Literacy… in English.

This is an intriguing video of both English and ‘Kriol’ (as stated in the title) being spoken by a lady called Laura, who is a Torres Strait Islander.

However, to me, it seems that what Laura’s speaking is actually Torres Straits Creole or ‘Brokan’. One is because of the words she uses, which don’t seem to occur in Kriol (e.g. dhempla), and secondly because she states that her family used to stay on the Torres Strait Islands. Hence, it would be unlikely that she would know Kriol, unless she learnt it later.

Of course, since I’m not qualified enough, I can’t say so with certainty. But due to this uncertainty about which language is being used, I’ll refer to it henceforth simply as ‘creole’. In any case, most of the features highlighted below are applicable to both Kriol as well as Brokan.

The video alternates between her speaking in English and the creole. The variety of the creole seems to be ‘light’.

While she has a seemingly good command of English, some of the things she says reveal interesting aspects of her linguistic makeup.

Here’s a small list of such utterances (in italics) in the video, along with their times and a short description and analysis, starting from the more innocuous and moving on the more striking:

1:07 counting fishes — borderline, though “fishes” is not unheard of.

2:41 mekyem tuls òl sabe / mekim tuls ol sabe — shows the verb stem meke / mek plus -em / -im transitive construction. sabe is ‘to know’.

0:50 I could bring books home for read — Standard English sentence with the creole-influenced for read (Brokan pò rid / Kriol po rid) instead of to read presumably having crept in unknowingly.

0:15 Literacy en numeracy, i aba(u)t laning  rait en pò du maths — the underlined words are pronounced as they are in English, and have the same meaning, presumably because a) the creole uses the same words for these concepts as English, b) if separate words do exist, the speaker isn’t aware of them, or c) if separate words do exist, she prefers to use these English words in her ‘light’ variety of creole, due to the presence of a non-Aboriginal listener and a video audience. Also, the fifth word sounds more like Brokan abaut rather than Kriol abat.

0:02 Literacy and numeracy is [sic] about English and writing — In Laura’s opinion, literacy seems to be about English, and not about her creole.

This is probably the most poignant sentence in the video, and reflects Harris’s (2005:150) statement:

[Creole]-speaking Aboriginal people themselves have held a low view of their  language… Those who speak creoles have endured generations of  abuse of themselves and their languages. It is little wonder that they have grown ashamed of  their speech.

Arvind Iyengar | LING 566

P.S.: If the language Laura is using is indeed Brokan and not Kriol, then it’s quite an unfortunate error, considering that this video has been produced by the Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment (DETE).


Harris, J. 2005. ‘Losing and gaining a language: The story of Kriol’, in Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia, eds M. Walsh & C. Yallop, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 145-154.

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2 Responses to Literacy… in English.

  1. wamut says:

    You make a good point about how many people, when they speak of “literacy” often actually mean “English literacy”.

    What’s worse is that I often see people talking about “Indigenous literacy”, but they actually mean “English literacy for Indigenous people” and they are not talking about literacy in Indigenous languages at all! (They probably don’t realise that literacy in Indigenous language exists!)

    For example, there’s a foundation called the “Indigenous Literacy Foundation” and while some of their activities are about Indigenous languages, their main objectives seem to relate to English literacy:

    • ling366 says:

      Interesting site, wamut. In fact, your point is clarified on the page , in point no. 2 under the section ‘Indigenous Literacy – A Snapshot’, which says:

      “There is an enormous gap in the English literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia”

      The main page doesn’t mention ‘English’ explicitly. It’s likely that the authors simply presumed that it meant English literacy, which really seems to be the general opinion when it comes to literacy.

      I wonder what some Indigenous people themselves have to say about this initiative. But considering their cultural and behavioural patterns, they probably would say that it’s good even it was not.

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