Talking the Talk on Indigenous Radio


Thirty years ago, indigenous peoples throughout the world had little, if any, opportunity to hear their languages over the radio. Majority cultures dominated the airwaves and most nations saw little value in supporting indigenous cultures in any form. But the late 1960s proved to be a time of social upheaval throughout much of the Western world and various minority groups began to stake their claims to air time -- often through community radio stations. As the 20th century comes to a close, we find indigenous radio services in almost all of the larger industrialized nations, as well as in many of the smaller ones. A few even have limited amounts of time on nationally networked services.

One major reason for indigenous interest in radio was the opportunity it presented to bring fresh life to indigenous languages and possibly rescue some from extinction. Since radio was an oral medium, it appeared to be ideally suited for this purpose. And it certainly seems to have worked for the Welsh, Sami, and Maori and a number of North American indigenous language services which have encouraged many indigenous youth to take their languages seriously. There have, however, been a number of unexpected impacts on the languages as well.

Restoring or Preserving the `Purity' of Indigenous Languages

When radio services came into existence and were used by minority groups, most of their staff wanted to show listeners that their languages were alive. Not only could they be heard over radio, but they could be heard presenting current events. This demonstrated that indigenous languages weren't simply museums for the preservation of songs, folk tales, and myths. However, as soon as local or indigenous stations began to present newscasts, discussions, and talks about current affairs, their staff often discovered that the terminologies of those languages were inadequate to deal with AIDS, space travel, and other 20th century phenomena. Sometimes it was possible to create appropriate terms by fusing two or more existing words, as in the Maori term for computers, rote hiko or `electric brain.' Sometimes listeners would suggest new uses for older terms, as did a number of Irish Gaelic speakers who called Raidio na Gaeltachta (RNG) or `Radio for the Irish Speaking Region' to suggest that staighrbeo, meaning `living stairs,' would be appropriate for escalator. But it was a far more frequent practice to give a majority culture term an indigenous ending or even to simply use the term as it was.

This practice poses a dilemma. If indigenous electronic media hope to restore or preserve the purity of their languages, aren't they defeated before they begin, at least where the worlds of technology, medicine, perhaps sports, and possibly societal problems, are concerned? Does any truly alternative indigenous term stand a chance when majority culture media quickly and broadly establish the `appropriate' terminology? If the indigenous media seek a compromise solution by borrowing Western terminologies and `indigenizing' them with prefixes, suffixes, and pronunciations, what then? Should that become a common practice, how much of the `true' indigenous language remains? Granted, all languages change over time, but the mass media seem to possess the capacity to bring about such change more rapidly and more comprehensively than any older media -- bards, poets, singers, traders, etc. -- ever were able to do. If French purists rail against the franglicization of their language when France is a media-rich nation, what chance does Maori, Sami, Basque, or Lakota stand?

Fortunately for speakers of those languages, enough true language has survived through the centuries so that there's a solid and sizable foundation upon which to build as we move into the 21st century. For all of their complaints, the French purists would have to admit that the vast majority of their native tongue remains intact, despite the incursions of le prime time or le hamburger.

There are even cases of indigenous terms being picked up by majority cultures. The Maori `hello,' or kia ora, appears to be in increasing use among New Zealand pakeha (Europeans). Australia's famous symbols -- the koala, the kookaburra, and the kangaroo-all bear Aboriginal names. The Inuit igloo is familiar to most North Americans, many of whom don't realize that they use at least one Inuit word when they refer to it. Certainly there isn't anything like a two-way street in which the flow of linguistic traffic is the same in both directions. But prospects for the future viability and purity seem good for most indigenous languages now available through radio -- if purity isn't taken too literally or pushed too far.

Employing Indigenous Dialects

The role of dialects in the indigenous electronic media often is a delicate issue. Many indigenous languages feature a fair amount of dialect variation. Indigenous language radio stations sometimes face difficult decisions regarding the choice of dialects, if they choose to use any at all. The problem isn't just a lack of common terminology. Dialect variation can be a matter of intense pride. In the Tainui-dominated areas of New Zealand, most Tainui radio stations cite the superiority of the Tainui dialect form of Maori as one reason for them not using the Maori national newscasts of Mana Maori Media. (Another reason is that there isn't enough coverage of Tainui activities.) If linguistic areas are reasonably definable in geographic terms, if the indigenous language service includes local stations, and if the areas themselves are so configured that the station signals fit the geographical-linguistic boundaries more or less perfectly (which is rare), dialect broadcasts may present few problems. Each dialect then will have its own self-contained broadcast outlet. A number of indigenous language services, however, are largely or wholly national and operate from a single or limited number of locations (Ireland's RNG is such an operation). In those cases, deciding whether to broadcast in dialects at all, and if so, which ones, can be a major problem.

