WAYS OF KNOWING – LANGUAGE AND CULTURE AS MEDIATORS OF THOUGHT
Imagine not having the language you communicate with every day?
Wednesday 4 August is National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day (NATICD) in Australia. Sadly, multitudes of first nations people have lost touch with their original languages. Why is the current focus on the experience of first nations in our country important? Why is it important for children across all the cultures of our enviable multi-cultural society? One of the key reasons is that language is more than a way of communicating; it is a way of knowing. This is equally important internationally and on 9 August it is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People
Three Inspiring Elders from Three Continents
I’ve had the privilege of listening to three inspiring elders in the last several weeks.
Early experiences within family and culture are formative in how we know the world.
Dr Lorna Wanosta’a7 Williams, Associate Professor Emeritus, Indigenous Education, Victoria University, Canada, was a guest speaker during a centenary celebration of the life of the late Professor Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli cognitive psychologist and expert in intelligence and thinking. Lorna spoke about how deeply impacted she was by the work of Feuerstein, a Nobel Peace nominee, for his contribution to understanding culture as a mediator of thought and knowledge. She describes how when she inherited some of Feuerstein’s papers, despite not initially understanding the complex jargon, for the first time she encountered validation of her connection to her own culture and language. Her intuition that this was an important and life-changing idea, was the kernel that blossomed into long years of study, academic rigour and her immense role in improving the education of generations of indigenous children in Canada.
To accomplish her prodigious work promoting quality education for indigenous students, she first had to educate herself, her community, psychologists and educators from preschool through university, about the need to recognise and value different ways of knowing. In a video presentation in 2019 on stillness and calm, Dr Lorna describes a particular characteristic of her indigenous language. Once someone has spoken, there is always a thoughtful pause. Then another continues the thread of conversation in response to what was said - and what was heard. She explains with some humour how as an academic she initially found it difficult to process the conversations with fellow students and lecturers. At one point, during an animated discussion, someone turned to her and said, ‘Lorna, we haven’t heard from you!’ She says that at that time she couldn’t identify the ‘space’ to interject her contribution. And even when there was space, she didn’t know which of the voiced ideas or themes she should respond to? She had to learn two distinct ways of communicating.
One of her stories demonstrates how teaching in her culture is gentle and indirect. She confesses to being a ‘loud’ person despite being born premature and having to be exhorted and cajoled to survive! Perhaps, she muses, the constant attention prompting her to live made her loud? As an older child after a bossy tirade, one of here aunties said: ‘we are lucky you were not born a nail’! She realised that she would have to transform her ways. At seventeen at a cultural ceremony, she was named Wanosta’a7. The meaning is ‘woman who walks in peace amongst the people’. At the time she says, that was not who she was, but it was a wish and expectation of who she would become. And she has. The word for peace and calm in her community is Kat’il’a.
The forest is a place where she learned to be calm. Finding the longest, fattest, most nutritious roots, required patience, careful observation and listening. She had learned about the spirit of the forest which was alive in the stories and songs or her culture which travelled across time from her ancestors.
Professor Feuerstein’s papers on the mediation of culture centred around the immigration of Ethiopian Zionists to Israel in two waves between 1934 and 1960. The children of these immigrants had difficulty adapting to mainstream education. Rather than seeing this situation as a deficit, Feuerstein was motivated to explore it. He hypothesised that the children were not lacking in intelligence, in fact many were very high functioning, but that their early thinking and knowledge had been mediated by their unique culture. For instance, the western numeric system was not part or their early transmission, but other strengths, were.
Once the students completed a course in Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment (FIE), which is a systematic series of pen and paper exercises to consolidate 28 cognitive functions that enhance learning, their school performance skyrocketed.
Dr Lorna found the same with the students in Canada who did FIE. What she also discovered, disappointingly, was that when the children’s performance improved, the upscaling was attributed to the intervention, not the indigenous children’s tremendous intellectual capacity to learn. She encountered a bias that was difficult to shift.
