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:

Recommended: Unbalanced Comments on Balanced Literacy

The following link to a blog entry from Shanahan on Literacy is a welcome addition to the discussion/debate on balanced literacy instruction:

Education For All

The following is a speech delivered by Alan Duncan - UK Minister of State at the UK launch of the Global Monitoring Report on 7 April 2014

"I am delighted to be here today to support the UK launch of this year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Its theme, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality For All fits well with DFID’s education priorities. The report also rightly reminds us why investing in education is so important for any economy as a whole but also (and more importantly) why it matters for every individual.

"Behind this report is 1 simple stark truth. If all girls completed primary school in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, the number of girls getting married by the age of 15 would fall significantly. Education does indeed transform lives.

"In these brief remarks, I want to reflect on what the GMR tells us about DFID’s 3 education priorities, and then outline where more effort is needed to make better and faster progress. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is 1 of DFID’s priorities and this report presents impressive progress over the last 20 years on access to school. Globally there are 51 million more children in primary school today than there were in 1999, and 6 out of 10 countries have now achieved an equal number of girls and boys enrolled in primary school.

"These are signs of real improvement which is the result of significant domestic and international investment and effort. Good progress can be made when the world gets behind a simple and compelling message as it has done with the MDG focus on access to primary school.

"While we should recognise and celebrate this progress, we know that schooling does not always lead to learning. I don’t think any of us here would be satisfied with a primary school in which our children do not even learn to read and to count after four years in school. It’s the quality of learning achieved for every girl and boy, and not just the length of schooling, which makes education such a valuable investment."

Read More

Dr Michael A. Peters on Wittgenstein & Education

Dr Michael A. Peters is one of the authors of the Book Pick: Showing and Doing: Wittgenstein as a Pedagogical Philosopher. In the following video, Dr Peters speaks about the problems of rationality. In particular, he posits that there is a change in the way that rationality is described from the before and after the turn of the 20th century. He attributes to Wittgenstein a role in this change. Specifically, prior to the 20th century, there was talk of a single rationality (a Western scientific mode); however, in the 20th century and into the 21st century, we must speak of many rationalities, since any mode of reasoning is a byproduct of concepts that are quite familiar to the reader of Wittgenstein. Modes of reasoning are the byproduct of communities of practice, disciplines, discourses, language games, forms of life, etc, which does allow on to reflect on the cultural practices and politics around different ways of reasoning. Please enjoy the video. Dr Peters explains this much better than I.

Uploaded by educationatillinois on 2014-03-05.

Talent is made manifest through practice

Genius is what makes us forget the master's talent. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

The video in this journal entry is an ABC News piece that can be examined through a Wittgensteinian perspective. The topic is talent, and the article examines what contributes to the realisation of talent (or ability). In brief, the news item makes reference to the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and emphasises that the important roles of hard work (practice), effective teaching, and access to the space and time for total concentration.

Isn't this common sense? How else would success be achieved? Surprisingly, this picture contradicts another prevalent world picture that is sustained in the American public and media; that is, there are those in the community who exhibit extraordinary talent which can launch these individuals into the heights of the culture through their innate ability alone. In the words of Coyle, "talent is the last magical thing. It's magic ... Tiger Woods is magic. Michael Jordan is magic. Mozart was magic." 

Contributing factors such as context, culture, practice, relationships and circumstances are pushed to the periphery because they may threaten to unseat the prevailing mythology that some people are just amazingly talented.  One would prefer to believe in genius, luck, and egalitarianism rather engage in deeper questions into the people, opportunities and culture that fosters skills and practices. The ideas presented in the video do not deny that innate ability plays a role in the realisation of talent; however, the ideas seek to correct a misleading view, which is one that wants to forget that other key factors play vital roles in the fostering and maintenance of talent.

Read More

Could things be other than we see them to be?

From "Google Glass: Artificial Unconscious?" by Neuroskeptic in Discovery Magazine (25 May 2013)


60 years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote:

Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

The “idea” in this case was a particular philosophical theory about language. Wittgenstein saying that other philosophers were making use of this idea without realizing it, unconsciously – so he chose the metaphor of glasses, which are always right before us, filtering what we see, even though we’re rarely aware of them.


Language Games in Seinfield

From "How Seinfeld Made Something Out of Nothing" by Colin Dray in What Culture! (6 May 2013).


Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar. In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications. But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learnthe grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said. As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words. It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use. In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’ Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’. One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’. After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?  Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there? Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object. It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon. From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance. The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application. The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.



Wittgenstein's Two Views of Language

From "The Wittgenstein Controversy" by Evelyn Toynton in The Atlantic Monthly (June 1997).


