Dr Denise Angelo is helping to shine a light on Indigenous 'contact' languages, with the assistance of a Weet-Bix-loving pig.

Linguistics expert Dr Denise Angelo didn’t expect to find joy in drawing a small pig with a penchant for Weet-Bix.

But she says her involvement in illustrating and providing linguistic know-how for the Indigenous and bilingual picture book Moli det bigibigi (Molly the pig), by Kriol-speaking author Karen Manbulloo, is one of the most enjoyable roles she’s had.

Angelo, an early career researcher and teacher based at The Australian National University (ANU) whose work focuses on shining a light on Indigenous languages in Australia, has been awarded the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia 2023 Paul Bourke Award for her collaborations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators and communities.

Cover of Moli det bigibigi, illustrated by the Binjari Buk Mob with the input of Dr Denise Angelo. Image: Indigenous Literacy Foundation

“Winning this award is such an amazing opportunity and I’m incredibly grateful,” she says.

“The Academy sent me an email, and I thought ‘oh, that looks very important’. When I read through it, I was honestly so excited — turns out it was extremely important!” Angelo is passionate about ‘contact’ languages like Kriol, developed as Indigenous Australians came into contact with people from other Aboriginal language groups and European colonisers on cattle stations, missions and reserves.

Kriol is spoken by an estimated 20,000 First Nations people across northern Australia – making it the most widely-spoken Aboriginal language in the country today. But there are many other ‘new’ Aboriginal languages, some without official names.

“While speakers of course know and recognise their own languages, this is not the same as having an official name which can be recognised and counted,” Angelo says.

 “At the moment there’s really no policy or process for this.”   

Her work aims to draw attention to this situation and recognise the significance of the largest active Indigenous languages, Yumplatok/Cape York Creole in the northeast and Kriol in the north and northwest, as well as more localised contact languages such as Yarrabah Creole.  

Angelo considers this a matter of social justice and she is keenly engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members to do something about it.  

“Our education system is conducted by default in English and doesn’t equip us to respond to these languages. There’s no official recognition or respect given,” she says. 

“From an educational perspective, Indigenous students who speak contact languages — which have been caused by contact with English — are treated as if they only speak English, but imperfectly or poorly. I felt I had to connect the dots linguistically to show that this wasn’t the case and that there was a profound mismatch here.” 

Angelo won the Penny McKay Memorial Award for her PhD, which focused on the misrecognition of Indigenous contact languages in Australia, the ramifications of their invisibility for these communities and pathways to awareness and recognition.

“I think there should be recognition that our colonial practices have created certain kinds of new languages that now form the fabric of everyday life for their speakers—how people communicate every day. These languages are also an expression of speakers’ identity and culture,” Angelo says. 

“Approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy areas like education and health assume English, but is that really the case everywhere? Currently there seems to be an increasing awareness about the significance of traditional languages. But what are Aboriginal and Torres Strait people actually speaking? This is a really important policy question for getting messages across and delivering services.” 

Angelo, from the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics, has worked on the National Indigenous Languages Report and an OECD-commissioned study on Indigenous languages in education. She’s also progressing an ARC-funded project on language ecologies with Indigenous co-researchers and colleagues.

She loves connecting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities and says it was wonderful to work with Aboriginal women on the Binjari Buk project. Based in the Northern Territory under the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the project published nine Indigenous and bilingual children’s books by local authors, including Molly’s adventures. Angelo is thrilled Moli det bigibigi was the first ever Indigenous and bilingual language book to be chosen for the Australian Reading Hour initiative. 

“It’s a delight for Aboriginal children from Kriol-speaking communities across northern Australia to have stories told in the language they speak,” she says.

And as for Molly herself, a highly anticipated sequel is in the works. But she’s no longer a small bigibigi after all that Weet-Bix.

“Oh, she’s a big pig now. I had to completely change my drawing style to factor in her larger waistline!” Angelo laughs.

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