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Language and identity

Jeanie Bell, Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education, 20 March 2010

JOHN HARMS: I’d like to introduce Jeanie Bell, who is from the Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics at the Batchelor Institute in the Northern Territory. Jeanie, I wanted to start by asking where you’re from originally.

JEANIE BELL: Well, I’m another Queenslander [laughter]. I guess they’re everywhere aren’t they?

JOHN HARMS: Which part and which people?

JEANIE BELL: Before I start talking about that, I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people from this particular area of the country and thank Auntie Agnes this morning for that lovely welcome. I’m originally from south-east Queensland, and I was born in Brisbane and grew up in Brisbane. My parents, who are both of Aboriginal descent, came from south-east Queensland.

My father came from the Kamiliroi people, we think, on our paternal grandmother’s side. His blood father was a son of a white station owner in south-east Queensland who we never knew, although I think I’ve inherited some of my traits from some of that family. His real father was a full-blood Aboriginal man from south-east Queensland. He was a Yuggera man who lived in the Brisbane Valley. He lived on a station also and never came under the Queensland Act. So he was always a free Aboriginal. He spoke language as well as good English.

My mother was born in Hervey Bay. Her grandmother and mother were descendants of the Dulingbara people from Fraser Island who spoke a dialect of the Gabi-Gabi language and connected to the Badjala language, which is that language that I probably know the best of all traditional languages because I’ve studied it over many years and written a thesis on it.

Her father was a white man who came from Norway or Sweden, another family that we didn’t ever know. And her grandfather on her mother’s side was from the Solomon Islands. So yes, there are many kinds of histories. I identify as an Aboriginal person though and grew up in Brisbane.

JOHN HARMS: So in growing up in Brisbane, did you speak any language or did you learn language yourself?

JEANIE BELL: No, the only language I learnt was English and I guess they taught us well, as David spoke about. I was at school in Brisbane in the 1950s and early 1960s. I heard lots of language spoken by elders in our communities and our families - not everyone spoke it but many of the older people still spoke language. The languages they spoke came from the three main language groups of south-east Queensland, which are the Wakka Wakka languages, the Gubbi-Gubbi languages and the Yuggara languages which cross over into northern New South Wales.

JOHN HARMS: And even though you didn’t speak personally, did you have a knowledge of those languages yourself?

JEANIE BELL: I felt very influenced by some of the older people who spoke language. I loved to listen to them speak. I didn’t understand a lot of what they said, but we knew lots of words. So we could listen and hear words that we were familiar with and that we used them all the time in our English. We mixed the words on a regular basis. That was probably the beginnings of what’s known today as Aboriginal English. Because that happened all over the country, it didn’t just happen in south-east Queensland.

JOHN HARMS: When I was doing my research with Steve Renouf on the book, The Pearl, two generations before in the Renouf household weren’t permitted to speak language. It was a sort of an internal decision from Steve’s grandfather and grandmother. That happened a lot, didn’t it?

JEANIE BELL: It did, yes.

JOHN HARMS: Why was that?

JEANIE BELL: Especially in our parents’ and our grandparents’ generation, because very early on in Queensland history they decided that they couldn’t control the Aboriginal people who were wandering around their own traditional countries. There had been a lot of massacres and there had also been a lot of trouble with Aboriginal people stealing cattle or sheep. There were lots of illegitimate children being born so they decided that they would form these communities or reserves as they were called, and they were managed quite often by the churches. They rounded people up and sent them to those places. So when they got to these places, and Cherbourg is one of the most well known in south-east Queensland and there was another reserve that was managed by the Salvation Army outside of Ipswich which was called the Deebing Creek Mission.

Our father’s mother, our paternal grandmother, and her sister ended up there. They had been rounded up from around the St George area, when they were 12 years old in the 1890s. Our mother and many of her family from Hervey Bay had been sent to Cherbourg where language and culture was forbidden. The Anglican Church managed the Cherbourg reservation and the Salvation Army the Deebing Creek Mission. They sent them to school, so they were teaching them the white ways or the European ways, and English, of course, was a very important part of that.

