Sustaining languages: An interview with Peter Austin

by and on June 2, 2015

Natalie Chang and Tammy Lim speak to Professor Peter Austin about his interest in helping communities sustain their languages, and the beauty and importance of doing so. Peter is the director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and holds the Marit Rausing Chair in Field Linguistics. He has done extensive linguistic fieldwork on Aboriginal languages, and has been working with the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation on a project to revitalise the Dieri language. You can read more about this project here.


How did you become interested in studying the Australian Aboriginal languages?

Actually, when I was an undergraduate student at the Australian National University, I took a class in Linguistics taught by Professor Bob Dixon. He’s a specialist and expert in Australian Aboriginal languages and this was the first time that he had ever taught a course on that topic in Australia. It was very interesting but the most exciting thing is that when we had a vacation around Easter time (April 1972). I told him I was going back to visit my family who lived in the countryside in Australia.

He said, “Oh you’ve got to write an essay for me, for this course. I visited that area last year and I met some Aboriginal people. They taught me a few words, so why don’t you go back for a visit and see if you can collect some more information and write your essay on the basis of what you find.”

So that’s what I did. Can you imagine that? I was a second year undergraduate student and here was a professor telling me “oh you can go do some research yourself!” That was really exciting, particularly when compared to, you know, my classes in Economics that were in a big room with 600 other people, and the teacher was just reading from his textbook, and so on. This was doing something very exciting and new and original. So that’s how I got started with it and then things just snowballed from there.

So do you have a favourite language?

Dieri is probably my favourite language because it’s a language that I have been most closely connected with and it’s the language I studied for my PhD in 1978. For the last five years I’ve been working together with the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation (DAC), which includes the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of my original Dieri language teachers, and they’ve had a project to revitalise their language. They invited me and another teacher-linguist to get involved in this and we’ve been running various workshops. In 2013 we started blogging on www.dieriyawarra.wordpress.com, so there’s a lot of information on the web now about the project and the language, including some language learning materials and audio recordings.

My overall role has been as a consultant coming in to help where I can. Because I had studied the language and I’ve learnt to speak it a little bit, they invited me to get involved. I had done research on various aspects of the language, including publishing the grammar of it, and now 41 years later it’s really a nice feeling to find that the community is really interested in supporting and revitalising Dieri, and people remember me as the young guy interviewing their grandmothers and great-grandmother, you know.

In your work with the Dieri people, did the younger people come together and start having classes to keep the language alive and things like that?

I guess it was more community-based and not so much about education or teaching in classes. The workshops we ran were opportunities for people to get together, to share ideas and experiences. It’s less a focus on grammar and learning, and much more on social interaction. The idea that keeping a language alive means classroom lessons kills people’s enthusiasm because it becomes associated with hard work, textbooks and the teacher telling you “that’s not right, you need to say this,” It can be a real turn-off for kids. It might be useful for some cases, such as learning to read and write Chinese, you’ve just got to sit there and learn all those Chinese characters. But if you want to learn how to speak Chinese, then have fun, enjoy it!

So making language learning a formal activity may not be the best way forward. But if we can think of ways to engage young people in fun, interesting and meaningful social activity, then learning the language becomes enjoyable. One thing that other people have tried is language camps where kids go out camping, go swimming, do various activities all in the target language. Learning of the language is connected with having fun, with being engaged, with making friends. It’s not sitting in a classroom and having to do lessons, it’s chilling out with all your friends out there, not doing lessons. So I think that for supporting languages, learning languages, revitalising languages, we have to think really seriously about how we go about doing it.

When you document languages and go out to do fieldwork, do you have to learn them or learn to speak it?

Well, different people have different ideas about that. Some people will say, “Yes, that’s an important thing.” Others would say, “No, you can study it as a linguist.” You can study a language, look at its structure, try and understand the words and the grammar and so on without having to learn to speak it.

