MDFF 31 March 2018

Mother Tongue

Halo vrienden,

When we lived in the Netherlands, my sister was a 7 year old child. Years later I learned that she was very unhappy about having again been uprooted when we moved to Australia.

Sixty years later her son paid a visit to the Netherlands and found his way to the little house in Loosdrecht where his mother had spent some happy childhood time. On taking a photo, a very large threatening resident emerged, demanding (in Dutch) to know why he was taking photos. The big Dutchman found the (English) explanation (“a long time ago some of my family lived here”) unacceptable and demanded that Paul hand over his mobile phone. Paul decided to make a quick retreat and walked away (with his phone) being glared at all the way to the corner of the street.

My sister wrote the Dutchman a letter:

“ Vorige week kreeg ik een leuke verrassing, toen ik een foto kreeg van het huis waar ik vroeger wat onvergetelijke fijne jaren heb doorgebracht.

Wat akelig dat U zo onaardig was tegenover mijn keurige lieve zoon, na dat hij had uitgelegd waarom hij die foto nam. Zonde dat zogenaamde beschaafde inwoners van Loosdrecht niet altijd even vriendelijk meer zijn.

Nou ja, U heeft dus niet een mooie indruk gemaakt.

Beleefdheid kost niets”

Always in translation, some of the nuances of the original is lost- I’ll do my best-

“Last week, I had a lovely surprise when I was given a photo of the house I had in the past spent some unforgettable enjoyable years in.

How dreadful that you were so unfriendly to my decent dear son, after he gave an explanation of why he was taking that photo. A pity that so called civilized Loosdrecht denizens, are no longer always all too friendly.

Oh well, thus you haven’t created a good impression.

Politeness doesn’t cost a thing.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, it again illustrates why it is so important to retain one’s mother tongue. That letter is in essence a part of my sister.

Last week when my nephew was tromping through Europe, some contractors came to Yuendumu to re-seal the driveway and parking lot of our clinic. The clinic is opposite my office in Park Street (named after a no longer existing park). I’m not aware if locals were consulted about the need for this work, but I do know that the fine sealing aggregate they used is most unpleasant to walk on in bare feet, something that a significant portion of Yuendumu residents still do (by choice, not because they cannot afford footwear).

A subcontractor (Darwin based Arafura Traffic Control) turned up with a few of those “men at work” signs….. Men at Work- Who can it be now?

, and wait for it….. a high vis clad lollipop lady. She was there a full day holding up a red-yellow Stop/Slow sign. Locals were overjoyed. The contractors that have been installing road-side kerbs (another essential Yuendumu improvement) didn’t bother with lolly-pop people. Millie- My Boy Lollipop

And of greater relevance…. They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot….

Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell in concert 1970

The bilingual programme (Warlpiri/English) at Yuendumu school, started in 1974. Success has waxed and waned ever since. A low point came nearly a decade ago in October 2008 when bilingual education was virtually killed in the Northern Territory by the so called “4 hours English only policy”

Low NAPLAN results were sheeted home to bilingual education. The premise that school children in suburban Melbourne would fail miserably should they be tested in other than their mother tongue (e.g. in Warlpiri) received scant consideration.

One of Kim Beazley Senior (The Whitlam Government’s Minister of Education)’s first initiatives was to arrange for Aboriginal children to be taught in schools in their own language, with English as a second language.  He is quoted to have said that to deny people an education in their own language (i.e. mother tongues) – with the caveat “where that is possible” was tantamount to treat them as a conquered people and to deny them respect.

At around the same time as my sister and I embarked on learning a language other than our mother tongue, namely English, Professor Strelow penned these words (I never tire to repeat):

“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 will 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 civilized people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement.”
– T.G.H Strelow,1958

I say amén to that.

In Yuendumu we nurtured the flickering candle  Candle in the Wind…. Elton John

which was a memory of bilingual education preceding the ‘4 hours English only’ policy. Gradually the status of the Warlpiri language is being resurrected at Yuendumu School. Around the same time as we were being kept safe by the lollypop lady in Park Street, at the School Council AGM, the new Principal of Yuendumu School outlined his vision of a future bilingual /bicultural school. This is following several years of a very supportive Principal.

As I heard it said when you put a tank in reverse the flattened ground doesn’t immediately spring back to its former glory. But we are working on it… and we don’t need a lollypop person to do so.

D:ream Things can only get better….

Tot ziens