Speaking of salvation

Greg Dickson

Meet Greg Dickson, someone who is helping save endangered Australian languages with his Doctor in Philosophy in Linguistics.

Greg Dickson started his linguistic journey “as a monolingual Australian in the suburbs, speaking only English”. It then took him to Iceland, where, as a high school exchange student, his world opened up to other languages and how they work. He was inspired to go on to major in linguistics in his Bachelor of Arts, and now, after a number of years working and teaching in the Northern Territory, he is a fluent speaker of the endangered Aboriginal language of Marra, also the subject of his linguistics PhD at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

It was as an undergraduate that Greg first developed an interest in Aboriginal languages.

“Most Australians never think there are Aboriginal languages out there, or certainly not as many as there are,” he says.

“At uni, I learned about them in relation to other world languages, and I thought ‘Hey, that Australian language is really interesting!’ It gives you a growing awareness of the amazing linguistic diversity in Australia.

“For me, learning about Aboriginal languages is fascinating on a linguistic level but it’s also part of Australia’s history, and I feel like you can do something that’s worthwhile socially, with social justice aspects tied to it. I love what I do, because I feel like I’m doing something useful and meaningful at the same time, and I get to have such unique experiences.”

Greg’s PhD research has focused on the town of Ngukurr, where he has been documenting and analysing Marra with a group of old Aboriginal women who are among only a handful of remaining native speakers. 

“I love hanging around with these old ladies,” he says. “I love it! They’re really committed to the work, and they enjoy it. They teach me so much, it’s awesome.

“There won’t be any native Marra speakers left after these ladies die, but there will always be people who can understand it, or are interested in it. The idea is to document as much as you can, so if one day people do want to revitalise it, there are enough resources for them to do it.”

He says remote fieldwork like his isn’t unusual among linguistics students at the College, who are currently working in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Philippines and southern India, as well as Australia.

“We all have shared experiences because we go to these far-flung places and we’re working on these small languages. We get together and share information about the individual languages we’re working on, and support each other with shared expertise.”

Greg encourages new students to start their own linguistic journey with a master’s degree.

“There are so many people out there who are multilingual or have grown up in an interesting language environment, or don’t have a linguistics background but are really interested in language; they could do a master’s and bring so much to the table.

“For people who have a passion for or an interest in language, or an interesting language story themselves, linguistics starts to unpack that and you learn amazing stuff about what your brain does when we use language, which we do every second of the day. It’s really fascinating.”

And where else should that journey start, but ANU, says Greg.

“ANU does have a very good name, particularly linguistics at the College of Asia and the Pacific - it’s a bit shallow but it’s true!”

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team