My personal perspective is that I always try to learn enough so that I can communicate at least the basic things in the languages that I’m interested in. And I feel it’s a sign of respect, that you respect the other person enough to make an effort to learn how to express yourself in their language. It always makes a huge difference if you want to document an language and its people, that you know how to say “Hello, how are you?”, “How have you been?”, “How many children have you got?”, that kind of thing, as well as to understand what people are saying when they tell you stories or engage you in conversation. To do that means understanding things like kinship systems and different ways of cultural interaction. For example, people really respond when you say sik zo mei a? (‘Have you eaten?’ in Cantonese, a common greeting) instead of “Oh hi, how are you?” I think it’s really helpful to know how to do these things in the language that you are studying or doing research on. Certainly, in the case of Dieri for example, it proved to be very, very valuable because there are not too many people now who can still speak it, and me being able to interact with the remaining speakers in their own language has proved to be very useful in the workshops and other activities.

I was just thinking, how do people react to you when you speak their language?

Yeah, I’ve got different reactions. It all depends on the individual’s own experiences. Some people haven’t met many foreigners before and if the only foreigners they’ve met never even bothered to learn how to speak to them in their own language then it’s going to be a very odd thing for them. A lot of other people would have a positive response and think, “Oh that’s really nice! You’ve actually made an effort to do that.” People tend to take it as a sign of respect that you’re interested in them and their culture if you do put in a little effort like that.

You know, I studied Japanese as an undergraduate and when I first went to Japan it was relatively rare for foreigners to speak Japanese, everybody would say, “Oh you speak it so well. You’re fluent.” I remember asking for directions at the railway station and the station attendant just looked at me. He said, “Sorry, no speak English, no speak English.” I said to him in Japanese, “I am speaking to you in Japanese” but he just couldn’t get his head around the idea that I would actually not be talking in English. Things have changed since then, of course, and there are now many more foreigners who learn Japanese so you are less likely to find people surprised by this. Learning Japanese is still seen as a positive thing to do. The same is true where I do my current research on the Sasak language spoken on the island of Lombok in Indonesia—I generally get a positive response when I try use my knowledge of Sasak to communicate with people.

Are there any disadvantages to revitalising endangered languages? For example, have you come across communities who have been willing to let go of their languages for the sake of development or progress?

That’s an interesting question. Very often, what we find is that people who have given up or switched from one language to another have done so because they think along the lines of “It’s gonna be better for my children if they don’t speak Hokkien but they learn to speak only English. It’ll be better for them to get a job.” But then later generations begin to feel cut off from their own history, and they often become really interested in going back and trying to uncover their own sense of history, heritage, and origins. This can sometimes lead to cultural or linguistic revitalisation. This doesn’t always mean going back to speaking the language all the time, sometimes it’s just learning some everyday expressions or how to engage with other people in that group.

The message I try to convey to people is actually you can have your cake and eat it too, because we can be multilingual. There’s no reason you have to give up speaking one language in order to learn another. When children grow up speaking a more dominant language together with their minority language, they can be exposed to their heritage, as well as opening up outside possibilities. It takes effort, and it may mean ensuring children are connected to their grandparents and other relatives for example, so that they have the opportunity to practice the language and participate in cultural events. But if those efforts are made, then your kids are going to be so much more advantaged because they won’t just have one language, they’ll have two (or even three) available to them.

So it’s more advantageous to speak more than one language?

If you can speak two languages, then subsequent ones are much easier to learn than if you only grew up speaking one. We know from lots of studies that being bilingual gives you advantages in terms of cognitive flexibility in dealing with different cultures and other languages.

Being multilingual also means children have more options later. They can make an informed decision later in life and decide for themselves whether they want to continue with their heritage language of whether they decide, “Okay I don’t want to know any more about this small minority language, I want to get on in the outside world and speak only in Spanish or French or English or something.” But if you take away that possibility when they are growing up, then they don’t have the choice or the tools any more. That’s what we find today with people in Wales and other countries saying to their parents and grandparents: “You took away something from me, you didn’t give me the possibility to keep my heritage.” The parents may have decided to speak only English because they thought it’s going to be advantageous, but in fact, keeping both the minority language and the majority language could be more of an advantage. It’s not having to take one away, it’s actually adding languages. I’m very much in favour of lots of diversity, giving people lots of opportunities and choices, and so on.

