June 03, 2007

Punishing speakers of Australian aboriginal languages

In Australia the Indigenous Affairs minister, Mal Brough, declared on May 24 that "he was considering a plan to restrict welfare payments to aboriginal parents in order to force their children to attend school and learn English." As if the linguistically fascinating but severely endangered Australian languages were not under enough threat already. Brough is concerned that there are some aborigines in isolated areas who "can only speak their own language, which perhaps is only known to 200, 300 or 400 other people." Quite: these languages are at the lower threshold of size with respect to having a sustainable populations of speakers. So his idea is to cut their welfare for not learning the language of the dominant majority. Will Australia never change?

The Economist (June 2, 2007, p. 43) incorrectly attributes Brough's remarks to prime minister John Howard, but correctly notes that for many years Howard has steadfastly refused, despite huge public pressure, to offer any kind of official apology to the aborigines for their appalling treatment by white Australians. The story cites Laklak Burarrwanga of Yirrkala as reporting that she was made to wash out her mouth with soap if she was caught speaking her aboriginal language at school. Worse used to go on: aboriginal children were literally kidnapped by the state and taken away against their parents' protests to be educated far away in English-speaking schools. Brough continues that English-by-force tradition, urging that aborigines to be required to learn English so that they can be absorbed into the mainstream of Australian culture — in other words, so that aboriginal languages and cultures can die and aborigines can become just a dark-skinned under-privileged substratum of English-speaking Australian society.

Plenty could be done to improve the lot of aborigines in Australia without doing anything to insist on their learning English (which is probably going to happen anyway, along with the extinction of the aboriginal languages). Australia has a lot to atone for. Such atonement will probably not occur. The racist politician Pauline Hanson of Queensland is now out of jail (she was convicted for wrongly claiming electoral funding through the fraudulent registration of party members; she was later acquitted on appeal) and is forming a new racist party for the aborigine-haters to vote for. She's not likely to amount to much politically, but the sad fact is that part of John Howard's enormous political success over the years has depended on making sure that he panders to the Pauline Hanson end of the spectrum — the aggrieved white voters who are hostile to both immigrants and aborigines — and scoops up plenty of their votes.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 3, 2007 08:55 PM