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Daryn McKenny: We have nearly 800 users around the world. They cover here in Australia approximately 150 languages. The whole six dialects of the Torres Islands are being digitised within Miromaa itself as well. Papua New Guinea. When we go to North America from Alaska to areas throughout Canada and then throughout North America and also South America itself as well, we now have one language in South America utilising it as a tool. 


Full Transcript:

Antony Funnell: Hello, Antony Funnell here, and welcome to Future Tense

Daryn McKenny: We have nearly 800 users around the world. They cover here in Australia approximately 150 languages. The whole six dialects of the Torres Islands are being digitised within Miromaa itself as well. Papua New Guinea. When we go to North America from Alaska to areas throughout Canada and then throughout North America and also South America itself as well, we now have one language in South America utilising it as a tool. 

Antony Funnell: Daryn McKenny, one of the developers of  Miromaa, a computer program that's now helping to revive the world's endangered languages, to give them a future as well as a past. 

Also on today's show, Dr Mark Turin from the World Oral Literature Project. 

Mark Turin: The limits are only financial and conceptual, nothing practical. We have a wonderful program supporting communities in many parts of the world, I think in five continents now. We do need to act now, we need more funding, we need better networks, we need standards, and we need people to know this story. There are no obstacles to rolling this out across the board and connecting with communities who are doing enormously important work supporting their own languages and cultures. The three words I used to describe our project are collect, protect and connect, and we've got that opportunity right now. 

Antony Funnell: Language diversity has long been on the decline, we know that. What's not appreciated though is that new forms of communications technology and a great deal of human effort and drive have in recent years achieved considerable success in resurrecting dialects and languages. 

Let's start in the middle of Australia, in the central desert, what are called the APY lands. And joining us is Karina Lester, an Aboriginal Language Worker with South Australia's Mobile Language Team. 

Karina Lester: I think for a lot of Aboriginal people the revival process is about identity, it goes deeper than just bringing a language back to being spoken on hopefully a daily basis, and that's the big aim in the near future. We would love to sit down and hear Kaurna language spoken on a daily basis in general conversation or sit down and listen to Barngala language spoken on a daily basis. So it's almost healing for Aboriginal people who have lost their language and who are really wanting to bring back and revive their language. And there are many generations to come, and if we set steppingstones in place for language revival or language maintenance, then we are setting the path for our future to be very strong, Aboriginal people within their communities, because they have strong identity and they are strong in that they know where they come from and the stories and language that is a part of their community. So it is very much for the future. 

Antony Funnell: Enthusiasm in terms of reviving these languages is not really enough, is it. You need also to know the skills, to have advice about how to support and preserve languages. Tell us about the Mobile Language Team and how it began and what it aims to do. 

Karina Lester: The Mobile Language Team was established in 2009, and the real aim for the team is to go out there and support Aboriginal languages across South Australia. So the team gets out there with the linguistic support. So I am employed as the Aboriginal language worker, and I'm surrounded by linguists who are those who have the skill of language revival and language grammar or language orthography, so they come with those skills and they are there to work with the original community to really look at the ways and means of bringing that language back. Whether it's a revival process or whether it's a maintenance process, for my language group with Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara we still need linguists to try and support us in giving us the direction of how we go about language and maintaining that language. 

So it's a little bit of a shift with the technology, that plays a big role with language revival and we need to look at how we engage with the youth population, the younger people within those communities, how do we get them on board, because they have a very important role. And so using the technology that they're into, whether it's mobile phone texting or Facebooking, bring that into the language component and bring that technology with it so you can start using that technology to really revive the language so people are picking it up at that youth, but then of course with the guidance of elders within that community as well. 

Daryn McKenny: In leading up to developing the program I was part of a huge amount of consultation with community people and the needs and the processes, the concerns which they have with using technology. 

