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: 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:

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts

Developing literacy presents certain challenges in remote contexts for a range of reasons; however, these reasons are not insurmountable, though they do present significant obstacles.

If I need to start somewhere, I will cite the lack of a literate tradition as one factor to consider. In non-remote contexts, children are exposed to literate behaviour in a range of forms from a very early age. A literate sensibility is reinforced in literate environments. And a literate environment is one which is stacked with literate artefacts (e.g. books, magazines, list on refrigerators) and populated by readers and writers. However, children in remote communities are growing up in environments with few age-appropriate books and fewer role models who exhibit the diverse habits of a literate individual. 

Furthermore - in remote contexts - it is often the case that learners are brought into literacy in a language that is not their mother tongue. If early literacy experiences were about rendering in print that which is spoken, then English language learners face additional barriers to see the relationship between speech, writing and reading. In addition to the language barrier, there is also the cultural barrier. It is understood that readers are better able to engage and understand what they read when they have the prior knowledge/experience/schema to find the reading meaningful, not to mention access to an experienced reader to aid reading. However, it is often the case that the learners are exposed to texts which (a) use an unnatural (or unfamiliar) flow of language and (b) do not connect with the learner’s experiences (or desire to attach meaning). Whilst these texts may provide “exercises in reading”, there is some doubt as to the meaning being extracted from such text. A child might “read” the text, but does the child understand what he or she is reading?

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