• Northern Territory Indigenous communities are suffering from chronic housing shortages. (AAP)Source: AAP
Comment: 'Itne arratye angketyakenhe': ‘They don't talk right'. How does language continue to influence those who already have such rich, spiritual and cultural beliefs?
Joel Perrurle Liddle

7 Jul 2017 - 10:10 AM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2017 - 10:20 AM

Being in business can be lucrative. If you know your product, monitor your finances, pay your bills, recruit the right personnel and understand your market there's endless wealth to be generated. On the flip-side, running an inefficient business model has disastrous consequences and can leave you looking for a new career. 

How important is marketing a product to clientele? Essential, one would assume. One could also assume it’s just as essential to adjust your marketing strategy to suit potential customers.

Let’s play a game and use multi-national corporate giant, Coca-Cola as an example. We’ll be the CEO’s and our job can be ‘to market Coco-Cola to a non-English speaking country’. I’d be willing to bet our marketing strategy would include print, TV and radio campaigns in the language of our future clients? Spanish, French, Navajo perhaps? If we didn’t, how would our prospective clients understand what we are selling? How could we expect our audience to understand and buy our product?

My point is; in remote Australia the age old (and current) model for remote engagement continues to reap less than stellar returns. Programs and policies are concocted in Darwin or Canberra where delivery in Aboriginal languages would be lucky to feature on the afterthought list. In the process, Billions continue to be spent with minimal return on investment on social policy experiments. Employees flock to communities spreading the word on all manner of government ‘products’ like taking care of the kids, mining developments, health and wellbeing, mediating fights, managing pets and animals, food safety, land rights and native title, housing and the newest employment programs that promise to end socioeconomic disadvantage. Despite these amazing “products”, they are marketed in English and frustratingly for our clientele; they can’t tell who’s responsible for what - or which new Prado 4x4 belongs to which agency. Undoubtedly in Australia we need to be literate and numerate in English, however the learning of English should not be at the expense of mother tongues. Being fully literate in one’s first language ensures an easy transition into acquiring English. Just look at the multilingualism success of European countries and the endless research into the benefits of attaining multiple languages.

The Intervention years burnt more than $1 billion. What were the outcomes? Are there more people employed? No! Is there less alcohol and substance related harm? No! Are less people in jail? (Big) NO! What about Closing the Gap? Has it created more jobs, better health, safety for children, literacy and numeracy (insert family feud buzzer here*) No! The Intervention was just another example of failed social policy concocted off site and forced down the throats of remote Aboriginal people in English. To many of our remote people, ‘Closing the Gap’ makes questionable sense. After all, how would we get to the airport in Alice Springs if ‘The Gap’ was closed and who’s paying for all of the concrete? Why close up one of the most significant sacred sites in the region?

We’ve been selling heat waves to polar bears for so long that it’s now core business and a multi-billion dollar industry exists for service delivery to remote Aboriginal people. Our business model features staff turnover so large that in some agencies sticking around for 6 months makes you an 'old hand'. Endless amounts of money are spent on TA, wages, training and recruitment processes. Staff arrive so motivated and well-meaning yet burn out at unprecedented rates because of fundamental communication breakdowns and apathy from seeing a lack of change in the bush. Despite this agencies and politicians continue to talk all manner of programs, policy and legal terms to Aboriginal people in highly complex, convoluted English and expect they will decode the messages.

Let me be clear; the following is not me advocating for religion or missionaries or the wrong doings of historical assimilation - it's only an example of continued engagement through Aboriginal language. One of the most interesting paradox’s I’ve come across in remote Australia is the range of religious beliefs. Christian, Pentecostal, Methodist, Lutheran and other values exist depending on the community. How does religion continue to influence those who already have such rich, spiritual and cultural beliefs?  

Their success can be attributed to their core business strategy of engaging with Aboriginal languages. Bibles, psalms, songs and sermons are all held in traditional languages on a weekly basis. The churches ongoing engagement with local language has converted even the most unlikely, traditionally minded, non-English speaking Aboriginal people. What does this say about current Governments if the often maligned Churches continues to succeed in engagement with remote Australia?

Yet, Governments' forced English agenda continues its failed legacy. People in the bush still sign their name with an ‘X’ because they can’t write or spell. Meanwhile bilingual programs have been scrapped and made the scapegoat for poor English literacy which has served to completely disengage our mob. The former ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ was steadfast on English learning at the expense of our mother tongues. However, one only needs to look around Australia at the trauma and misery inflicted upon Aboriginal people through the loss of languages and you will still similar rates of social dysfunction to remote Australia. Often the argument for forcing language extinction through policy is ‘Aboriginal languages are not a priority – we need kids going to school, people in jobs and talking English'. This is strategic assimilation. Incredible also is that governments can find resources to invest in new high rise court houses, bigger prisons, increasing law enforcement and corrections budgets, judges and lawyers, recruiting remote engagement ‘specialists’ and remote policy implementation. While we continue to deliver initiatives in English, Aboriginal people are blamed as the reason behind our ever expanding list of policy failures and money continues to be wasted.

It's only through my own Eastern-Central Arrernte language learning journey that I’ve come to realise the serious mistakes we are making in engaging with our audience. Peculiarly, I’ve also learnt that the worldwide web makes it's easier and more accessible to learn a foreign language in Australia than learning a local Aboriginal tongue. Limitless learning materials exist including YouTube, DVD’s, TV series', and music and internet language exchange programs. Why it that there’s so is limited access to Aboriginal language learning considering the issues the mainstream has with articulating and selling its agendas?

This system needs a serious overhaul. We need to engage local language specialists, linguists and those with language passion to articulate complex policies, programs and lifestyle messages. The recent Constitutional Convention at Uluru only further demonstrated this point. Respected Anangu demanded that such discussions needed to take place in local languages to allow for proper engagement and conversation. Despite this (and surprisingly) a delegation of frustrated visiting Aboriginal people prematurely left the conference, ignoring local people’s need to unpack the highly complex discussion (with interpreters) in their own languages to fully be involved in the process. Anangu's request fell on deaf ears. What needs to be understood is that many remote Aboriginal people have no understanding of terms like constitutional recognition, treaty, referendum, policy and governance, Closing the Gap, western law or English language nuances. Therefore it’s everyone’s responsibility to be mindful that such big ticket items require translation, local language delivery, education and patience.

Aboriginal people in the bush have a right to choice, but without any understanding, we take away this basic human right. Those of us with the mainstream tongue have the ability to be fully informed and make choices as a result. The power group needs to understand that by continuing to sell products in English, we remove this right from our clientele.

Commonly entrepreneurs say: “If you do the same thing you've always done, you will get the same result you've always gotten”. If we don’t change our business model we will continue to sell products that don’t meet the needs of our clients – or sand to the desert. Our inefficient engagement model has had achieved minimal outcomes despite huge investment. While language advocacy has continued, unheard, for decades remote Aboriginal people today live with the mainstream's failure to properly engage and deliver products clearly. We need to accept that Aboriginal languages will continue to be spoken and adjust our business model to suit. As a result of real engagement we will get more bang for buck on programs and policies while ensuring we nurture our privileged position of learning and working with ancient Australian Aboriginal languages. 

“Above all, let us permit native children to keep their own languages – those beautiful and expressive tongues, rich in true Australian imagery, charged with poetry and with love for all that is great, ancient and eternal in the continent. There is no need to fear that their own languages with interfere with the learning of English as the common medium of expression for all Australians. In most areas of Australia, the natives have been bilingual, probably from time immemorial. Today white Australians are among the few remaining civilised people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement” – TGH Strehlow, 1958.

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