Antony Funnell: And now back to Daryn McKenny in Newcastle, New South Wales, and the unexpected success that is the Miromaa software program, a good lesson in sometimes ignoring the advice of the experts. 

Daryn McKenny: The program came about by that we never found a suitable piece of software to use anywhere in the world. Everything which we found out there was made for academics and linguists and such, and we wanted something which was aimed at ourselves as Aboriginal or Indigenous people, and that's where we set about having the need then to develop it ourselves. And the program which we ended up finishing with, we've just called it Miromaa, which in our language, the Awabakal language, means 'saved', and it's basically used today to gather all evidence of language, whether that be in a textual format from an old book or a piece of paper, whether it be an audio file recorded back in tape days or today using digital formats, audio, video, everything. Everything about the language can be recorded in this program. And it just so happens that not even the academics have even got something close to it. 

Antony Funnell: So what sort of practical difference does it make to the process of language revival? 

Daryn McKenny: In leading up to developing the program I was part of a huge amount of consultation with community people and the needs and the processes, the concerns which they have with using technology as well, and all of those have been taken in. And one of the big things about Miromaa, using it as a software program is that, if I can point this point out, is that it actually has the ability to add here to community practical protocols, ownership of language, usage of language, access to language. Each language could have up to five dialects within it itself. 

Whether it be today I'm in an east coast city environment where all we have left is the remnants of the common general language, but still today in many other parts of Australia where English is not the first language, those people who have their languages there first will have a men's language, the women will have their words, there will be the ceremonial stuff, words which are only spoken then. Miramaa has got the ability to listen to those protocols and help gather the language and protect and be respectful of that. Okay, when the women want to sit over here and do their work, it's not going to be mixed up and be part of the men's work. 

We have nearly 800 users around the world. They cover here in Australia approximately 150 languages. The whole six dialects of the Torres Islands are being digitised within Miromaa itself as well. Papua New Guinea. When we go to North America from Alaska to areas throughout Canada and then throughout North America and also South America itself as well, we now have one language in South America utilising it as a tool. 

Antony Funnell: Is it correct that when you started looking at the development of this program you were scorned basically by some linguists because you were considered not to have the right training or skills to do the sort of work that you wanted to do? 

Daryn McKenny: Yes, two fellas, myself and Abie, we both wanted to bring our language back, the language of the land which we were born on ourself here in the Newcastle area, and we need that language to be able to connect to country here and to be able to understand the Dreaming and where to go and where not to go and so forth, and that's even today. And we wanted to do it, great, but we were told by certain academics, linguists, that you can't do it, you won't do it, you will fail because you're not using a linguist in your language reclamation. And that hurt us big time, to be told you couldn't do it. Why can't we do it? It's Western studies, Western methodologies, everything gets made harder because of the way they want to study something and record it. Have a look at an Aboriginal language set in a grammar today and it's pretty in-depth, pretty scary. I know, just talking about English, I know my kids when they start at kindergarten they've never been taught English, yet they were fluent speakers of English before they'd even gone to school. It can be made hard or it can be made easy. 

Antony Funnell: Is it significant as well that this program was developed by Indigenous people? Does that actually make a difference? 

Daryn McKenny: Absolutely. I'll say it as simply as this; these are our languages and this is our business. 

Karina Lester: Languages are part of cultural knowledge which is part of cultural tourism sometimes. People get involved in that, Aboriginal people, and so that's one way of building that economy around the language revival or language maintenance. But there's lots of other areas for stronger languages like Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, there's the interpreting needs, there is the translation needs, there is the cultural awareness that is needed and required for languages for people, say government agencies who are going up to remote communities, say the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, there are protocols there, and so getting that cultural awareness, learning about language is so important. There are also opportunities about doing language courses for non-Aboriginal people to be a part and understand our language and how you can say a few words or a few sentences in the native language that you're working in as a government agent or non-government agent representative there. So there are different needs and there are different economic benefits for language revival or maintenance. 