Countenancing two ways of knowing
She describes a day when she was visiting one of the many schools that had come under her ambit. The students were completing a Feuerstein task on categorisation. The options were animate, inanimate and vegetable. Several of the students had crossed out one of their answers. As she looked across the exercises, she noted that all had crossed out ‘rock’. Initially it was placed in the category ‘animate’, and when they realised that the exercise couldn’t be completed, they altered their decision and moved it to the ‘inanimate’ category. She understood the dilemma from her own cultural perspective but was curious to know their reasoning. A young lad told her he knew there was a life force in rocks and other elements in nature, but he realised in his classroom situation, this knowledge wasn’t validated. So he changed his response. Dr Lorna told us in her lecture that she was amazed that the child could hold both the ‘ways of knowing’ in mind. To see them both as valid. Language is not only about words but reveals culture and deep often alternate ways of knowing.
At The CIRE Community College Mount Evelyn Children’s Service during NAIDOC week, under the shade of a huge gum tree, Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Kim Wandin introduced a talk to children, parents and educators in phrases from her own language. Her Wurundjeri language like many other indigenous languages across the globe is in the difficult process of being revived and documented. She spoke about it as a ‘sleeping language’. This is a central theme of Tara June Winch’s novel ‘The Yield’. The main character, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, records all the words and phrases he knows to preserve his language for future generations. He is described as finding the words ‘on the wind’. Aunty Kim shares that idea. Deep connection between people and the land, she says, is embedded in her language. As part of her address, each person received a gum leaf, or small gum branch, as a token of this connection. She encouraged everyone to feel the land through their feet and listen to it in the sound of the birds and like the character ‘Poppy’, to hear it in the wind. She spoke about the appreciation of the environment as a means to accomplish the theme of NAIDOC week, ‘heal country’. This echoes the sense of invisible connection described by Dr Lorna on a different continent a world apart.
Connection across continents
As a Rotarian, I recently had the privilege of working on one of our projects called FORaMEAL which provides emergency food relief to disaster-prone Philippines. During the COVID lockdowns, we thought the project would go into hiatus, but because of the COVID hardship in many local communities, the project delivered over 190,000 meals in greater Melbourne.
One of the communities we worked with was Afri-Aus Care in the city of Dandenong where we met another elder, Selba Gondoza Luka. Selba, is the CEO and founder of Afri-Aus Care Inc, which provides culturally appropriate services to African Australians and those from other CALD backgrounds.
One of the premises of Selba’s work is the concept of Ubuntu. She Co-Founded the successful Black Rhinos Basketball Club, a Crime Prevention and Intervention Program for at-risk youth, who are enrolled in an initiative called the Ubuntu Peer-Peer Restorative Family. The idea of Ubuntu has spread across the globe and in 2018 former president of the US, Barack Obama spoke about it in a speech he gave at the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg. He said that Mandela ‘understood the ties that bind the human spirit.’
“There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu — that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us,” Obama said.
Words are not only important in indigenous cultures
But it is not only in indigenous cultures that language mediates thinking and knowing. In the best-selling novel: ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ author, Pip Williams, explores the extreme importance of words as expressions of lived experience, emotion and meaning. About the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary under the leadership of Sir James Murray in the late 1800’s her novel explores the life and loss of words. The central character, Esme Nicoll works as a lexicographer on the dictionary with her father and collects words that for a variety of reasons are lost, or worse, rejected. At a point where a decision is being made whether to include a word or not, she tells Murray “You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply allow others to do so”. I commend everyone to read this thought-provoking book. You can hear Pip Williams talk about the book at: https://theconversation.com/book-review-the-dictionary-of-lost-words-by-pip-williams-132503
Language is a vehicle of thought, experience and culture.
Each of the inspiring elders above recognises language as a way of knowing ourselves, one another and our planet. How miraculous would it be if we could leave the door open to listen with a welcoming mind to others’ perspectives and like the young Canadian student recognise and countenance the validity of more than one.
Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of
Edu-Chameleon - Leverage 7 Dynamic Learning Zones to Enhance young Children's Concept-Based Understanding. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at https://kriegler-education.com