Whilst not the article's focus, Toynton's article does presents the common division between Wittgenstein's early and late perspectives on language.  The young Wittgenstein was deeply influenced by the study of logic. Consequently, he sought to illustrate how our descriptive sentences convey pictures of the world, which could articulate empirical truths under examination. However, he admits that a vast range of propositions do not fall into this category, including religious, ethical and aesthetic statements. These statement cannot be understood by merely understanding the elements of the sentence. One needs to understand the context in which these propositions are uttered and applied to fully grasp their significance. This leads to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. In the latter years, he was preoccupied with the ways we use language in context and in culture and in our form of life. Instead of seeking the absolute structure of language, he sought to investigate the vast range of human practices in which language plays a role in shaping experience and in executing activity. 

Tractarian View of Language

"This was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), which altered the practice of philosophy, perhaps forever, by calling into question the ability of language to talk about ethical and metaphysical questions in any meaningful way. Wittgenstein maintained that language could only show; it could not say anything that went beyond description: "Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. . . . Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." To establish the limits of what could be spoken of, he stripped language down to its logical structure, which he saw as mirroring that of reality."

View of the Philosophical Investigations

"Wittgenstein abandoned his earlier quest for a logically perfect language to consider how language acquires meaning through use, the multiple ways it functions "in the stream of life."

Love Is in the Air, and in the Art

From "Love is in the Air, and in the Art" by Ken Johnson in the New York Times (7 February 2013).


"Philosophers have traditionally distinguished three forms of love: eros, or passionate, sensual attraction to another person; philia, or affection for family, friends, clubs, teams, nations and humanity in general; and agape, which is love for God or the functional equivalent.

"Wittgenstein thought that if you wanted to know what a word meant, you should forget the dictionary and examine how it is used by people in the real world, including, I would add, how it appears in art." 

Wittgenstein on God and Belief

From "Wittgenstein on God and Belief" from The Bully Pulpit.


“A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs. Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such a way. Life can educate one to a belief in God."


Wittgenstein held that religion was a practice that would be justified through the form of life of which it was part. This resonates with the central premise of Alain de Botton's recent popular exploration in Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. In short, it is unfair to judge religion based on the factual basis of its beliefs. Instead, one should curiously explore how a certain belief structure gives rise to a form of life. It is - then - that one can - perhaps - be permitted to judge.

The way you use the word “God” does not show whom you mean — but, rather, what you mean.
— Culture & Value

Philosophy is an Activity

From "5 Minute Tute: Philosophy" by Rick Lewis (founder and editor of Philosophy Now) on


"Most academic disciplines are defined by their subject matter, but with Philosophy this is tricky, because its subject matter is, well, everything. We could say that Philosophy is a critical investigation into any aspect of the universe or of human experience. Maybe Wittgenstein’s approach is more useful here: he said that Philosophy is an activity rather than a subject. It is the activity of rational reflection, of challenging assumptions and asking questions.

Can we all be philosophers?

Yes of course – it doesn’t even require any expensive equipment! We all stumble across philosophical problems at one time or another: Is there a God? Should we eat meat? What is life for? What comes after death? Is it sometimes all right to lie? How should we deal with this or that ethical dilemma? Some of these problems are inescapable, so the only question is whether we deal with them well or badly. Sadly, many people deal with dilemmas on the basis of emotional responses, tradition, or peer pressure rather than reasoned argument. As Bertrand Russell said, 'Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do.'"


Despite the simplicity of the above entry, there are aspects that clearly illustrate the purpose behind Wittgenstein's philosophical method. It has been written before, "Don't Think! Look!" which takes on a different quality here. Wittgenstein repeatedly urged his reader to look at how phenomenon was applied rather than explain or judge based upon expectations. For instance, one should assess religion by examining the various practices of religion rather drawing judgements based on a pre-established criteria, such as the scientific probability of the religions claims. Similarly, one should prepared to change perspectives if evidence comes to substantial alter one's expectations. By applying such a presumption, one fails to see what the practice of religion may offer individuals in a particular form of life. 

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself

From "Rohit Sharma: The Constant Underachiever" by Anjali Doshi of Wisden India Cricket News.


"In this post-IPL era in Indian cricket, where fame and money are so easily accessible even to players with limited talent and experience, there are very few who stay grounded and appreciate how illusory the hype, celebrity, success and riches are. 'Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself', as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said.

A very interesting observation based on events of late, and with that I refer to the events surrounding Lance Armstrong. It seems that sporting success gives rise to self-deception. For many, one's belief in his or her talent propels the individual to strive. For others, there are outsiders who feed the sense of talent. In fact, it would be difficult to achieve the heights of sporting success without succumbing in some way to the hyperbolic narrative of sporting prowess.