So what do you see as the main obstacle to keeping those languages alive?

The main difficulty is creating opportunities where it could be something that happens naturally, so that people can participate in activities, in festivals, in music, listening to family, that kind of thing. As you know, little children just pick up everything that’s going on around them, so if these opportunities exist then languages will continue to be alive and they will naturally survive.

Some people now talk about ‘post-vernacular languages’. So, a ‘vernacular language’ is one that you use in your daily life. A post-vernacular language is one that you learn, or maybe learn a part of, not so that you can use it all the time, but so you can use it a little bit or say a few words for fun, or to express identity with a particular heritage or group. In America, for example, there is a trend for older Jewish people to say “I have spoken English all my life, but now I’m gonna learn some Yiddish because I’m a Jewish person and my grandparents came from Europe.” So they learn a bit of Yiddish, which maybe just means knowing how to say ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye’ or make a joke or exchange a few words with their friends. It’s not their vernacular or ordinary everyday language, it’s a post-vernacular one that they just learn for fun, for personal pleasure, for uncovering their history or their personal relationships.

We have to see language as a very diversified, variable, functionally really rich array of choices. To imagine that language can only be used for communication is really missing the point. Languages can be used to express feelings, relate to others, to have fun and just enjoy life. And it’s a mistake, I believe, to think that we have to measure languages in utilitarian ways, to value them purely in terms of money and the economy. Languages don’t have to be purely vernacular, or dominant, and exist solely for communication and making money. They can also be minority languages with their own roles in our lives, or post-vernacular, or things that we play around with.

Does your work documenting languages help to preserve them?

Preservation is just one of the things that we do in language documentation. At SOAS in London, we have a big archive that has thousands of recordings and videos on hundreds of languages. So that’s preservation because what we’re able to do is put the materials in a proper archival storage form and look after them and organise and catalogue them, so when people come along in the future, the material will be there and it all will be accessible. So in that sense, there is preservation.

We can preserve material by putting it in archives, but to sustain languages, both individuals and communities have to be engaged. They have to make an effort to learn them, to use them, to teach them to future generations, for all the reasons we talked about earlier: for communication, for fun, for post-vernacular learning of different elements, for exploring their own history and their own culture, for learning the songs and music and poetry expressed through the languages, and so on. Sustaining languages is much more a social, human, individual activity, and it’s up to people to sustain their languages and sustain their cultures. Archiving can preserve some aspects of languages, but to truly sustain them for the future requires engagement and activity at an individual or community level.

Then is sustaining a language a desired outcome?

Well, it’s up to the individuals and the community to decide if they want to do that, but it also depends on the context that people find themselves living in. There are people living in horrible situations as refugees or with awful social and health problems such as high death rates among their children—it can be really essential for these people to focus on their immediate issues like survival rather than language or culture.

However, if the living conditions are supportive and individuals or the community decide they want to sustain their language, then researchers and other outsiders can be of assistance. We can support and sponsor activities and also help people to understand the broader context, for example, if individuals and families stop using the language to talk each other and to their children, then it is likely that the language will disappear. People often assume that they don’t have to worry about losing their language because even though they themselves have stopped using it, their neighbours are teaching it to their children, or somebody in another village still uses it daily. So we can explain to them that actually, everyone is switching and this has happened in another country in the past and now 30 years later they’re all upset and worried because their language has been completely lost. If they say, “That’s not important to us—it’s much more important that our kids get jobs and we can have food on the table,” then that’s fine. But for them to be better informed, to help them understand the broader context, I think that’s part of what we can do in terms of our role as linguists, and as people studying languages and cultures.

