Protecting Indigenous languages as vibrant, literate cultures

Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures.”

Often there is a strong focus on preserving the oral nature of traditional, Indigenous languages, and - yet - there is a tendency to overlook the equivalent urgency to protect, capture and foster literacy and literature in the languages of some of the world's oldest cultures.

Today, I am writing with a call to action from The Literacy Bug community. The organisation for which I work - the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation - is one of ten finalists in the Google Impact Challenge. Whilst all ten finalists receive much-needed funding to carry forward their projects, four of the finalist are awarded a grand prize of $750,000 each. One of the grand prize winners is selected via a public vote, which is where you can assist.

I am asking like-minded individuals to vote for the ALNF's Living First Language project. It doesn't matter where you are in the world. If you share a passion for linguistic diversity, literacy and social justice, then please cast your vote in the Google Impact Challenge. Visit the following link to vote:  https://impactchallenge.withgoogle.com/australia2016/charity/alnf. I also ask you to circulate the link to relevant friends and colleagues, whether via email, Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

I have been fortunate to have had significant experience working in and with Indigenous communities in Australia in the areas of Indigenous language and literacy. I regularly hear elders speak of the profound significance that Indigenous languages play in culture, identity, well-being and spirituality. Equally, elders want their children and grandchildren to be literate in their traditional language(s) and English.  As an organisation, the ALNF is committed to Twin Language literacy learning when working in remote Australian communities, and we feel that the Google Impact Challenge grant will provide the means to complete development of a flexible, digital platform that Speaker Groups can use to record, collate, develop, teach and share their languages.

Unfortunately, Australian Indigenous languages are in peril. The 2014 National Indigenous Languages Survey reports that all Australian traditional languages are at risk of declining or in a state of decline. National Geographic notes that traditional languages in Australia are declining at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world. The impact is not merely around language, though. There are known positive impacts on educational, employment, health, and mental health outcomes in communities where language status is strong. In addition, the ALNF is well aware that strong early language and literacy learning in one’s Mother Tongue provides a pivotal bridge for formal (English) literacy in school, which is why the ALNF has developed paper-based and digital resources in collaboration with Speaker Groups, which they use to teach their children to read and write in local Indigenous language(s). 

The Google Impact Challenge grand prize will enable the ALNF to find accessible ways to incorporate emerging technologies - such as natural language processing and machine learning - to enhance the resources that have already been developed as well as the tools that we can only dream of. Ultimately, Speaker Group communities deserve access to innovative, accessible tools, which allow them to read, write, record, develop, teach and share their languages as living, literate languages within local communities and beyond. It is a challenge that the ALNF is willing to accept.

I hope you don't mind this direct call to action. It is rare for me to allow my personal/professional self to show itself in The Literacy Bug. That said, I think it is important to do so in this case. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like further information, have any questions or have great ideas to support the campaign.

And ... please don't forget to vote: https://impactchallenge.withgoogle.com/australia2016/charity/alnf

A story that cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue

I have mentioned it before and it is a concept that I will return to again and again; the issue of equality in opportunity to learn. Today, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on a short story I once wrote that relates directly to the main topic: considering whether all learners have equal opportunity to learn and succeed.

Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images

You won’t have a chance to read the actual story. It is stored somewhere so safe that the best minds are yet to uncover it. You must instead rely upon my synopsis. As far as the setting, the story takes place in inner city San Diego in the late 1990s. It is a low socio-economic community with issues common to the time: drugs, gangs, racial tensions and the working poor. I was teaching at a high school in the community when I wrote the story.

The story itself is an appropriation of “Eveline” by James Joyce. In Joyce’s tale, the main character - Eveline - is a young woman who is sitting forlornly in front of a dilapidated house in a crowded street in Dublin. Her mother has passed away, and she left behind a baby girl, Eveline’s sister. Eveline’s brothers have moved out of home, her father is a drunkard, and she is now responsible for raising her baby sister whilst working part-time and avoiding her father’s abuse. Her opportunities are fairly limited by poverty, circumstance and the expectations placed on a woman of the times (early 1900s).

In the story, Eveline is approached by a “fellow” who confesses his love for her, and promises to take her away from this misery and start a new life overseas. We might expect her to rush towards this door of apparent freedom, but she doesn’t. At the critical moment where she is to board a ship bound for the New World, she stands frozen on the docks and she watches the fellow leave her behind. We don’t know if she stays due to a promise she made to her mother - "to hold the house together" - or her fear that she would face another type of servitude as a wife in a foreign land. Eveline’s opportunities are severely limited by complex factors, which serve to paralyse her. 

In my appropriation - “Jinicia Sings the Blues” - my main character - Jinicia - is a young African American women - aged 18 or so - leaning on a railing outside her house, watching her younger brother deftly navigate a local game of street soccer. Inside the house, Jinicia’s baby sister is asleep. Her dedicated father is at work, and he works three jobs just to pay the bills. Her mother left the family with another man. And her older brother was shot dead in a gangland dispute a couple years ago. Meanwhile, Jinicia watches her younger, talented brother with a mixture of pride, envy and pity. He is good at school, good at sport and is a born leader. She wants him to dribble the ball down the block and out of the neighbourhood and never look back. She is afraid that the community will eventually swallow him up in some minimum wage job or worse, and that the dream of a scholarship to college will be left unrealised. Jinicia is a clever young woman who wavers between hope and fear, and can’t help battle a deep cynicism. The story ends as she walks back into the house to cradle her waking sister, who she also looks upon with both love and trepidation.

At one stage, I entertained the thought of extending the story. I thought of introducing a character from the other side of the tracks, or across the bridge in the wealthy peninsular community of Coronado. I imagined Jinicia reflecting on the differences in the two worlds. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thinking, “would my older brother still be alive if we could have bailed him out of his trouble? would I even worry about my younger brother if our circumstances were different?”

I think the story cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue. Whilst the story might not be about literacy, it engages with an issue raised by Donaldo Macedo, “reading specialists … who have made technical advancement in the field of reading … [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (Macedo, 2001, pg xiii) 

If the components of reading development are known (National Reading Panel and others), why is it that success rates are directly linked to differences in socio-economic factors and not to differences in cognitive functioning or personal motivation? (Chiu, McBride-Chang & Lin, 2012) We need to know, “the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilised … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)

As stated by James Paul Gee, “caring about [students’] rights means caring … about the trajectories of learners as they develop … as part of communities of practice, engaged in mind, body, and culture, and not just as repositories of skills, facts, and information.” (2008, pg 105) We must be ever diligent on issues of equity, both in enhancing opportunities and respecting diversity. We must be conscious of the socioeconomic, motivational and neurocognitive factors that are brought to bear on learning. We must be mindful of the impacts of poverty, discrimination and instability. The conditions for success are multifaceted, long and intricate.

 

References

Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66(6_PART2), 55–69.

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76 – 108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Language is the carrier of the human culture

And language is the carrier of the human culture, by which mankind continually produces and contemplates itself, a reflection of our species–being. Language, one might say, is the medium of mind, the element in which our minds dwell as our bodies dwell on earth in the air. In mastering language, we take on a culture; our native language becomes a part of ourselves, of the very structure of the self. Thus language has dual aspects: it is our means for self-expression, for articulating our unique individuality; yet at the same time it is what we have in common with other members of our community, what makes us like them and binds us to them. As a consequence, language lies at the heart of the problem of membership - in a group, in a culture, in a society, in a polity - central to almost every theoretical issue in social and political study.
— (Pitkin, 1972, pg. 3)

Pitkin, H. F. (1972). Wittgenstein and Justice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.