Aboriginal English: It’s all in the yarning
Australian Aboriginal English is an indigenised variety of English that is spoken by approximately 80% of First Nations people in Australia. It is the first and only language for many Aboriginal children and is often incorrectly described as ‘broken English’.
An important feature of this oral language is yarning, or storytelling. Yarning is highly dramatic, using facial expression, variation in tone and volume, and gestures and body language. Aboriginal English yarning makes it possible to communicate experiences and knowledge unique to First Nations people in Australia.
For Aboriginal English speakers, everyday interactions such as applying for a job, filling in forms, going to the doctor, reading signs, and even attending school can present challenges. These challenges are particularly pronounced when people and institutions assume that the English used by Aboriginal people is a ‘broken’ version of standarised English. Still, Aboriginal English has been a powerful carrier of cultural and ethnic identity, and through yarning it has been able to thrive.
“Yarning has carried on from first contact, through everything that’s happening to our people and happened. It’s Aboriginal English that has helped hold on to the culture and the language.”, Ms G Collard, UWA
Women of many words
Ms Glenys Collard is a Southwest Nyungar woman and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia (UWA) School of Social Sciences. She and Dr Celeste Rodriguez Louro from the Discipline of Linguistics met in 2011 when Celeste arrived to UWA as a Lecturer in Linguistics in the School of Social Sciences.
For Ms Collard, Aboriginal English is an identifier to her community (mob). Although working and publishing in this space for some time, it was through her research with Professors Ian Malcom and Alan Dench that Ms Collard was able to identify the differences between standardised Australian English, Nyungar language and Aboriginal English.
“Now I’m a great great grandmother. I need you to not exclude my people as they’re comin’ through, because they have things to offer that aren’t in this structured world, but they are in our world, and they have important roles to play.”, Ms G Collard, UWA
Together, Ms Collard and Dr Rodriguez Louro have produced several academic articles, online publications, and podcasts. Their research has realised benefits in education and in raising awareness of heart health in First Nations communities in Australia.
Aboriginal English in the global city
In 2018, they began an Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded project titled Aboriginal English in the global city: Minorities and language change to better understand how Aboriginal English is changing and how it is used in urban Nyungar country, Perth Western Australia. A focus of the project has been the importance of culture and cross-generational yarning in Aboriginal English and offers important insight into a speaker population unique for its millennia of oral tradition.
The project aims to:
- Inform the implementation of cross-cultural teaching programs in Australia.
- Provide opportunities for teacher professional development.
- Empower and support Indigenous Australians, by documenting how Aboriginal English is changing.
The project has initiated important conversations within academia around decolonising sociolinguistic research. As well, it has created conversations around how messages are communicated to Aboriginal people in a culturally appropriate way.
“Capturing the vividness of what Aboriginal English is, with all the nuances and complexities and things we will never be able to understand. This is the spirit of the fellowship.” Dr C Rodriguez Louro, UWA
A new story to tell
In 2019 and 2020, the pair undertook fieldwork in Perth city with support from an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award and a 2019 Australian Linguistic Society Research Grant. Their approach was innovative.
Yarning was key to their data collection and was conducted via recording sessions, with participants ranging in age from 11-88 years, in parks, medical centres and on country. The yarns covered many topics, from connection between Nyungar families, to traumatic histories and memories.
Having Ms Collard’s leadership was critical to the success of the project, and in knowing where to go to collect data and who to talk to. Reflecting the way in which people live in the research and going to the places where they live – these ‘real’ settings – had never really been considered in sociolinguistic research.
The team have stimulated discussion in the media about their unique data collection methods, together with the need for acceptance of Aboriginal English. A blog post was written for Language on the Move in September 2020, a podcast aired in 2020 with linguist Daniel Midgley, in Because Language, and articles have been published in The Conversation in 2020 and 2021. As well, the team featured as speakers during the UWA Raising the Bar series of talks in 2021 and through a keynote presentation at the Oxford World English Symposium 2022. They have also recently become Aboriginal English consultants for The Oxford English Dictionary.
