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‘English makes me tired’: linguistic disadvantage for Australian Indigenous people before the law
Michael James Walsh
The quote is from a young Yolngu female from the remote northeast of the Northern Territory of Australia. Her response was to a question: Do you speak English? In this relatively benign interchange it can be seen that although she can speak English she would prefer not to. In the more charged atmosphere of legal settings one can only suppose that her dispreference would be a good deal stronger. Over some decades Diana Eades has set out the range of ways that Indigenous people in Australia use English (e.g. 2013). From her account it is clear that the use of English by Australian Indigenous people before the law can lead to considerable disadvantage. Such disadvantage is too often ignored because of a mistaken belief by non-specialists that it is not really such a problem: after all they can speak English.
This presentation will set out some of the range of issues confronted by Australian Indigenous people in legal settings, particularly in connection with Aboriginal Land Claim and Native Title cases. It will be shown that there is a range of Englishes, including Aboriginal English, Legal English and “ordinary” English. Sometimes difficulties arise from individual words like ‘bail’, ‘matter’, ‘swear’. But there are also instances where a phrase can be problematic e.g. ‘under the law’. More broadly some consideration will be given to differing English discourses. It will be suggested, perhaps surprisingly to the non-specialist, that sometimes ‘bad English’ can be to the claimant’s advantage and ‘good English’ to their disadvantage.