Saturday, 8 March 2014

A lesson in language

Recreation centre, Yirrkala.
As an English speaker it is far too simple to overlook the importance of other languages. We are ‘lucky’ in having English as our first language—it’s global and it’s dominant, but what are the consequences of enforcing this presumed dominance on others? And more importantly what are we missing by adopting this mindset?

Pre-colonisation, the nation, now known as Australia, was home to several hundred Indigenous Nations, each with its own language, identity and its own lore. Over the last 225 years, Australia, to its detriment, has seen a significant loss of these languages—every year more are lost and the knowledge with them. Christine Nicholls, among others, has written extensively about this – you will find some articles on The Conversation (and you can see my somewhat heated debate with an eighty-four year old man).

Language is intrinsic in gaining a deeper understanding of a given culture and being in Arnhem Land has brought this to light. I will put my hand up and state that I am a complete novice when it comes to speaking Yolngu Matha (Matha being a term to cover the variety of Yolngu languages spoken in Arnhem Land), but what I am is willing to learn. Not only would learning Yongu words allow me to understand the culture at a more significant level, it would also provide me with the skill to converse with Yolngu people and connect with them on a personal level, therefore enabling me to immerse myself in the culture more richly. Some aspects of culture and language do not translate into English and like understanding Yolngu moieties, understanding Yolngu Matha can help close this gap. Of course, there are some aspects of Yolngu Matha that I am not privy to, and nor should I be, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of understanding the traditional tongue.

There is also an element of authority and dominance in enforcing the use of English in a place where it is not necessarily the first language of many—many Yolngu people speak two, three, sometimes four languages, English being their fifth.

I hear stories of peoples’ travels to France and how unaccommodating the French are to people who butcher their language—and I think, well, why not? Why as English speaking Westerners do we presume that everyone should speak our language? Where is the harm in learning the basics, at a minimum?

I have been schooled multiple times in the past week on speaking Yolngu words properly and it is through these lessons that I have come to understand the dominant nature of English. As all readers, I put my prior understanding of letter sounds to the forefront of my mind and pronounce words with this mindset—and I couldn’t be more wrong. There are some combinations that are uncommon in English, others that have simply been written down in a poor phonetic translation and further still, others have been pronounced incorrectly to me in the first instance.

There is a skill in adopting a new language, any new language, and it has huge cognitive benefits. I have become increasingly aware of the shape and movement of my tongue when forming new, well any words, really. And, yet, there seems to be a certain level of taboo, denial and outright disrespect in learning Indigenous languages. Languages that hold a beauty as iconic as the sound of a twanging banjo; lyrical slices of cake that grab you by the gullet and can tell you so much more about this country called Australia.

A romanticised fascination is incited about learning European languages and it strikes me that at the prospect of overseas travel we will go and pick up a copy of Lonely Planet with a language guide, but we are don’t consider learning languages available in our own backyard. Odd, no?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Hog Shed

A mishmash of musicians jamming in shed, it doesn’t get better than this—musically speaking. You can have talent defying the four colorbond walls, shaking the foundation and sending the trees into a frenzy or you can have skill the size of my left pinky finger – it doesn’t matter – all and sundry are welcome to get up and let their soul soar through the medium of music.

The atmosphere is electric with plastic chairs and tables under the shade of native trees; buffalo horns mounted on the wall; a fridge with cartoon graffiti; locally speared succulent crayfish cooking on the barbie, drizzled with garlic butter; a gangly-legged dingo pup finding his feet amongst the staid mutts lying about; a makeshift stage as inviting as the last pub stool in the front bar. Perfection. Disharmony in Feng Shui equals harmony in the general air of bonding with and/or playing music.

Bold bluesy numbers reverberate throughout the sandy industrial lot enticing foot tapping and head-bobbing, and a merry sing-a-long, too. Classic tunes are made over and built on for the love of what musicians do and the simple power of music. And just when you think you know all the tracks echoing through the land, a gentle voiced songstress graces the stage with folk inspired renditions of past decades’ best hits. The Beatles’ tunes played solely on a flute and a guitar before someone voluntarily jumps on stage and adds a bit of bass— and why not make it a slap bass, just for the hell of it?

If in Arnhem Land – no, when in Arnhem Land –  you must visit The Hog Shed on a Sunday night; the perfect way to close your weekend and start your week fresh.