The problem rarely is one of comprehension. Most dialect speakers can understand other dialects at least well enough to extract the basic meaning. The effort may be considerable, especially with certain Sami dialects which have evolved to the point where they might be considered as separate languages. In such instances, it's doubtful that most audience members would bother to make any accommodation.

The emotional overtones connected with dialects can pose a far greater barrier. The Tainui example just cited may be extreme in its exclusiveness, but speakers of various Irish dialects still criticize some RNG announcers for their "dreadful" Kerry accents (or Donegal, or Connemara); north Welsh speakers may have similar reactions to south Welsh speakers. Related examples appear in many minority language broadcasting situations. Still, radio can help in breaking down some of these emotional barriers. For example, the staff at RNG and Radio Cymru have told me that they hear far fewer complaints about dialects now than they once did, and even some grudging acceptance along the lines of "But I do find what she/he has to say quite interesting."

There's yet another dimension to the dialect issue. If an indigenous radio service often makes use of localized dialects, might that deter the indigenous population from coalescing as a force to be reckoned with on a national level? My conversations with aboriginal broadcasters in Australia often touched upon that issue. There are dozens of Aboriginal languages and dialects, most of them spoken by a few hundred to a few thousand individuals. While some Aboriginal broadcasters are committed to providing services in those languages and dialects, there are severe limits to their ability to carry more than a half dozen or so. Aside from ability, however, those broadcasters wonder how a strong Aboriginal presence could be established at a national level without working through a common language, which turns out to be English. Using English as the common language not only injures their cultural pride, but it seems to be the only practical solution for gaining access to political power.

Reshaping Communication Practices

Radio follows a set of almost universally understood practices. Programs usually start and end at hour and half-hour intervals. Voices are supposed to be `on mike' and clearly audible to the audience. In interviews and discussions, pauses between sentences and speakers should be brief. Announcers speak the broadcast languages correctly, or at least according to the majority culture's standards of correctness. In general, those practices coincide, more or less closely, with practices in everyday life. But some indigenous practices differ. Discussions among Native Americans in North America and among Aborigines in Australia are often characterized by long pauses. Formal Maori discussions are held according to a strict protocol, in which the sometimes random give-and-take of a formal discussion in North America or Europe would be out of place. However, as radio becomes an integral part of indigenous culture, does it bring a set of expectations as to practices that might be at variance with indigenous practices?

Consider the matter of pauses. Will indigenous radio staff consciously or unconsciously reshape practices, such as having long pauses, and quicken the pace in order to match the practices of majority culture radio? If they don't, will they face pressure from listeners used to majority culture radio who may entertain similar expectations for the new indigenous stations? And if the traditional leaders within minority cultures are accustomed to providing deliberative, detailed statements in responding to questions, how will they fare if indigenous radio follows the majority culture journalistic preference for `sound bites' or at least concise, compact statements?

Evidence indicates that Aboriginal groups already have experienced some changes in notions of how leadership is communicated. From my observations, city dwellers, many of them unable to speak Aboriginal languages, appear more ready to ascribe leadership to individuals who are able to accommodate themselves to media demands. Rural dwellers may be less inclined to do so, although younger individuals seem more open to the possibility that leadership may come from something other than ancestry, longevity, or other traditional hallmarks.

Michael Manley, a Tasmanian Aboriginal with blond hair and blue eyes, has become a prominent national Aboriginal figure, in part because both Aboriginal (but especially city-based) and white Australian media have provided him with considerable exposure. He is eloquent, dramatic, controversial, and seems highly adept at presenting himself -- in English -- through the media, sound bites and all. However, he also has attracted the criticism of a number of older, more traditional leaders of rural Aboriginal groups who claim that he "doesn't represent anyone." That's quite true since he has no tribal ties. Tasmanian Aboriginal groups were wiped out well over a century ago. And he certainly doesn't communicate in ways that they recognize as valid. But he has attracted a considerable Aboriginal following.

Ireland's RNG has daily Irish (Gaelic) broadcasts of discussions, talks, and disc jockey patter. They feature a discursive approach: speakers take plenty of time to say whatever it is they have to say, just as they would in everyday life. But the national English language radio services of Radio Telefis Eirann have picked up their pace and reduced the amount of talk, partly in competitive response to the `more music, less talk' approach of the newer local commercial radio stations in Ireland. RNG has also reduced the amount of talk, but is divided over the degree of reduction needed. Part of that division stems from concern about the effect such a reduction would have on what some staff members regard as an essential element of the Irish language -- its discursive quality. In fact, it's perfectly possible to speak briefly in Irish, even if it isn't what Irish speakers usually do. Here lies the heart of the problem: should RNG take upon itself the role of `change agent' where style of discourse is concerned? Or if it remains faithful to Irish custom, does it risk losing listeners, particularly among the younger people who are vital to the future of the station itself?

