Peetyawan Weeyn PDF Print E-mail

The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages is about to release an important learning and research tool into the community. Based on a community-responsive approach it is set to guide Indigenous language revival and reclamation across all Victorian Indigenous communities. It is called Peetyawan Weeyn.

Peetyawan Weeyn is a new framework for Aboriginal language reclamation work. It is a holistic, community oriented guide to planning for language programs for the long term. The name, 'Peetyawan Weeyn', is from the Keerraywoorroong language of southwestern Victoria, and means 'We are kindling fire'. We have chosen this name to suggest a view of language program planning as far more than administrative necessity. If reclaiming your language is part of the fire, energy or spirit of communities, then kindling that fire is life-giving, essential for survival, creating a home for the nurturing of spirit.

The immediate context of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages is the Aboriginal languages and communities of Victoria. These comprise around 38 language communities, whose languages form around 11 different language families. 'Language family' means many words and other features of language are shared within that family, but not much with languages in other families. Some language communities have an ongoing language reclamation program, or a more contained language project, with the potential to lead to more extensive work later on. While cultural knowledge remains strong in many communities, for most the path to increase language knowledge is primarily through historical records (19th century) and some more recent linguistic work (1960s – present). Our language planning model has grown primarily from our work with and knowledge of these language groups. It will be most relevant to these, and to others in comparable language revival situations, both interstate and overseas. Although we are targeting language revival work as a first concern, the model could readily be adapted for related siuations such as urgent language maintenance.

The model has an important function in education and training for adults. It could also potentially be incorporated into the Indigenous Languages Revival and Reclamation units, currently taught in Victoria to Koorie students at advanced secondary and college levels. Peetyawan Weeyn introduces people to a wide range of parameters for language revival. It facilitates learning in how to apply these ideas to different situations, and how to plan practically for the short and long term. It offers enough detail and examples to ground the parameters in familiar situations, while at the same time leaving plenty of space for the creativity and priorities of different individuals and groups. Because of its breadth and balance, we also anticipate that the model will be useful as a professional development tool for linguists and educators linked with community language work.

Language revival is an emerging practice, building strength in different areas of the world, as part of the move to recover from colonisation. This means that everyone is learning at the same time what can be done, what needs to be done, what is realistic, and how to make use of what others have learned in the context of their own situation. Communities embarking on the journey are in need of some way to access this developing knowledge, so that they do not have to continually reinvent the same ideas, or run into the same problems without preparation.

One of the core motivations for our project, then, was to provide a guideline in this new territory, so that each community has a practical way to think about how to move forward, wherever they are in their journey.

Such a guideline has to be flexible enough to accommodate the characteristics of each community and their language situation. Language revival proceeds along many different paths, depending on the community, their circumstances and history, knowledge of various kinds which is available within the group, their relationships with outside researchers, and so on.

In Victoria, Aboriginal communities on the whole are strongly motivated to maintain control of their language, any research that concerns their language, and any use made of it in the public arena. Language revival efforts have emerged mostly from a community rather than an academic base, and a common model is for communities to be fully responsible for the research and teaching aspects of language revival. The policy and practice of VACL is to encourage and support communities to manage and carry out their own language work. Self-management is certainly crucial to the goals of language revival, as it is not only language as such that is to be reclaimed, but the authority ofcommunities in their own business.

 The principle that language work including the research be carried out by community members can assist in this reclamation of authority, as it provides opportunity to increase knowledge and skills within the within the community, improve peoples capacity to make informed decisions about their language, and raise their level of confidence in the authenticity of both process and results.

However, both community and academic models as practised have their limitations. Communities are very familiar with the limitations of an academic approach to language work, which can downplay a cultural approach to language, privilege the work of (mostly non-Aboriginal) academics over the knowledge and preferences of the living community, prioritise visible or measurable outcomes of research and teaching, and be bound to timelines that can be problematic for community engagement. These experiences are compounded with a colonisation history that promotes distrust and self-protectiveness, leaving many communities cautious of outside researchers in their language. But this caution poses a problem for language revival, in that without the particular kinds of knowledge and skills that linguistics can offer, communities are left short-changed in terms of their capacity to understand crucial aspects of their task – interpreting historical sources, coming to grips with sounds, word structures and ways of putting language together which are fundamentally different from English, reconciling apparent conflicts between old documents, making the links between old and contemporary knowledge of language, and so on.

The gaps left by too much emphasis on either an academic approach or a community approach, which neglects linguistic actors, were a second core motivation for developing Peetyawan Weeyn. We wanted to provide a resource that incorporates all of the broad parameters of language revival work, to train communities, language workers and linguists in how to consider and facilitate the full range of what is needed.

The first aim of Peetyawan Weeyn is to support communities in managing their own language revival process. Targeting communities first and foremost requires attention paid to the ways the framework is used and distributed and poses particular challenges for how we highlight and balance the various areas of language revival. We need to make sure we maintain what is central to community priorities and motivationsin language work, while also establishing the need for aspects of the work that may be less familiar, or traditionally relegated to the realm of academia. This is in fact another layer of reclamation – providing communities with access routes to areas of knowledge that few have had opportunity to fully engage with, but which nonetheless are vital to their full control of their own language. The perspective of community selfempowerment is critical, emphasizing choice, and the shared development of understanding and information as a foundation for decision-making.

A second aim is to represent the big picture of language work in a holistic framework. This holistic goal has a number of aspects. The most obvious is that language revival involves many facets simultaneously. Language and culture, ancient and current, Elders and children, oral and written, variations and commonalities, old and new traditions, language learning and language use – all must be acknowledged as vital elements in the whole. Next, language revival needs to be seen as an ongoing undertaking over years and throughout the life of a community. We need to support people from the startup phase, through research and early stages of learning and teaching the language, right through to its establishment in community life and ongoing strategies for its continued development. Third, we need to provide a picture of many people involved in the work, with different availabilities, roles and skills. In terms of collaboration with people outside of the community, such as linguists or educators, we wanted to provide both community and outside specialists with a degree of access to what the other sees, to help break down the entrenched barriers to achieving the best possible gains from these collaborations. For communities working closely with a linguist, the expanse of language revival that is beyond linguistics needs to be very clear, while for communities working who have not consulted a linguist at all, the importance of acquiring and applying linguistics knowledge also needs to be very clear. Similarly, the range of possible approaches to education needs to be on the table, so that communities can make clear choices in accordance with their needs and situations.

  For more information visit www.vaclang.org.au