JOHN HARMS: So how was that policed?

JEANIE BELL: By the superintendents mainly, and the people that were the church workers or the missionaries that were at the reservations. And there were teachers brought in to the schools. In my mother and father’s generation, they only went to school to grade four. After they left school at grade four, I’m not sure, my mother’s story was that there was a Torres Strait Islander teacher at that stage and she used to go into the school and help with the younger children, so she was kind of like a teaching aide, I think, what you would call an Indigenous education worker today. By the time they were getting on to be 13 and 14, they were then sent out to work. I’m not sure in that period in between what they were doing. They were training them to be domestics, I think, and other types of workers.

JOHN HARMS: And were there penalties for speaking language?

JEANIE BELL: Well, that’s what we were told. I guess the one that I’ve heard people mainly say is that they would have their mouth washed out with soap or they were sent to the dormitories or they were locked up in darkrooms and punished. They were punished for a lot of things. And quite often they were also punished by older Aboriginal people who had taken on the roles of helping to grow these children up. My mother always talked about a boiling pot on a fire outside the dormitory where an old lady who didn’t have any legs sat, and she was always threatening to throw them in the pot - like those kinds of stories. Oral history is wonderful in many ways, but quite often it does get changed along the way, so we have to be careful with that.

JOHN HARMS: What do you see as the impact of that decision at Cherbourg to deny language for those who lived at Cherbourg?

JEANIE BELL: Again, it’s a similar process or pattern that happened all over Australia and in the Torres Strait. I think that the situation today is that - and this has been the case for the last few decades - we have many younger generations, my generation and much younger but maybe not the little children because they don’t really understand the impact of it so much yet, many generations have become very angry and resentful at the loss of language and culture and have felt that part of our identity was stolen or denied us. We weren’t allowed to have access. We didn’t get the opportunities to learn in the ways that would have been done in traditional ways.

We all know that societies change, and once there are dominant groups that come into a country, you are channelled or pushed into others ways of being. But I guess there’s a deep-down grieving and sense of loss that people feel about not having access to language and not being able to speak language. We still use it to shape our identity, and part of that is through the efforts around the country to revive language and to try to maintain languages that are still alive. We all know that that’s a loaded gun in many ways, because there are not many examples of success around the world with language revival. We can name a few - perhaps Welsh and Hebrew - and we’ve had a few really good examples of success in Australia. But it’s the effort that goes into it, which is part of the healing of bringing that back and giving people an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of the traditional language which connects us to the land and which connects to our ancestors, and that’s an important part of who we are.

JOHN HARMS: That’s been your life’s passion, hasn’t it, with the Gubbi Gubbi?

JEANIE BELL: Yeah, the Badjala and the Gubbi Gubbi, but mainly with the Badjala. That’s the language that I learnt through tapes that had been recorded and lodged at the AIATSIS [Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies] audiovisual area and in the documented area with manuscripts and such. One of our grandfathers, who wasn’t a bloodline grandfather, but through the tribal connections he was a grandfather and he had been recorded by a number of linguists in the 1950s and the 1960s, and the taped information was lodged. The material did get originally recorded by two linguists: one that lived here in Canberra, Stephen Wurm, and another linguist from The Netherlands, Nils Holmer. Then there were other people that did a little bit of work on those languages as well, and then I did some of work on Badjala.

JOHN HARMS: When did you start that work?

JEANIE BELL: I guess I always had a memory of that old grandfather, Grandfather Willy McKenzie, because he spoke language all the time. He spoke wonderful English, and he was one of those men who always had a very strong presence wherever he went. As children he came to visit our house on a regular basis, and we saw him a lot out in the community. At the Royal show he was always in his scout uniform, and he always out to meet the Queen and all those kind of dignitaries that came. But he always spoke various languages. So he could hear him speak perfect English and you also heard him speak traditional languages. I just always remembered that, and always had it in my mind.

