The below is an article by Dr Rivka Niesten from Curtin University, Perth, who travelled to Adelaide for the Adelaide Language Festival in May 2014.
The inaugural Adelaide Language Festival is the brainchild of Prof Ghil'ad Zuckermann, who is trying to revive languages, which are endangered or are, as he puts it, "sleeping beauties". Both he and the keynote speaker Prof Roly Sussex are tireless ambassadors for language and culture throughout the world. It was a privilege to attend this event and have riveting conversations about things such as the Klingon language, how to say "miikuwamarti" (may the crows peck out your eyes) in Kaurna, finding the root word for ferrets and learning that the word "achi" (meaning brother) is used in Israel in the same way we use "mate" in Australia.
So much of a person's identity is tied to the language and culture of his/her people. Ghil'ad showed moving clips about the stolen generation of Barngarla (Eyre Peninsula, South Australia) people and their pride in regaining their language. Prof Kent Anderson gave an insight into his own story of several failures before achieving success in a language other than English. He broke people studying language into the linguists/teacher and tourists, with most people being in the latter category. He believes that with only 12% of upper school student taking a language, that language learning should be compulsory in Australia.
People at the festival had the opportunity to learn the basics of 30 different languages, some of which I had never heard of before. Chinese, which is seen as a very difficult language was demystified and we learned some basic expressions as well as acquired understanding of some simple Chinese characters. One language being reclaimed in India is Sanskrit. As language is a product of society and it is hard to learn from a series of rules and limited examples. As one person at the festival wrote: "it was a great opportunity for me to hear Sanskrit being taught firsthand rather than from text books". Indeed, many people attended this festival and enjoyed learning a variety of languages there.
Language is a very important area, which has suffered from neglect in the schools and has been the area of maximal slash and burn in universities throughout Australia for a number of years. While the Federal Minister for Education proposed some new initiatives in the area of language, I strongly feel that an online language learning program for pre-schoolers would be both more expensive and less successful that providing a number of native speakers as teacher aids/teachers to allow children to learn a second language naturally, in the same way they learn their mother tongue.
Let this festival be a wake up call to the government. Not only are there languages that are almost extinct, but also we have language programs and linguists/language teachers who are also "sleeping beauties" and are awaiting the kiss of the prince to wake them up.
by Dr Rivka Niesten,Curtin University