Speaking Languages Correctly

There often is a real shortage of individuals capable of speaking indigenous languages fluently and correctly. Recruiting them to appear on indigenous radio can be especially difficult when a number of indigenous media outlets appear within a short time span, as they've done in Aboriginal, Maori, and Native American (especially Canadian) media. Often, there aren't enough native-speaking individuals to meet the demand for their services. At the same time, many of those who have struggled to keep the language alive are almost certain to press for high standards of performance through the media. However, most of the individuals who themselves have struggled to develop indigenous media realize the importance of involving younger people, both as audiences and as performers. Yet the younger generation is apt to be sorely lacking in indigenous language skills. When the media use them as announcers, disc jockeys and journalists, as most media operations do, there's very likely to be an outcry from skilled language speakers. A Welsh community radio station, Radio Maldwyn, discovered as much when their young English-speaking announcers attempted to pronounce Welsh place names.

Most media managers seem willing to risk broadcasting in less-than-perfectly delivered indigenous languages. Still, even if younger speakers improve their command of the indigenous language, they're likely to be less respectful of its purity. They are also likely to include more majority culture influences, not only in choice of terminology, but also in styles of presentation. Ole Henrik Magga, President of the Sami Parliament, was concerned that Sami radio didn't always serve older listeners as well as it should. He felt that newscasts in Sami were prepared and delivered more in the manner of majority culture newscasts -- fast-paced and abbreviated. Older Sami listeners, he contended, associate newslike items delivered in Sami with a slower and more discursive approach, and sometimes find Sami radio's presentations hard to follow.

Whether younger Sami listeners would welcome a slower, more discursive style is another question. Radio Cymru decided in 1994 that its Welsh newscasts were too discursive. A major self-study, supported by the work of an outside consultant, led the station's newsroom to conclude that its news writing style needed a bit of slimming. Part of the assumption guiding the decision was that younger (including middle-aged) Welsh speakers, whether they realized it or not, were using the language less discursively than their forebears did.

Interviews could pose similar dilemmas. Indigenous radio can stimulate language learners to use the languages, especially in the course of interviews. If those media were to follow rigid policies of speech correctness, the numbers of potential interviewees would shrink dramatically, especially among younger people. Very few stations are that rigid, but some don't make much effort to seek out and to encourage less-than-fully fluent speakers to serve as interviewees. However, most stations have at least a few staff members who aren't fluent so there often is some degree of encouragement by example.

Stations have also begun to take more initiative in developing programs which require the participation of language learners. Radio Cymru has a Saturday morning program in which teenagers talk about events of special importance to them. The various levels of fluency are apparent even to a non-Welsh speaker. The program's producers encourage just about everyone to "have a go," and seem to make a deliberate effort to display a wide range of language skills in each broadcast. RNG, one of the more purist indigenous language services, is working harder with schools, sports clubs, and other organizations, to bring language learners to the microphone. In 1993, the station began to offer secondary school Irish language learners the opportunity to prepare and present mini-documentaries about their own lives and concerns. They were to tape a roughly 20 minute program and send it to RNG. The station announced the winning entries, which didn't always feature perfect Irish. When Ireland's soccer team played in the 1994 World Cup, the RNG sports announcers who were covering the event, sought the few Irish speaking players on the team, encouraged them to speak in Irish, coached them where necessary, and came out with several very effective, if less than `Irish perfect,' interviews.

The advantages to such practices seem obvious enough. Whether the disadvantage of sanctioning incorrect language use is outweighed by the encouragement it seems to give to language learners is a matter of opinion. But the very presentation of such models could potentially reshape the use of indigenous languages by a wider audience.

There is virtually no hard scientific evidence to indicate that the initiation of an indigenous language radio service helps to restore or revive its use, but stations broadcasting substantial amounts of such languages certainly have that hope and expectation. There is some anecdotal evidence, such as increased interest on the part of young people (and their parents), in taking formal study courses in their languges and increased amounts of popular music -- live and recorded -- in their languges. It's also quite likely that each medium of communication using indigenous or non-majority languages has its effect on every other medium. Language classes stimulate listening to indigenous media; indigenous media provide an important outlet for popular music; popular music heightens interest in learning the language. While I've sounded some cautionary notes above, there are grounds for optimism in the challenging and vital task of helping indigenous languages to live and even flourish. Those languages will change, of course, and not all of the changes or the ways in which speakers use the languges, will be to everyone's taste. That's true of all languages, and after all, what's most important is that the languages live.


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