I went to Monash University in Melbourne in the late 1970s after doing adult matriculation in Melbourne, after I had moved there to live for a while, and I was with a friend who was also starting university. I said to her, ‘I would really like to do linguistics. I am little bit nervous but if you come and we go together… That’s where I started because I knew there were people there that had worked with Australian languages and I knew that was the place where I was going to learn about them. That was the start of it in terms of my formal work.

JOHN HARMS: Then it was a decade-long process to establish the research which allowed you to publish in 1994?

JEANIE BELL: Yes, it was ongoing. I went to work in Central Australia after I finished my degree, and then I went back to the east coast in the early 1980s and worked at Queensland university for a while and also a little bit in northern New South Wales. But during that time I started to speak to a lot of elders, who had memories much longer than mine, and who had known quite bit of language. I started talking to a lot of them and I also started listening to a lot of the AIATSIS tapes - the tapes that been recorded with our old people - and talking to other Aboriginal people in south-east Queensland. So there was a bit of a swirl going on. There were a lot of people wanting to do things and get involved with language and teach it. It was a good time too, because people were still around who knew people who spoke language, and they spoke some language too. So there was all that happening, which was great.

JOHN HARMS: How many people would you have spoken to who had the language?

JEANIE BELL: I can’t really say numbers wise.

JOHN HARMS: In the dozens or in the hundreds?

JEANIE BELL: It wouldn’t have been hundreds, it probably would have been 20 or 30 people.

JOHN HARMS: And then when the dictionary came out, have you found that there has been an interest amongst the people in taking it up?

JEANIE BELL: Yes, I think so. Basically what I was working with were tapes and also historical documents where people had recorded language - people that had settled in that area; people that had come and taken up land and had Aboriginal people working for them living on the stations. Some of them wrote the language down. Some of the missionaries wrote the language down. So there has been a number of source material, and a lot of people had come along in the 1940s and pooled together all the stuff that had been done in the 1920s and the 1900s. There are various stages of the historical documentation. In that first dictionary that was published in 1994, it was a collation of all that material. After I did my masters at Melbourne Uni, I went back to work in Hervey Bay for a couple of years and I did another dictionary but it was just the Badjala language because I was able then to provide a lot of grammatical information. Grammar is a big thing in Aboriginal languages but with reviving languages we don’t always go back to the old way of talking; we don’t always use the traditional grammatical ways or patterns that would have existed back then. It gets changed quite a bit. People don’t always like to learn.

Our languages are case languages, and very much like Latin. They are agglutinating languages and they add all these little bits onto the words, and the words can be quite long. It’s a bit hard for a lot of our mob to learn language, because we are so used to just speaking English that it’s a bit of a challenge. When you come to learn language as adults, it’s always another added challenge. So we tend to kind of make it easier, I think.

JOHN HARMS: How many Indigenous languages were spoken on the continent?

JEANIE BELL: Originally they say there was between 500 to 600 dialects, and between 250 to 300 different language groups or language families.

JOHN HARMS: And of those languages, how many would have been subject to the sort of research that you’ve done?

JEANIE BELL: Quite a few, I’d say. Since probably the 1950s there’s been a lot of work done by linguists attached to universities or to other bodies of linguistic research. So there’s been a lot of documentation and recording of language that’s happened. One of the things that linguists like to do, particularly when they are in career positions as linguists, is they like to go out and collect language and then analyse it and compare it to other languages. Part of that is also towards the contribution being made to linguistic biodiversity on a global level because, as you know, globally languages are severely endangered at the moment. Apparently, the languages in Australia are the most endangered. At this point in time, we only have 20 languages that have more than 1000 speakers. The biggest and fastest growing language in this country is Kriol. Kriol is spoken by 40,000 to 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the north of Australia, and there are three major dialects of Kriol. They are all English-based creoles, but they are languages in their own right. They have their own grammar and they have their own vocabulary. They originally start as contact languages, but they are now creole languages.

