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Linguistics without borders

16 June 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Dr Ahmar Mahboob often uses the name “Prof Nomad” on social media, and he describes himself as a “troublemaker”. He disputes conventional Western thinking about language, and would like to decolonise the way linguistics and social sciences are taught around the world.

As Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, Ahmar Mahboob holds the controversial view that academics have been documenting minority languages for more than a hundred years and yet languages keep dying.

“Generic description of a language is not useful because language is dynamic, fluid, it shifts all the time,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre. “My solution is, don’t do linguistic description at all unless you have a very specific reason for doing it.”

Mahboob acknowledges that he can do his “out of the box” work because of the diversity of thought about language in the Department of Linguistics and a shared goal of making knowledge relevant to peoples’ lives.

He runs a project in Malaysia with a small Indigenous community that speaks Kristang, a Portuguese-based creole language. Working with a linguistics professor at the University of Malaya, Dr Stefanie Pillai, he developed a program called “Language Travels”.

Indigenous language lessons from children

In 2018 they took a group of 15 travellers – mostly language students and teachers – to stay with the community in Malacca for three days in order to learn the basics of their language. The group paid the community for accommodation, catering and lessons given by school children. Some of the children were low performers at school, partly because classes are conducted in Malay, their second language.

“People choose not to speak a language often because they don’t see any economic or other advantages. Unless you can provide those advantages they will continue to leave the language, and asking them not to is in a sense unethical,” Mahboob said.

The children taught the visitors a traditional song and performed with them, so the lessons involved language, history and culture. PhD students from Malaysia and Australia documented the exchange and its contribution to the micro-economy. Pillai and others have since produced a book illustrated by the children that has been used in lessons for two more groups, independently run by the community.

“Suddenly kids say, ‘Wow, I can make money from what I know, so I should learn more of my language’. They get a sense of authority and their ability to show expertise, as opposed to school, where because of their language they are marginalised.

“Our hope and expectation is that this pride will generate interest in the language that will maintain the language in this generation as opposed to an abandonment.”

In 2018 Mahboob spoke about this project at a SSSHARC Huddle, “Going Beyond Borders: Engaging with Indigenous community language needs worldwide”, which he organised with fellow linguist Professor Jakelin Troy, who is Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney.

About 15 academics interested in Indigenous languages, as well as experts in healthcare and sign language, gathered for the daylong discussion at the university. In the group was Shirley N. Dita, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics at De La Salle University in the Philippines, who is an advocate of Mother Tongue Based – Multilingual Education, and Dr Michael Walsh, who has been involved in the revitalisation of Australian Indigenous languages for 20 years.

Shirley Dita presenting at the Sydney Ideas event.

Shirley Dita presenting at the Sydney Ideas event 'Language and Indigenous Community Wellbeing'.

The aim of the Huddle and a Sydney Ideas public event was to explore whether there is a “relationship between health and wellbeing and language used in indigenous communities” with a “focus on real-world problems identified by communities who are attempting to retain and revive their languages”.

Mahboob’s parents were born in British India and he was born in Pakistan but he insists, “It doesn’t really matter. I grew up all over the world. I’m a child of diaspora; I’ve been three generations nomadic”. After studying English literature at the University of Karachi, he went to Indiana University, Bloomington, to do his PhD on “Status of non-native English speakers as ESL teachers in the United States”. He also has a MEd from the University of Sydney and has been there since 2004.

In the past two years, the department has revamped its postgraduate programs and brought in new units such as language and the law, language and healthcare, linguistics and media, in order to extend career options for linguists beyond teaching. As postgraduate coordinator, Mahboob would like to bring in more micro-units on police, forensics, and healthcare workers.

Alongside his scholarly work, he also expresses his ideas in poems that are published in journals such as Postcolonial Text and encourages others to use creative writing and visual arts as means of communication.

Literacy and language are different things

Mahboob argues that linguistics is restricted by its origins in the English language and the colonial period that took Western social sciences around the world. While linguists commonly say there are between 6000 and 7000 languages in the world, for him “language is not quantifiable”.

