Australian Endangered Languages Get Boost from Alumna
August 23, 2011 – Amanda Hamilton (C’06) is doing her best to empower speakers of disappearing aboriginal languages in western Australia.
“Language is essential to most people’s feelings of identity, so language loss represents a serious form of cultural dislocation,” notes Hamilton, a linguist at the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. “In almost all instances of rapid cultural change occurring under pressure, it’s the already marginalized groups that are most affected, and the consequence for them is a deepening of the cycle of disenfranchisement.”
She says language loss can act as a catalyst for further inequity.
“By promoting stable languages, then, I hope to help promote stable communities, where minority and majority groups alike appreciate the value of cultural and linguistic diversity,” she explains.
Hamilton is in the process of making recordings of a few of the more than 30 languages thought to have been traditionally spoken in the Pilbara region.
She’s now analyzing the languages and creating materials such as children’s books, dictionaries and language-learning computer games for use by speakers, linguists and people in the community.
Bush Shoe Language
After spending a lot of time bent over a computer with headphones, the Georgetown graduate recently traveled to the desert community of Warralong to record an elderly woman who explained in Manyjilyjarra language how to make bush shoes.
“They're amazing,” Hamilton said of the shoes the woman made. “She took me out to the riverbed and showed me the tree from which you strip the bark, and then we went back to the camp and she wove them for me.”
“I took tons of pictures of the whole process, and then went through them with her afterward and had her give me a sentence about each of them,” the alumna explained.
Now she’s analyzing the structure of the sentences and plans to create a picture book with an accompanying audio CD.
An English major at Georgetown, Hamilton says she first became interested in linguistics while taking Introduction to Language with Sue Lorenson, an associate dean of the College.
“I was so engaged by that course that I minored in linguistics, which involved a challenging series of classes from some genuinely outstanding professors,” she explained.
She also praises English department chair Kathryn Temple and Steve Wurtzler, an associate professor of English, as positive influences.
After graduation she read an article that got her interested in endangered languages.
“While no one can say for certain, researchers estimate that before the end of this century between 50 and 90 percent of all currently spoken languages will lose their last speaker,” Hamilton said.
While preserving languages presents many challenges, including the securement of funding and convincing parents to rethink the languages they speak at home, Hamilton is extremely pleased with her career choice.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to help people create outlets for expressing the natural pride and interest they have in their language,” she said. “It’s also personally rewarding to feel like I’m uncovering new knowledge about languages that few people have ever studied.”