JOHN HARMS: Do you feel that they serve Indigenous identity well?

JEANIE BELL: I think the people that speak them do. They are very much a part of their identity. From a linguistic point of view they’re killing off our traditional languages faster in collusion with English so it’s a bit of a two-edged sword in a way.

JOHN HARMS: Of course we’ve seen with the various initiatives or actions of the Federal Government in recent times some policy regarding language and the English language in Indigenous communities. What would your advice to Mr Rudd and his department be?

JEANIE BELL: I think that my advice would be, like the advice of many others that are offering up advice to the Northern Territory government and to the Federal Government, is that children learn better if they can learn through their own language, their first language. In Australia where Indigenous languages are still spoken on a daily basis, children should be allowed to have a bilingual approach to education or what the Summer Institute of Linguistics is proposing and lobbying very strongly for is a multilingual approach to language teaching. That’s not just for Indigenous languages but for all language groups. The idea would be that children learn through their first language. Then once they’ve gained skills in literacy and numeracy in their own language or at the same time they may be learning English.

When bilingual education first started in the Northern Territory in the 1970s that was intended to be the approach, then it got changed, then it got changed a bit more, and then it got weakened. Now we are faced with a situation where they’re insisting that schools teach English for the first four hours of every school day and then, if there is time in the afternoon, they can have some instruction in their own language. But in the Northern Territory children are quite often very tired and very hungry. So after four hours of English, they would be exhausted and quite often they won’t come back to school or they’ll be quite lethargic if they are in school.

The number of language teachers in schools is quite small. We do have quite a few Indigenous education workers and quite a few of them would speak their own languages. Particularly in Arnhem Land, around the Western Desert of the Northern Territory, and in South Australia in places like Yuendumu, Willowra and Lajamanu, which are the big Warlpiri communities in the Western Desert, and a little bit on the east coast where Catholic education run schools at places like Port Keates and Daly River and places like Bathurst Island. There are a lot of different situations. The Catholic education department has a different approach, but really there are schools in Arnhem Land that are still continuing to teach through their own languages - and they are Yolngu schools. They’ve just stood their ground and they’ve been able to negotiate a bit of a compromise with the new CEO of the Department of Education and Training. So that’s working well for them, I think.

JOHN HARMS: Do those communities train their own teachers, or does Batchelor have…?

JEANIE BELL: Batchelor trains a lot of the teachers. We train Indigenous education workers as well as primary education teachers and also early childhood teachers. Charles Darwin University is also venturing into that area as well.

JOHN HARMS: It might be a good time to open it up for questions.

QUESTION: Not so much a question as an identification: You can understand from my accent that I come from Ireland originally. We were occupied for hundreds of years by the British, and it was rather an unpleasant experience in lots of ways. The language was one of the identifiers of nation, and the language was suppressed, as in the situation here on this continent. Our reward wasn’t just having our mouths washed out with soap and water; it would have been hot lead or dangling at the end of a rope, which was rather an unpleasant experience. It wasn’t until the Free State was achieved in 1922 that the language was re-established in the official areas. It has been restored practically fully, one might say, by having all documentation in the EU [European Union] translated into Gaelic. So it’s one of the official languages and stands beside French, English and German.

One of our famous patriots, a man by the name of O’Donovan Rossa, while he was being buried Thomas Davis gave the oration and described language as a more important barrier than a fortress or river. As you said, it definitely identifies a people. Thank you very much.

JEANIE BELL: Thank you.

JOHN HARMS: We’ll take that as a comment. What’s your feeling, Jeanie, about the possibility of restoration of language? I know you’ve suggested that there are very few examples from around the world.

JEANIE BELL: That’s one of them.

JOHN HARMS: Yes. With Gubbi Gubbi and Badjala, would you see it being taken up even by a small number of people?