English sees language as a human attribute that can be categorised, counted and described definitively – and thus divides people. But the word for language in his mother tongue is “boli" and refers to languages collectively and for all species.

“Literacy and language are not interrelated, they are two different things. It comes as a shock to people, because in English and all European languages the writing is an indication of pronunciation, to varying levels of correspondence. Growing up speaking these languages, they assume there is always a relationship between sound and symbol. Linguists fall into this trap too, because most start in English.”

So, he said, we still live in a colonised world. His idea of “subaltern linguistics” or “decolonising pedagogy” aims to “de-emphasise this notion of specialisation in terms of technical grammatical analysis of language, and to reconnect language to how people engage with the world”.

Language for most people in the world is practical, principally spoken and heard rather than written and read, and not governed by borders, he said.

“I’ve got tons of evidence of how the work I’m doing is making a difference in so many places in ways that are hard to imagine.” Working with rural development organisations that provide low-cost medical treatments in Bangladesh, he said, “part of my work with them is talking about language in relation to healthcare but also I think of language as all five senses – all the material senses that allow you to interact with the material world”.

Mahboob recently spent six months giving lectures and workshops on “Decolonising Pedagogy” with his colleague and partner Monaliza Mamac at universities in Bangladesh, Brazil, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Peru.

At one university, he met people doing their PhD on agricultural technology “but they cannot look after their own crops, so they have to get a farmer to do the farm work while they sit in a lab. You have literacy but you don’t have skills.”

He worries that in many Asian countries academic researchers are evaluated on the number of papers they publish, while in Pakistan, for example, life expectancy falls and pollution increases. At the University of Sydney, by contrast, publication matters but “you have to be able to demonstrate real world impact of your work”.

Finding textual treasure in trash

One of his research ideas, “the trash project”, began about two years ago in Sydney with students collecting garbage in eight suburbs of different socioeconomic profiles and, based on the text on the items, analysing the types of products being consumed. In poorer suburbs there were more high-fat, high-sugar foods, alcohol and tobacco, which aligned with NSW health statistics about the rates of diabetes and heart disease.


Ahmar Mahboob sharing how they categorise and code data for the Trash Project.

Ahmar Mahboob sharing how they categorise and code data for the Trash Project, photo taken in Lahore at a workshop he gave at the University of the Punjab. Credit: Ahmar Mahmoob.


“We realised the potential of turning that into a project where we get students, teachers, community members to create local projects where they do similar data collection. They quantify stuff, they categorise stuff; we teach them how to do this, step by step.”    

Groups in several countries now use the trash project to analyse community health and environmental problems. They create public awareness campaigns on this and other issues, using their own language and illustrated posters and videos, and reporting back via WhatsApp. 


Drawing by Aljay V. Cero from Baras-Pinugay Integrated High School (Philippines)

Drawing by Aljay V. Cero from Baras-Pinugay Integrated High School (Philippines) which won a competition Ahmar ran, "I love my mother tongue because..."

With loss of Indigenous language goes loss of connection with the land it describes and other far-reaching consequences, Maboob explains further in his paper, “World Englishes, Social Disharmonisation, and Environmental Destruction”, which is published in 2020 as a chapter in Routledge Handbook of World Englishes 2nd edition.

“I’m not saying literacy is not important,” he said. “But for some people it's difficult and so to determine somebody’s ability or worth or potential based on their literacy skills is discriminatory.

“If people don’t have literacy, it shouldn’t be forced upon them and they should have other ways of contributing and participating in a global economy. Right now people who don’t have literacy are left out.

“That means everybody has a desire to become literate, and preferably literate in English, which means we’re shrinking the diversity in the world. It just doesn’t work.”

The SSSHARC-funded Huddle “Going Beyond Borders” was held at the University of Sydney on July 25, 2018 and the Sydney Ideas event “Language and Indigenous Community Wellbeing” on July 26, 2018.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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