You know, I was in China recently, in a minority group village in Guizhou province. Many people in this particular village between the ages of 15 and 45 had left the countryside for the cities, to look for work and to send money back to their families. After years of living in the city, speaking only Putonghua, when they return to the village, that is all they can speak! They discover that they can’t talk to their grandparents anymore because they’ve forgotten how. And so one thing that linguists can do is help these communities understand, that if you want sustainability of culture, of history, then you need to address this issue. So part of our role, and part of your role, is educating individuals and the general public, explaining what happens when language diversity is threatened and challenged, and why it might be important to think about vitality and sustainability.

We’ve seen several blogs and websites on endangered languages sprouting up in recent years, and there does seem to be a more concerted interest by governments like Canada and Australia to document their endangered languages, but do you think there’s enough public awareness about endangered languages?

Yes that’s a really good question, and a very relevant one. There’s been quite a bit of publicity about this topic, quite a few books have come out and there are even movies now on disappearing languages and so on. Even so, there’s a lot of ignorance among the general public. I think a lot of people just don’t understand the richness of language diversity in the world and the threats to it. Lots of them possibly don’t understand what is lost when a language disappears. I think there are lots of misunderstandings, lots of half-truths, lots of misinformation about this topic. So the kind of work that you do in terms of getting information out to the general public is very, very important and we can’t stop and say, “Oh everybody understands, we don’t have to do it anymore.” We have to keep going and spread the message. And sometimes it means repeating the same message many, many times.

Your motto says “every last word is another lost world.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

It’s meant to be a pun, it’s meant to be a bit ambiguous because when we say “every last word,” in one meaning, that could mean the last few words of a disappearing language. Every last word also means every single word, every individual word that we have is the key to another world, and this is another point we’ve been making about language diversity: different languages are used to talk about the world in very different ways.

Take, for example, kinship terms in Cantonese. They have different words for a father’s elder brother and father’s younger brother, mother’s brother, father’s sister’s husband, and mother’s sister’s husband. But English just lumps everything together as ‘uncle’ (in Hakka it’s even more complex with eight separate terms, including words for mother’s older brother and mother’s younger brother, as well as different terms for the husband of father’s and mother’s older or younger sister). For the Chinese this distinction about whether two people are related by blood or by marriage on the mother’s side or the father’s side, and their age with respect to the linking parent is really important. It tells you a lot about the kinship system and the culture; the fact that for Chinese people, inheritance and descent on the mother’s side is different from the father’s side. So just like that, individual terms like yi jeung (‘mother’s sister’s husband’) reflect a whole world of human relationships and cultural history. Learning a language doesn’t just mean learning the words and grammar, it also means learning about the culture, the society, the history, and the people.

Language and humanity are connected so closely in that way. Every single community in the world—from the most remote to the largest—any community anywhere in the world, has what we call ‘oral literature’. This includes everything from the songs that you sing to little babies, to the stories that you tell about your ancestors and your history. Every community has their own oral literature of this type. Only a third of the world’s languages have a writing system, and very few of them are used regularly to write. So the written literature that exists, the Chinese classics, French literature or whatever, that’s a tiny part of the oral literature and culture in the world. The richness of human experience is encoded in the languages that we speak. Language itself is a way for us to express creativity, to express song, history, where we come from, and so that’s why I say words and worlds are connected.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think it might be interesting, in your own case, just to ask your grandma, “Do you feel like something is missing because your grandchildren can’t speak Cantonese?” Maybe she doesn’t, maybe she’s happy that you all can speak Mandarin, and that will be fine. But it might be interesting for you, personally as an individual, to think about whether you and your family are missing out on anything because Cantonese songs or cultural things didn’t get passed on.

I think we’ve covered lots of different things. I guess my emphasis would be on how language is so much connected to social and cultural and personal aspects of our lives, and to encourage you and your readers not to be thinking of language just as grammar and structure. So much of language is about us, as people, as human beings, and how we are, how we live in the world, where we came from, and what we and our children want to be in the future.

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