We have been traveling in Australia for roughly two months now. The first place we visited was Parkes in New South Wales, then we went to Melbourne in Victoria, to Port Augusta and Adelaide in South Australia, and finally to Kununurra and Yuendumu in the Northern Territory. In these places, we met people that worked respectively, on Wiradjuri, Woiwurrung, Barngala, Kaurna, Miriwoong and Warlpiri. These places and languages are listed in the same order as our trips, that also being the order of vitality of the languages: only the language mentioned last, Warlpiri, is still being spoken by children; the language mentioned next-to-last Miriwoong, still has some elderly native speakers, and all the other languages are being revived from written sources. The fact that the vitality of these languages coincides with the order of our trips is not a coincidence, but is rather connected to the fact we first travelled to urban places near Canberra and then to gradually more isolated and harder to reach places.
As we reported in previous blog posts, our encounters with mobs working on language revival taught us just how hard it is. Though it is undeniable that language revival efforts have an important effect on the self-esteem of Aboriginal people and on school attendance, numeracy and literacy rates among Aboriginal kids, it is undeniable too that in none of the cases we learned of was an Aboriginal language revived beyond the knowledge of fixed expressions and of isolated words. What our experience emphasizes to us is just how important it is to support the transmission of Aboriginal languages whose full speakers are still around.
In Kununurra we met a mob working on boosting the transmission of an Aboriginal language, the Miriwoong language. Among the Miriwoong people, only a handful of elders are full speakers of their language, a few middle-aged people are good passive speakers of it, and younger Miriwoong people have had little or no exposure to the language. To remedy the situation, the Mirima Language and Culture Centre is working on two fronts. They have already been for some time running a program targeted at young adults, which consists of organized sessions in which the Miriwoong elders teach the language to the younger adults. The Miriwoong language center recently started a program targeted at children, consisting of lessons taught at childcare centers and kindergartens. It is too early to access how the child-directed efforts are going to fare. As for the adult-directed efforts, they don't seem to have resulted in the restoration of the use of the Miriwoong language in daily situations.
This experience showed to us that even when full speakers are still around, restoring a language once direct transmission has been broken is no easy business (though we can't disregard the non-linguistic positive impact of restoration efforts on Aboriginal people).
My personal point of view is that the focus should be dislocated from the restoration of languages and cultures to the underlying, far more complex and long-standing problems the brutal British colonization brought onto the native peoples of the Australian continent. Drug abuse, domestic violence and cultural disintegration are but the symptoms of Aboriginal peoples' dispossession, hopelessness and lack of control over their own lives.
In the Warlpiri community of Yuendumu, we learned about some recent actions of the integrationalist program of the Northern Territory government on Warlpiri schools. After a few productive decades of autonomous development of the Warlpiri school curriculum, with hundreds of books produced locally in Warlpiri language, the NT government effectively imposed English as the school language. In the same vein, by enforcing stricter requirements on teacher certification, the NT government managed to reduce the presence of Warlpiri teachers in the school to only two. Take into consideration the fact that Yuendumu is the largest Warlpiri community of Australia.
Of course the situation is more complicated than anyone is able to grasp, and an interesting collection of points of view on the demise of the education of Aboriginal children in their mother tongue can be found [here](http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2683288.htm).
My personal point of view comes from the comparison of the situation of the Australian Indigenous peoples with that of the Brazilian Indigenous peoples. In Brazil Indigenous peoples have the constitutional right to self-determination, and even though that right is often illegally violated, it is notory that in Australia the subjugation of the indigenous peoples is constitutional.
Symptomatic of the state of subjugation of the Australian Aboriginal peoples is the fact that in Yuendumu the principal of the local school is not a Warlpiri person. Nor are Warlpiri the people in leading positions at PAW, the modern incarnation of Warlpiri media. This state of affairs must be contrasted to that of Indigenous schools and media associations in Brazil, where teachers, principals and media makers are Indigenous.
In the last stop of our trip, in Alice Springs, we learned about innovative uses of new digital media for the conservation and documentation of Aboriginal languages in the "Getting in Touch" workshop.
Foto do acervo da AIATSIS, exposta na inauguração da Conferência Internacional 50 anos da AIATSIS, em Canberra
Foto do acervo da AIATSIS exposta. A legenda diz: The men prominent in Wave Hill strike for equal conditions and pay for Aboriginal workers, 1960.