[We Still Live Here trailer] 

Anne Makepeace: Well, it's really an amazing story. This is a language that disappeared 100 years ago, so it's actually the first language with no speakers that has been revived in a Native American community as a living language. And my film begins with Jessie Little Doe Baird who is the person who has spearheaded this whole amazing revival, describing how about 15 years ago she began having visions of people speaking to her in a language that she couldn't understand, and her first reaction was, 'Speak English for God's sake if you want to tell me something.' 

And then, as she also describes in the film, she was driving in her neighbourhood one day and just happened to pay a little more attention to the place name signs that are around, street names and towns. And she realised that the words she was hearing in her visions or dreams sounded a lot like these place names. She started doing research and discovered that there were hundreds of documents written phonetically in Wampanoag by Wampanoag in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Antony Funnell: And the name of the documentary that writer/director Anne Makepeace has crafted about the revival of the Wampanoag language is We Still Live Here

Excerpt from We Still Live Here

Man: We were discussing whether or not there should be a language program. Do we want to bring it back? You know, should we bring it back? How do we do it? 

Russell Peters [Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe]: We had committees from Gay Head and from Assonet and from all the different Wampanoag communities. We had to bring it all together and figure out how we could get it in a cohesive way. 

Man: The decision was finally made that, yes, we're going to try to work on this language and we're going to support it fully, and we're going to work together, which was an historic decision in and of itself. 

Jessie Little Doe Baird [Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe]: Nobody said no. Nobody said I'm not interested. Nobody said don't do it. This never happens, I tell you. 

Anne Makepeace: So she got her community really excited about the idea of bringing back the language, but nobody knew what to do or how to do it. And just out of the blue she found out about a fellowship opportunity at MIT, it was a one-year research fellowship and didn't have to have a BA or a degree, but at any rate they gave her the fellowship. 

And then halfway through her year there Noam Chomsky, who of course is a professor of linguistics at MIT, saw some of her work that she was doing in creating a Wampanoag dictionary and thought this woman is brilliant, we need to bring her into the department. And all the time she was working on her masters she was teaching in her community, teaching the language. And actually the document that became very ironically the key to bringing back the language is a Bible. Of course it's ironic because the Bible, which was published at Harvard in 1663, was of course created to obliterate Wampanoag culture really, it was created to convert Wampanoags away from their traditional beliefs and away from their lifestyle and turn them into good puritans. 

I first hope is that it will reach and inspire and motivate and serve as a cautionary tale and an inspiration to Native American people across the country, and it's doing that. It has been shown nationally on public television but it is also being used in communities, in Native American communities across the country. And I get emails every day about how it's making a difference and how it has inspired people. It was screened at the National Indian Education Association's annual meeting, which was hundreds of Native American educators from all over the country and they are using it. It's amazing. 

There was one guy who saw the film and found the last speaker of his language somewhere up in the hills in Oregon and is now recording that person's speech in order to save that language. And internationally it's interesting which countries really resonated with it, Morocco and Nepal and Dubai, those are a few, and Australia and New Zealand, those places where I've had people ask to use the film with indigenous communities, or in film festivals that are for the larger public. 

Antony Funnell: Documentary maker Anne Makepeace, and her film is called We Still Live Here

As we were putting together today's program it occurred to me that it wasn't just about using technology to revitalise dying languages, but about something much more personal; a burning need among some people and some communities to revive an aspect of the past in order to set a better course for the future. 

Our final guest for today became involved in the field of language preservation through a strong personal connection with the people of Nepal. He learned their language and eventually became the Chief of the Translation and Interpretation Unit at the United Nations Mission in Kathmandu. In 2009 he then established the World Oral Literature Project, a joint initiative of both Yale and Cambridge universities. His name is Dr Mark Turin. 

Mark Turin, welcome to the program. 

Mark Turin: It's a pleasure. 

