Gretel's journey: an undergraduate take on Indigenous Australian Languages

Tuesday 13 May 2014

What did you do over the summer? University of Sydney student GRETEL MACDONALD spent her break at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics researching and documenting an Australian Indigenous language on a Summer Research Scholarship. She found that linguistics isn’t always as straightforward as she’d been led to believe.

I applied for the CASS Summer Research Scholarship for two reasons. I was curious about what day-to-day ‘research’ actually involved, and I was eager to understand the types of research being done on Australian Indigenous Languages. 

The opportunity to work alongside linguists at ANU with centuries of experience between them, and working on an indigenous language spoken in North-West Arnhem Land, fulfilled my curiosities about research and opened up a vista of different research questions, some of which I hope to pursue in the future.                                         

The summer research program began with a seemingly straightforward task: “Describe the system of kinship terminology of Burarra”. But the journey that followed was not exactly ‘as the crow flies’.

I began my research by reading about kinship generally, specifically descriptions of Indigenous Australian kinship systems and also set about familiarising myself with Burarra, a language spoken in North-West Arnhem land, and the focus of my research.                                                                

Walking in between the libraries at ANU and AIATSIS provided time and space for reflection. I also discovered that re-reading and re-thinking my understanding of the topic at hand was an essential part of the research process.

The conversations I had with my supervisors were invaluable at all stages of my research, as they reinforced the work I was doing, and helped me understand new perspectives.

When it came time to plan my paper, it quickly became apparent that an effective description of a complex linguistic system would exceed my customary word-limit. With each draft my understanding of the topic grew, and my ideas developed.

Although at the summer’s end, my paper was not yet finished, it had well and truly taken shape: my first contribution to the field of linguistics. A rewarding moment was presenting my research to an encouraging audience of academics and students, who listened intently, showed genuine interest, and gave insightful feedback and advice.

The summer research program confirmed what I had suspected for some time – the neatly woven fabric of linguistics coursework presented in undergraduate study is, on closer inspection, not quite so neat.

For some aspects of my research, my educated guess was perhaps as good as the next person’s. This was evident when I attended a workshop on the use of historical archives for research of Indigenous Australian language and culture. During discussions, with the knowledge I had acquired over the summer, I felt I was able to contribute to the ongoing research of historians, linguists and anthropologists dedicated to understanding social organisation of Australian Indigenous communities. This was a milestone marking out what I had been able to achieve over the summer with the guidance of my supervisors, in an inspiring academic environment.

Find out more about Summer Research Scholarships at ANU

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Updated:  6 August 2014/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications