mǁnmB01ǁnmnRPn02/27, 2002

Language revitalization: revival of Warrungu (Australia) and maintenance of Maori (New Zealand)

Tasaku Tsunoda

(B01 Group)

There is a field of academic activities that is very closely related to language documentation, namely, language revitalization. In this essay I will talk about two specific instances of language revitalization: revival of Warrungu (Australia) and maintenance of Maori (New Zealand).

Warrungu of North Queensland, Australia

In the early 1970s, when I was an M.A. student of Monash University, Melbourne, I conducted fieldwork on Warrungu and a few other languages that used to be spoken in an area that includes Townsville, North Queensland. At that time, Dr. Peter Sutton, who was an M.A. student of Macquarie University, Sydney, was carrying out research in the same area, his main focus being on Gugu-Badhun. Dr. Sutton and I recorded these languages from the last speakers. They passed away, and the languages became extinct.

Mr. Alf Palmer (R) and Tasaku Tsunoda (L)
Palm Island, Queensland, Australia
25th (?) September, 1974


Mr. Alf Palmer (R), Dr. Peter Sutton (C), and Mr. Johnny Flinders (L)
(a speaker of the Flinders Island language of Queensland)
Palm Island, Queensland, Australia
24th (?) September, 1974

In the case of languages that seem to have no or little chance of survival, the last speakers often wish, and indeed make every effort, to have their language recorded. This heartfelt desire and commitment were best expressed by the late Mr. Alf Palmer (Warrungu name: Jinbilnggay), the last fluent speaker of Warrungu, who used to say to me: eIfm the last one to speak Warrungu. When I die, this language will die. Ifll teach you everything I know, so put it down properlyf. Indeed, Mr. Palmer made admirable efforts to teach me everything he knew. Also, in retrospect he taught me the importance of documenting endangered languages.

As in every fieldwork situation, the fieldwork was not easy, but I persevered.

Now, more than a quarter century later, a few groups of people there are planning the revival of their ancestral languages and cultures, and they have approached Dr. Sutton and me, requesting us to assist their activities. In March 2000, I visited Townsville, for the first time since 1974, after 26 years since my last visit there ! The visit was followed by another visit in March 2001.

Many of the people involved in the language revival activities turned out to be grandchildren of the last speakers whom Dr. Sutton and I had recorded in the early 1970s. The visits were like visiting old friends or relations. Although I had never met them previously (except for Mrs. Rachel Cummins, who is Mr. Palmerfs granddaughter), they already knew about Dr. Sutton and me, and about our work. Some of them had obtained copies of the relevant field tapes from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra (with which I lodge all my field tapes), and they even knew my voice !

As mentioned above, the fieldwork on these languages was not easy, but all the hardship that I had experienced during that fieldwork was obliterated when I was welcomed back to the community with their remark: eWe are grateful that you recorded our languagesf.

Now, there is one particularly interesting aspect of this language revival movement, and this has to do with pride, self-esteem, and interest in a language that has been enhanced by a unique linguistic feature that the language possessed. During my visit there in March 2000, I was requested to write a (non-technical) book which surveys the languages of the region. After returning to Japan, I prepared a proposal of the book, and took it with me on my next visit there, one year later, in March 2001. One day, I was discussing it with Mrs. Rachel Cummins (who is Mr. Alf Palmerfs granddaughter) and her family. In the proposal, I describe one aspect of the Warrungu language as follows:

eWarrungu (and possibly Gugu-Badhun as well) had a phenomenon that linguists call esyntactic ergativityf. This phenomenon is extremely unique among the worldfs languages. It mainly occurs in Australia, and in fact, mainly in north Queensland. It occurs in Warrungu, Jirrbal, Mamu, Girramay, Ngadjan (of Malanda), Yidiny (of Cairns), and so on. Because this phenomenon is extremely unique among the worldfs languages, it is a very important part of the cultural heritage not only for the people of this area, but also for the entire human beings.f

Upon hearing this description, Knomi (who is Mrs. Cumminsf daughter and Mr. Palmerfs great-granddaughter) said, eIfm curiousf. Later, after I had returned to Japan, Tahlia (who is another daughter of Mrs. Cumminsf) said she wanted to come over to Japan to study Warrungu with me. So, the knowledge of the existence of a truly unique phenomenon in their ancestral language has inspired these young people. Also, this has raised Warrungu peoplefs sense of pride, self-esteem and interest in their ancestral language.

Mr. Palmerfs dedicated efforts to have his language documented have proved to be truly worthwhile, and what he had sowed more than a quarter century ago are now beginning to be harvested by his descendants. This is a highly gratifying experience.

I hope to visit these people again, in March 2002, and I am now preparing lessons on Warrungu, with a focus on syntactic ergativity !!!

Maori of New Zealand

Maori peoplefs activities to maintain their language are no doubt the best known and most advanced among all the language revitalization movements in the world, so in August 2001 I visited New Zealand to observe their activities and learn from their experiences. I visited two places: Rotorua (North Island) and Christchurch (South Island).

Rotorua is an area where the Maaori culture is strongest, while on the other hand Christchurch is highly urbanized. This enabled me to observe the Maori language situation in two, almost polar-opposite settings.

In Rotorua, I visited the following.

(a) One language nest, i.e. an immersion preschool, where all children, teachers, and mothers speak only in Maori during the classes. (They speak English outside the class hours.)

(b) One immersion school, where the classes are conducted entirely in Maori. All the teachers and the students speak only Maori during the classes (they speak English outside the class hours), and the textbooks and other teaching materials, too, are entirely in Maori. (This particular school is a combination of a primary school and a secondary school.)

(c) One Maori university. It is only starting, and no classes are conducted as yet.

(d) One Anglican Church, where I observed a meeting and a Sunday morning service conducted both in Maori and English.

In Christchurch, I visited the following.

(e) One language nest.

(f) One immersion school. Its organization is the same as that described in (b).

(g) One bilingual school, where the classes are conducted in both Maori and English.

(h) One non-governmental Maori organization called Ngai Tahu Corporation, where research on, and promotion activities for, Maaori are carried out.

(i) Department of Maori, University of Canterbury, where the history, culture, society, language, etc. of Maori people are taught. Most of the faculty members are Maori people.

I was truly impressed and overwhelmed. Naturally enough, the children speak English during the breaks at the language nests and schools. However, it is truly wonderful that at the language nest in Christchurch, during free play time, I heard one or two children speaking Maori. This is in the middle of a Christchurch suburb !!!!

I do hope to utilize what I learned there for the revitalization of Warrungu and other languages of North Queensland, Australia.

I was also struck — and saddened — by the difference between the Maori situation on one hand and the Ainu situation in Japan on the other. For example, to my knowledge, Ainu people do not have anything like an Ainu immersion preschool or school. Nor is there any Department of Ainu at any university in Japan, not even at the University of Hokkaido. University professors who were Ainu people are just unthinkable in the Japanese context. Obviously, the Japanese government, and also Japanese people, have a lot to learn from the New Zealand government and people.