“There’s absolutely no way that any of this could be done properly without having a co-design and Indigenous leadership.” Dr C Rodriguez Louro, UWA
Perth and afield
In April 2021, their first co-authored paper provided reflections on the fieldwork and demonstrated how their Indigenous-led, collaborative model allowed them to record excellent exemplars of Australian Aboriginal English in a way that meant people’s voices were heard.
Further research published in May 2021 outlined some of the features that characterise Australian Aboriginal English and offers a window into the everyday lives of Indigenous people in Australia. It discusses how culture is entrenched in yarning and how yarning captures the urgent concerns and silenced histories of Aboriginal English speakers.
“They’re all in their own space, feeling safe. They didn’t have to talk, but they said, ‘sit down and have a yarn’.”, Ms G Collard, UWA
Negative attitudes toward the use of Aboriginal English can have devasting consequences for Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal children in mainstream education. Learning from their parents and community, by the time a child is of school age, standardised English is often not their first language. This places Aboriginal children at an immediate disadvantage compared with the other children in their class.
An increased understanding of Aboriginal English as a legitimate linguistic variety, and its significance, has been recognised as having a far-reaching impact on teachers and learners.
In 2007, Ms Collard worked with the WA Department of Education on the publication Ways of Being, Ways of Talk, a resource for teachers that explained the differences between Aboriginal English and standardised Australian English.
Ms Collard continues her long-standing relationship with the WA Department of Education, presenting workshops with teachers on the use of Aboriginal English and cultural nuances that should be remembered when teaching Aboriginal children.
In June 2021, the team published the Teaching and learning guide for: Australian Aboriginal English. The guide provides teachers with an understanding of Australian Aboriginal English and the importance of breaking the stigma of it being considered slang or error ridden. It offers recommended reading, a sample syllabus, and activities for students and teachers to learn and find out more.
Importantly, it delivers a solution to teachers who have Aboriginal English speakers in their class, to ensure that all children are included, and their voices heard.
“How can the teachers teach our kids? They can’t hear our kids.” Ms G Collard, UWA
A yarn or two about heart health
In early 2020, the team were approached by the Heart Foundation to assist with the production of two video booklets to promote heart health in Aboriginal communities. The initial brief requested use of ‘simple’ English, however following consultation, the videos were produced in Aboriginal English, with Ms Collard preparing the scripts as yarns.
Having Ms Collard lead the video production provided important insight into how the message could be made more accessible. The collaboration helps to set a precedent for similar media produced for First Nations communities, so that people recognise themselves in the characters, in their voices, and in what they see on the screen.
- The first video, in 2020, featured the importance of having a heart check, and when and how to have one done.
- The second video, in 2021, focused on knowing the signs of a heart attack.
It was agreed that framing the videos as yarns would be more inclusive. In fact, a consistent comment during this campaign was that the people in the video ‘talk like us.’
Producing videos in a familiar linguistic variety allows First Nations communities to relate to media directly. It also makes it possible to convey important medical information in a culturally safe way. The videos gained international attention in the New Zealand press.
“For me as a linguist, it was a wonderful experience to work with a team to produce work that is in Aboriginal English, that will maybe make a difference to communities.” Dr C Rodriguez Louro, UWA
Variation and Change
In February 2022, with support from the ARC, the team committed to writing a book together titled ‘Variation and Change in Australian Aboriginal English’. The book will be aimed at graduate students and researchers and practitioners, as part of the Cambridge University Press Studies in Language Variation series.
Ms Collard and Dr Rodriguez Louro also hope to use the book to support an online training program for teachers, to allow children globally, to have a more equitable chance at a quality education.
“How you gonna close the gap if you can’t hear? And the majority of closing the gap for Aboriginal people is about not knowing. It’s about this. Aboriginal English is big. And the culture that it’s still in, is holding our mob back for a long time.” Ms G Collard, UWA