multi lingual.
    The Noongar language may not be a big user system outside of WA but for those who can speak and communicate in both English and Noongar, then that is one better than me.

  • NarelleG says:

    Teach their oral languages at home if that’s what they want Jacy Troy is just another paid box ticker.

    Our public schools are there for the general population.
    At this point in time the majority of our children are lost – no culture and no identity.

    I am appalled to see Ita Butrose at an indigenous only awards ceremony
    and the Elevate R.A.P. Plan 2021-2022

    There is no way back up this slippery slope.
    https://tinyurl.com/mv5ae3zp

  • NarelleG says:

    I am a retired Infants School teacher – learnt and taught phonics in reading and spelling programmes from 1968.

    Then they took phonics out of schools a few years back.

    For the life of me I cannot read the noongar sounds chart.
    You just cannot use English characters written/superimposed in an oral only language.

  • padraic says:

    Latin, Italian and French at school level never led to speaking them at school – perhaps it helped as a basis later on after school for French and Italian if one went on a speaking course. What it did do was to give one a better understanding of grammar which was set out more methodically in Latin and French than it was in English. Our Leaving Certificate English novel was the “History of Mr Polly” by H.G.Wells in which the main character said he went to a school “Where the study of French was pursued but never effectually overtaken”, which is about the best that can be attained at school level. You really have to live among the French or Italian speakers in their communities when combined with formal training to learn the language properly.

    • lbloveday says:

      Learning French at my high school did lead to speaking French at school. Out teacher Madame Moussali was French (as was Cathy, the top student) and when she went through our class asking who would continue with French rather than Latin in year 11 she did not bother asking me. “Why?” I queried, after all I was top boy in French (top 6 places went to girls).
      .
      I still remember her exact words “But you cannot speak the French”.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Read David Yallop’s study of Aboriginal languages. I doubt any of today’s kids learning whatever they call is their tradition language could cope with the grammatical quirks – they’re probably just adding to their SMS textsfrom word lists.

  • Tezza says:

    Great piece, Tony. I suspect someone was taking the piss out of the good burghers of Maribyrnong.

    Two points worth adding to your argument. Economists think of languages as offering ‘network economies’: the more people learn them, the greater the benefit to all speakers of the language. The new speaker can communicate with a lot of people, and the existing speakers can communicate with someone extra. A vibrant language is like Microsoft software: it doesn’t have to be particularly good, as long as a lot of people have decided to use it (say because it had a first mover advantage) and it has become a standard.

    By that analogy, trying to keep dying aboriginal languages alive by teaching young tribe members is the ultimate waste of precious school time.

    But as you rightly point out, that hasn’t stopped the ABC, which for this year’s virtual Classic choir has used an aboriginal lyric for an ‘aboriginal Christmas carol’ penned by a very nice guy, Clarence Slockee from Gardening Australia. It uses the melody “Oh Christmas Tree”, for which there is apparently not an aboriginal translation, for some reason. It perfectly fits your characterisation as a small grab bag of scattered words: see https://abcmedia.akamaized.net/radio/classic-choir/oh-christmas-tree-lyrics3.pdf and weep. For the broader exercise, which you can study in braille if you wish, see https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/classic-choir-2022/learn-the-song/101266992

  • Tony Tea says:

    Ad discendum anno MMX lingua Latinam redivi (Latina stulte amissa in ludo) ut scabiem scaberem, quae diu me lacessiverat. Magnum erratum. Equidem mihi dimisisse paenitet.

  • rosross says:

    Surely the major problem is that any Aboriginal language, out of the hundreds here in 1788, would only have words relevant to stone-age living. All other words must be invented or come from English. So the language is not a true language anyway but a re-invented hybrid for the modern age.

    People in the United Kingdom once spoke many now lost languages and dialects. And that represents what sort of loss to the British? Nothing, nada, zip.

  • John Wetherall says:

    I am overwhelmed with visual, oral and written media pushing sophistry my way as part of a national push to mislead Australians into accepting the referendum on “The Voice”. I have no confidence that the Albo/Greens led Government will ensure a level playing field for the referendum, indeed just the opposite.
    Chris Mitchell (“The Australian”) has belled the cat. His investigations have shown that it will be the High Court that has final say on matters arising from the Voice, the result being that the Australian Parliament will no longer run Australia as a sovereign nation. Further, even Aboriginal Australians (the identity of which is not uniquely defined) will not democratically chose the 24 members of the Voice that will represent them. Instead there is a gerrymander favouring Queensland that is not based on population densities. The whole show is a con job of massive proportions. There will be no meaningful defence of the realm by a united sovereign Parliament. If the Voice gets up, China may well laugh into its noodles and say well that’s one problem solved.

  • loweprof says:

    I’d rather read “The Hobbit” in Latin (HOBBITVS ILLE).

  • Helmond says:

    I used to think that the world would be a better place if we all spoke one language. For the moment, I’m still OK with that.

    Being proficient in French, Mandarin, or whatever doesn’t really cut it because there are lots of other languages.

    Who ever thought that learning one of the may Indigenous languages is a good idea is perhaps well intentioned, but is in need of a serious reality check. (Or to put it more bluntly, they are lunatics.)

    Anyway, the future is almost here. Before too long there will be earplugs that do instant translations. Someone speaks in Japanese and the plug translates it so that I hear it in English. I respond in English and my friend hears it in Japanese.

    Absurd? Remember when we thought Dick Tracey’s wrist watch radio was fantasy? And how does Captain Kirk converse with the Klingons?
    Believe it or not, it’s going to happen, probably sooner rather than later.

    The next step will probably be a microchip that allows one to comprehend all languages, but I’m not so sure about whether obscure and largely forgotten Aboriginal languages will fare.

    The lamentable fact is that, aside from Quadrant, there is almost nowhere where one can opine that teaching Ethnic langages is absurd.

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