JEANIE BELL: Well Badjala has actually had quite a successful journey. One of my cousins has been teaching the language in Hervey Bay along with some other people who support her, and she did some training with me when I taught at the Cairns TAFE College. We were teaching an Indigenous language workers courses. She’s now also doing her BA in Language and Linguistics at the Batchelor Institute. She’s just about finished. But she’s been teaching the language for a number of years. I did go back there to work for a couple of years after I’d done my thesis to help them develop materials and also to teach the language to some adults, particularly young men who were wanting to write new dance songs, new corroborees.

They’ve also had a journalist come to live in Hervey Bay, I think it was two years ago now, and she wanted to run a series of Badjala language programs in the Hervey Bay Chronicle, and she consulted with the local Aboriginal organization. They agreed to support that idea. She used the dictionary that I had produced, and it’s been incredibly successful. They nominated themselves – I think the journalist might have done the nomination - for a United Nations peace award for reconciliation and have received it two years in a row. They are now being supported by the Queensland Government to teach the Badjala language in local schools. That is a success.

JOHN HARMS: That’s in place now, Jeanie?

JEANIE BELL: It is about to happen. We are negotiating how it’s going to work. But it has been really successful and I still give support in whatever ways I can. Joy and I talk a lot about what’s happening with the program and we together come up with new ideas. She talks to lots of other people. The State Library of Queensland is supporting - I know that Roley is involved with the State Library - language preservation and revival in terms of documenting, producing resources and helping people do research on their languages. Yes, there are a number of really good things.

You can look at the Kaurna language program in South Australia that has been going in Adelaide for probably 10 or 15 years and they’ve got a school where they teach the Kaurna language all the time.

In Western Australia there are a number of schools that support language learning through their Languages other than English program. They train their own teachers to do language teaching, which has been fantastic. It’s had a few issues but it’s working quite well.

The New South Wales Government has developed and endorsed a policy for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools, and that has gone quite well to my understanding. I know there are some glitches where people felt they weren’t being given a proper place in the system. They were being brought in to teach the language but they weren’t necessarily being given the rewards or respect of their role, because they weren’t trained teachers in a lot of cases in the formal sense.

I think there are a lot of success stories. There are different levels of success. It’s what the community regards as success. The University of Sydney has a program for training Indigenous teachers to be language teachers. They have a very strong program going in Victoria where they’ve got training happening through Gippsland TAFE. There are a number of things that are going on. While there are some programs that start and don’t go anywhere - they might go for a little while and then they fall down, because there is not the resources or funding - that happens certainly, but there are lots of good stories about what’s happening.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: You spoke briefly about the dangers of using oral history and relying on it too much, but my question was: is oral history useful in maintaining the language and carrying the language forward to the people in the future; and also to what extent do English words get picked up and adapted into the language?

JEANIE BELL: I think oral history is extremely important and part of our traditional practice is stories that are passed down through the generations, as it is with most cultures. Obviously there are those things that happen where people kind of change bits here and maybe exaggerate a point here and miss out some other important information, but at the same time it is a very valuable tool in language and in culture, and just generally in passing down history. Sorry, I’m not sure I understand your question about English.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I was just wondering as English has adopted and picked up words from other languages as it goes on, to what extent is that happening with the Indigenous language where it picks up English?

JEANIE BELL: Quite a bit. Obviously you see lots of Indigenous words everywhere you go, particularly with place names in Australia but there are other words that have been adopted into the English language. The languages of Arnhem Land have adopted words from Macassan, because they had a long history of association with the Macassans who came to the Arafura Sea. And the same on the west coast with the Malay languages, with the people that interacted with the Aboriginal groups on the west coast. The same would have been here. But yes, we’ve certainly adopted and even in Aboriginal English it’s both ways. We change words in English. We don’t always use English the way other people use English, but we also use a lot of Aboriginal words. Occasionally the meanings of the words might change. So yes, it does happen I think all the time.

JOHN HARMS: Time is getting away, Jeanie. We thank you so much. You’ve come all the way from Alice Springs going all the way back to Darwin. I was really thrilled that you could make it here.

JEANIE BELL: Thanks for inviting me. [applause]

Date published: 12 July 2010