"Don't paint it white": differentiation and continuity in language revitalization

Jessica Boynton

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

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The goals of language workers and community members often conflict in language revitalization work, frequently because of unrecognized differences in language ideologies. Researchers often assume that community members need education about language revitalization methods and don’t seriously engage with their concerns, and so these ideological differences become invisible impediments to the goals of researchers and community members alike. Outsider researchers have much expertise to offer, but only when ultimate control over the direction of language work is in community members’ hands. This thesis aims to illustrate the importance of conflicting language ideologies and language related goals in regards to maintenance efforts for the Wangkatha language of Western Australia. It specifically addresses conflicts between Wangkatha ideas about the orality of their culture vs researchers’ drives to develop written materials; between Wangkatha language socialization and revitalizationist pedagogy; and between traditional relationships between language, land and people and those that are pervasive in the wake of Native Title. The overarching argument is that when researchers fail to engage deeply with the goals of community members or with their own language ideologies, they may unwittingly jeopardize what is important for the community.

Chapter one introduces the topic of study, provides a basic overview of the community being studied, and locates this research in relation to the literature.

Chapter two places the study within the context of the sociolinguistic history of the research area. Wangkatha language is used largely to index an identity that has been threatened by assimilation since early contact. Differentiation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal is paramount. Therefore, preserving the language through anglicizing practices does not ameliorate the effects of past inequalities or improve the position of the language; rather, it promulgates inequality and, in one consultant’s words, threatens to “paint the language white”.

Chapter three discusses language graphization – that is, the ideologies and practices related to rendering language in writing. Writing is often considered necessary for successful language revitalization, but community members see serious risks in its implementation. It forces language into western contexts and even causes anglicized mispronunciation. Outsider experts can advise community members about the potential benefits of an indigenous orthography, but they cannot decide for them whether the benefits outweigh the risks and inevitable costs.

Chapter four discusses language in schools in the same light. While inclusion in schools can be extremely beneficial to a language’s status and ultimate survival, it can also usurp Aboriginal authority and confound appropriate language socialization and use. Enforcing pedagogically sound language teaching regardless of its effect on sociolinguistic practices not only limits the likelihood that the community will ‘be on board’; it imposes some kinds of change in the name of reversing other kinds of change, ever under the assumption that western knowledge (including pedagogy) provides the best answer.

Taking a somewhat different angle, chapter five discusses language mobilization. As with the above phenomena, when language is mobilized specifically for Native Title, focus falls on the structure of language to the near exclusion of linguistic practices and ideologies. Just as with language graphization and language in schools, the importance of sociolinguistic practice and comparatively invisible language ideology is rarely taken seriously; the importance of much more easily identified linguistic form is, on the other hand, magnified.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


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