The government reportedly plans to encourage teachers to teach children in the latter's local dialect to make them feel at home when they start school. One wonders if this has anything to do with findings from Australia or, more specifically, Murrinhpatha.
Murrinhpatha is an Australian aboriginal language spoken by some 2,500 residents of Wadeye, a town in the northwestern coast of Australia.
A picture shows a falling man whose leg is about to enter the gaping jaws of a crocodile. How would you describe the image?
If you spoke Murrinhpatha, your answer would have been any of these: Crocodile might bite person; Crocodile one person will bite; Man crocodile might bite; Young man bit crocodile; Crocodile bit. And each answer would have been right from the speaker’s perspective.
Writes Christine Kenneally in her story in Scientific American that this was one of the experiments conducted by a team led by Rachel Nordlinger, Director of the University of Melbourne's Research Unit for Indigenous Language.
The Murrinhpatha way
With minimum distracting instructions before the test, they asked 46 Murrinhpatha speakers to look at the image. An infrared tracker recorded their eye movements as they looked at the scene and spoke. The scientists found that the Murrinhpatha speakers were looking evenly and rapidly at both the characters on the image. In scientific terms, they were doing some tremendous amount of relational encoding in the first 600 milliseconds.
As Nordlinger put it, “what a speaker looked at first in a sustained way after the initial 400-millisecond window was the thing that they mentioned first.” Not that it was a rule; some focused on the second element.
The more important finding was that every individual Murrinhpatha speaker had more than five and half different ways of arranging the subject, verb and object in a sentence. In all, they produced 10 possible word orders.
What a language!
Murrinhpatha is what linguists call “polysynthetic”. A single word in this language may express action, participants, ownership and intention using a single word. The actors and the action are all entwined.
For example, how would you say in the language you are comfortable with that “he was going through our bags stealing from us”? In Murrinhpatha, you would have used a single word: mengankumayerlurlngimekardi.
As the language has a free word order, subjects, verbs and objects can occur in any position in a sentence. In practice, this means the two-year-olds of Wadeye are wielding massively complex words while most of their contemporaries elsewhere are grappling with the connection between A and Apple.
Murrinhpatha divides all nouns into 10 different classes. These are: familiar humans; all other animate beings; vegetables and other plant-based foods; language and knowledge; water; place and time; spears (used for hunting and ceremonies); weapons; inanimate things; and fire. (And to think that I had enough trouble with learning English parts of speech in school!)
Secret of survival
How did such a language survive? And how does one who speaks Murrinhpatha survive today?
Just 200 years ago, at least 300 languages were spoken by people in Australia, most of those having descended from a protolanguage spoken some 6,000 years ago. Now, only 13 are learnt by children as their first language.
After Wadeye was established as a mission, children were taken and “incarcerated” in a boarding school. Speaking the native tongue invited punishment, naturally leading to the gradual demise of several local languages.
How come children in Wadeye still speak Murrinhpatha? According to an elder who spoke to Nordlinger, “We just used to whisper”, thus keeping the language quietly alive.
Some of the locals learned Murrinhpatha from their elders and later went on to learn English in school. Now, English helps them talk to outsiders and get good jobs. However, they owe their culture and their worldview to Murrinhpatha, which they think is vital for their community. More and more indigenous people are learning this as their first language, even if they have different language histories.
What's in a language?
For Nordlinger, each language represents “a unique expression of the human experience and contains irreplaceable knowledge about the planet and people, holding within it the traces of thousands of speakers past. Each language also presents an opportunity to explore the dynamic interplay between a speaker's mind and the structures of language.”
In Wadeye, even before the children start school, elders take them out to the bush and sit with them around a fire to “teach them in language.” They describe the natural world and tell stories from the dreaming about the beings that created their world. They learn “songlines,” stories in ceremonial song that include sacred sites and the routes ancient beings took across the land. They consider these songlines a gift they got from their grandparents, a gift that they must now pass on to the next generation.
Unfortunately, languages are dying. The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded by Indigenous educators and activists in the U.S., estimates that 61 percent of languages around the world that were spoken as a first language in 1795 “are doomed or extinct.”
Early in Nordlinger's career, when she worked with a community that spoke Wambaya, the elders had requested her to help younger generations to learn the language of their ancestors. Then there were about 10 fluent speakers of Wambaya. They are all now dead, taking the language with them.
Next time you apologize to a senior member of your family because your child cannot speak your mother tongue, the only tongue they know, would you feel secretly proud because you think the child’s intelligence and prospects lie elsewhere? Or would you remedy the situation by moving your child to a new school where the teachers use the local dialect? Or, in the tech-world equivalent of the bush, look for an instructional video to teach them the songlines?
Adapted from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/grammar-changes-how-we-see-an-australian-language-shows/
Image: Created by Bing Image Creator.