2010: One Arm Point: Endangered Language Preservation in Western Australia

Helping to record a dying aboriginal language in One Arm Point, Australia
Laura Kling

Laura Kling
Pierson College, Class of 2012
Chase Coggins Memorial Fund Scholarship Report

One Arm Point: Endangered Language Preservation in Western Australia

Of the approximately 150 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia, nearly all are highly endangered. Due to contact with missionaries and the Australian government, many languages are being displaced by English, and few Aboriginal children learn their ancestors’ traditional languages as their mother tongues. This summer, thanks in part to the generosity of the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund, I was able to spend eight weeks in One Arm Point, a remote community of three hundred people, working on documentation and preservation of one such language, Bardi. I flew to Australia in June hoping to clarify and edit previously created materials, such as the Bardi dictionary and learner’s guide; to work to develop a curriculum and make it accessible to the community’s school; and to look further into the ways that the language changed as its speaking population declined.

Bardi people have traditionally lived at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, although many now live in nearby towns such as Broome and Derby, as well as cities like Perth and Melbourne. About ninety years ago, there were around 400 Bardi people, all of whom spoke the Bardi language. Today, there are as many as one thousand Bardi people; however, only two or three fluent speakers of the language remain.

At eighty years old, Bessie Ejai is the oldest speaker of Bardi living today. I had heard her speaking dozens of times on audio recordings through my research work in New Haven. Thanks to this, when I arrived in One Arm Point I could already distinguish her voice from that of Jessie Sampi, the other speaker with whom I planned to work, as well as those of other Bardi speakers, now deceased. I was introduced to Bessie within an hour of arriving in the community, and to Jessie a few days later.

Bessie and I went to the community’s school for a cultural meeting that afternoon, where I was introduced to several other community elders. The school was publishing a book about Bardi culture and traditions, and the editing process was just beginning. During my time there, I was able to help the group with translations to help prepare the book for publication.

I also worked with Bessie and Jessie on a daily basis. While our actual work was valuable linguistically, my interactions with them were enriching in other ways as well. Each morning, we’d meet in front of the childcare center, and we’d often have a cup of tea before starting work. The women told me many stories about what life was like in the old days, and they often discussed the problems of life today- alcoholism, violence, children taken from their parents by the government, and custody battles. They sometimes brought me photographs of their grandchildren and old stories other linguists had helped them translate. Once they showed me a collection of poems written by a missionary who’d been working in the area in the 1920s. On Thursdays we often waited for Bessie to read stories and sing songs to the preschool-aged children. Then we’d go to a quiet room, I’d turn on the tape recorder, and we’d work.

We started by going over words from the Bardi dictionary. I’d choose several for the day, and we’d go through them one by one. The women would talk about the meaning of the word, and use it in a sentence, or tell me if they didn’t recognize it. We did this for a week or so, and I got used to writing down the sounds of an unfamiliar language. Afterwards, we moved to more complex work: checking transcriptions against the original audio recordings, revising example sentences for the learner’s guide, and translating cultural books the schoolchildren had written. This work led the research in new directions, such as an examination of the structure of interrogative sentences in the Bardi spoken today. We also discussed the ways to talk about temperature, and they told me about the traditional medicinal uses of plants. Much of the speech I recorded will serve multiple purposes, as it can be used directly in teaching materials, and can also serve as a cultural record and as language that can be analyzed from a theoretical perspective.

When I wasn’t working with Bessie and Jessie, I spent a lot of time at the school. In addition to helping edit the book, I also sat in on several LOTE (Languages Other Than English) classes to get a sense of the curricula and methods already being used to teach Bardi. I was able to help the sixth and seventh grade teachers as they taught the students about the different parts of dugongs and the different types of crabs, and I learned songs along with the first and second grade students-including Bardi-themed versions of “This Land Is Your Land” and “Frère Jacques.”

In working with the culture team, I was also involved in planning field trips related to the material the students were studying in class. One Thursday, Bessie and I traveled with the students and teachers to a nearby beach, where we walked through the mangroves looking for mud crabs to spear and cook over a fire. Since we didn’t find very many crabs, several of the students went down to the water and speared some fish to cook as well. This field trip was vastly different from any I’d taken when I was in elementary school, and certainly at least as educational for me as it was for the students.

My work this summer varied from the extremely technical to the extremely personal, from trying to parse complex grammatical structures to singing along with six-year-olds as they learned their ancestors’ words for “crocodile” and “sea turtle”. I gathered a lot of interesting and useful linguistic data, which I am already compiling and analyzing. At this point, Associate Professor Claire Bowern and I are working to publish further learning materials (like the learner’s guide) to make them accessible to the Bardi community as a whole. I feel that my work this summer was a valuable contribution to this people’s language preservation efforts.

But this summer was more than a simple data-gathering venture. My experience gave me a new perspective on how language can function in a community, and gave me a very real sense of how language and history can be conscious components of a people’s identity. Bessie tells her children and grandchildren to “take care of your country, and your country will take care of you,” and I saw this concept for the first time as an ideal that makes a real difference in the way that people live their lives. This summer has greatly shaped the way that I think about communities and about the world, and I cannot thank the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund enough for their assistance in helping me to have this experience.