May 28, 2014

The subtle devaluing of Aboriginal languages

I just had a small talk conversation with a stranger that went something like this:
Me: I'm a linguist and I work on Aboriginal languages.
Them: Oh cool, what languages do you speak?
Me: Well I know bits of all the languages around here (i.e. Ngukurr) but Kriol is my strongest language apart from English.
Them: But do you know other languages too?
Me: Oh well yeah I know a bit of German and I was an exchange student in Iceland so I learned Icelandic a long time ago...
Notice that when I tell them I know Aboriginal languages, it doesn't satisfy or fully answer their question? They want to know more: what other languages do you know, as in what real languages do you know. I've had this conversation many times. Enough to recognise it as a clear sign that Aboriginal languages aren't seen as equal to foreign languages.

This subtle devaluing is revealed in other ways too, such as when Average-Jos refer to Aboriginal languages as 'dialects' in casual conversation. Here's another dialogue I've had many time before:
Me: I work on Aboriginal languages
Them: Oh, there are heaps of dialects, aren't there?
Me: Languages. They're distinct languages, actually.
As Ruth Singer pointed out in the comments of her and Rachel Nordlinger's very excellent recent article:
... Indigenous languages are affected by a general prejudice pertaining to Indigenous cultural assets. I find that people often refer to them as 'dialects' perhaps because this term does not imply anything with as much status as a 'language'.
These are such subtle put-downs that denigrate Aboriginal languages that you'd barely even notice. And I also find that people who talk like this are almost always well-meaning. When I tell people that I know Icelandic, I can see the gleam in their eye that I've given them a great answer and I feel validated or a bit special. "Wow, how did you learn that?" The flipside though is that I feel rotten that telling someone that I know some Marra and speak Kriol fluently is insufficient and I don't know what else... obscure, irrelevant, a waste of time?
I'm sorry to any readers who recognise themselves talking like this. I don't mean to make anyone feel bad. This way of speaking about Aboriginal languages is incredibly widespread and common so I would never hold it against anyone. But I do hope that I've demonstrated that even friendly conversations reveal that it's very common for Aboriginal languages to be subtly devalued and not afforded the same status as foreign languages.


akerbeltzalba said...

I think this is, to some extent, overspill from the American usage of calling everything but English a dialect. Annoys me intensely too though.

But then, languages in general are quite 'rough' at naming other people and languages. Basques historically distinguish mainly 'Euskara' (lit. speak-way-the) and 'Erdara' (literal meaning unclear but it means 'any language not Basque). Not the most rude but not polite either.

But I feel for you. Every small language has these 'conversations', top of the list in Scotland is 'Gaelic? Isn't that a dead language?' ...
Would be nice, wouldn't it, if people were a bit more respectful?

Erika Charola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.