Antony Funnell: Tell us, how did you first become involved with oral languages, particularly in Nepal? What influenced you in terms of that work? 

Mark Turin: I might have to go back a little bit further and say that I grew up multilingual. My mother is Dutch and my father's Italian, so I grew up as a child already realising that there was more than one language, namely more than English, and appreciating that actually many of these languages that I was learning in school but also through my family I was learning orally. I only learnt to write them later. I went as a schoolteacher to a mountain village in Nepal in 1991 and stayed there for nine months, and I was learning Nepali, the national language of Nepal, but also battling really and trying to learn an ethnic language spoken in the hills there. And this ethnic language, like many languages in the country and many all over the world, had no written tradition. So there was no dictionary, no schoolbook, no 'in' to it, no script. And at that point I realised that this was an enormously challenging and exciting thing to do, to learn a language without any books. And that's really what got me started. 

Antony Funnell: There are lots of academics around the world who study language. Is it the case though that oral languages tend to be neglected, they tend to be left alone and people aren't as interested in them? 

Mark Turin: You're quite right. I would say, maybe provocatively now, that there are probably more linguists on Earth trained with PhDs in linguistics who are working either in academic departments or for government offices and the CIA than there are languages to document now. And oral languages are often the poor relations. So while there are departments of French, Italian, Spanish and of course plenty of people who study languages that are essentially defunct as oral vernaculars, let's say Sanskrit or Latin, there are very few places that you can do advanced study or research oral languages. And this is because of a kind of caste system of academic scholarship but also of how we think about language. There is a popular saying that a language is a dialect that has an army, a navy and a flag. But in South Asia where I work in the Himalayas, I would change that somewhat and say a language is a dialect that has a library. In other words, if you don't have a written tradition, you're not taken seriously. 

Antony Funnell: You don't just talk about an oral language, you talk about oral literature. What's the difference? What does the literature part entail? 

Mark Turin: It's a term that causes many people to break out in spots, it is a vexing term. I'm not even sure that I like it that much, but it's also one that provokes debate. As one scholar said, how on earth can you have oral literature? Is that not some kind of oxymoron, a paradox, a contradiction in itself? And in a way it is, but really the reason that we use it and the reason that I stand by it as a term to describe the work that we're supporting is that it recognises that these oral languages...just remember, most of the world's languages are oral before they are written and many don't make it into writing...their traditions, their knowledge and the systems and understandings that they convey about the world are as rich, as deep and as meaningful as those ones that we write down in the West. So we have Shakespeare and Milton but they have their own oral stories, and in that narrative, literature and knowledge is encoded. 

Antony Funnell: The work that you're supporting, let's talk about that, and specifically the World Oral Literature Project. What are its key objectives and how does that actually work? 

Mark Turin: It does a couple of things. The first is that we support urgent, time-sensitive fieldwork around the world. We've supported I think 18 projects, often ones run by committee organisations and cultural groups themselves, not the kind of hit-and-run academic who parachutes into place, gathers that data and runs away. That's one thing we're doing. 

But the other thing we're doing is providing a kind of harbour, a network for people and communities to interact through our workshops and publications and also our online resources, our database online where you can search for oral languages and look at collections online. One of the most important things that we're supporting though is what I jokingly call the salvage anthropology of salvage anthropology. Over the last 200 years of colonial endeavour, many researchers from particularly the wealthy west have gone off to all corners of the world and collected documents, recordings, wax cylinders, film and all kinds of other cultural content about communities who are now often endangered and some have really ceased to practice their cultures in those ways. 

We are in the West the accidental curators of this knowledge. It sits in our archives and our institutes and sometimes on our servers. So I say we should be acting responsibly, connecting these materials back to the communities of origin and enriching our collections in the process. So we have become a kind of portal for orphaned collections of materials. We regularly get packages of DVDs, of tape recordings from researchers around the world. 

A give you one example. There was a missionary linguist working in the Philippines in the '50s and he had a wonderful collection of materials that he just donated to us. We put them online, with his permission, and within a short period of time we are getting emails from the Philippines, from community members who are saying, 'We're listening to songs we've never heard from our ancestors.' 

Antony Funnell: I'm going to make a presumption here, I'm presuming that trying to document and preserve oral languages is a very time-consuming and money-demanding task, possibly much more so than written languages. Would that be correct? 

Mark Turin: It's an interesting question, and I think it's probably true in certain ways. It is laborious and requires incredible patience. If you're learning a language that has no written tradition, essentially you as an outsider, you become a child again, you return back to basics and you have to start pointing or using a contact language, a second language, and being willing to start absolutely from the ground up. Written traditions of course with their incredible written and literate knowledge systems are easier to pick up and run with, so that's one thing. But actually the cost of this work is not enormous. It requires flight tickets, a laptop computer, pen and paper, and some kind of stipend or remuneration, both for the scholar doing the work and also for the community members who they're working with who are often taking time out of fieldwork or other practices to work with somebody carefully. So yes, it's expensive in that all research is expensive, but compared to the cost of waging war and the ludicrous things we spend money on, it's rather cheap. 

Antony Funnell: And your project so far has focused on languages in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Mark Turin: It has, partly because of our networks which are strongest in those regions, both our scholarly committees and the people with whom we can partner in the field who are doing such critical work that we can support, they are mostly there. But I'm delighted to say that we have projects in Africa that we are supporting, South America, and also in Europe. Not all endangered oral languages or endangered cultural traditions are far away and remote, some of them are on our own doorsteps. 

Antony Funnell: It is great to hear a positive story about a language and preservation because we often only hear the very negative side. I do have to touch on that negative side though. Given current projections on the survival of indigenous languages around the world, how grim is it? 

Mark Turin: It is grim. Some linguists predict that one language dies approximately every two weeks. That's not to say that at the same time on a Sunday afternoon that a language disappears, but over time that's the tendency we're looking at. There is a doom and gloom story certainly, and there's something else to say, which a linguist some years ago said in an academic publication but it became quite well-known, he said linguistics may go down as the only discipline in Western science and knowledge that presided over the demise of its own subject matter and did nothing. We have to act. This is our last moment. The next 50 years will be decisive. 

But there are two different things at stake here. One is can we gather good documents for the future. And the second is can we do something to save (which is a word I don't like) and encourage and nurture these languages? There are plenty of examples now from around the world of languages being reclaimed from moribund status, they've been on life support, and the communities wouldn't like to say that they're dead or extinct because that's quite provocative, and through careful linguistic reconstruction and through good recordings in the past, sometimes translation of the Bible and Scripture, committees can actually read and live in a language that has basically been dormant for a while. So that's a story of hope. 

Other stories of hope are more popular and widely known. Welsh, for example, an amazing comeback for a language that was really disparaged and oppressed in the Welsh-speaking areas, and that language has bounced back with support both from government coming down and committee interest from below. So that's also an enormously encouraging story. 

And the area that I worked in in Nepal, the Thangmi-speaking community in eastern Nepal, when I started none of the children in the households spoke the language, and now, partly I think because their parents shamed them into speech, saying, 'Your foreign uncle from England, he speaks your language and you don't speak it,' and now they all speak it fluently. So, learning language is not as hard as you think but it's very easy to forget. 

Antony Funnell: Dr Mark Turin from the World Oral Literature Project, thank you very much for joining us on Future Tense

Mark Turin: It's been a pleasure, thank you. 

Antony Funnell: And before we go there's just time to mention a series of workshops currently taking place in various parts of Australia to support and revitalise Indigenous languages. 

A US training team are running the events with local partners and Indigenous organisations as part of the Master Apprentice Language Learning Program.   

The workshops are being supported by the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity and you'll find a link to that network, and to the Master Apprentice program, on our website.