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Director weekly highlights 29 Oct

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 29 October 2021

I’d like to begin with some terrible news, mourning the loss of Cathy Bow, CoEDL alumna. Cathy died, suddenly and unexpectedly, earlier this week. Cathy’s respectful, kind and switched-on approach helped move many projects from conception to fruition, including the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages and the online Bininj Kunwok language course that formed the centrepiece of her PhD. It is a terrible, tragic loss to so many of us to suddenly realise that Cathy has passed, in the prime of life and just at a point when so many of her ideas were coming to fruition. You can read more about her below. For now, I would just like to pass on, on behalf of CoEDL, our deepest condolences to her loved ones and our appreciation and respect for all she did while she walked and worked among us.  

It’s always a bit awkward to pass from news like that to anything else, but I’ll try, keeping the vision of Cathy’s ever-calm face before us. 

We are now starting to plan out clearer details on the form that our final CoEDL event will take at the end of next September. As announced earlier, it will take place on September 28-30 2022, in the Shine Dome right next to the ANU Campus in Canberra. We want this to be a dazzling crescendo and one that gives us all a chance not just to see what is most exciting in what we have accomplished, but how the community and the tools that we have built can carry us on into an era where the language sciences will be more important than ever. Stay tuned more detail to come on the program in early 2022. 

Our heartfelt congratulations to Felicity Meakins for her recently announced Ken Hale Award — only the 13th person to win this since it was established in 2002. Ken Hale combined the effortless genius of a Mozart with the unfailing humanity of a Gandhi and his work on Australian languages has left a bright and indelible stamp on how linguistic research is carried out here. The many incredible projects that Felicity has carried out over the last decade and a half make her a very natural and worthy recipient of what is arguably the most important award that exists for linguistic fieldwork. 

Over the last two weeks a running theme has been the worrying plunge in language enrolments at Australian universities — and the concomitant cuts in the range and depth of language offerings. One of the reasons that this rapid narrowing in the linguistic competence of this country does not arouse more alarm is the widespread belief that everything important, in research in science but also other fields, is available in English.  

recently published report by UQ-based researcher Tatsuya Amano in The Conversation shows how far this view hampers a full picture of what is happening in science, focussing on the field of biodiversity conservation. 

Reviewing a large set of peer-reviewed papers, he found 1,234 papers across 16 non-English languages that provided evidence on the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation interventions. And, interestingly, they found that the rate of publication of relevant studies is increasing rather than decreasing over the years in six non-English languages: French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and simplified Chinese. Arguments for the value of language learning in Australia have, for a couple of tired decades, focussed heavily on economic utility, with cultural insight and enrichment some way behind. The need to keep up with vital developments in science and technology, published first in other languages, has seemed like an ancient leftover – but in fact it is likely to become deeply relevant again with global changes in the coming decades. 

This will be my last weekly letter to you for over three months. I will be taking some long service leave, to throw myself into various projects and recharge my batteries before the final push next year, and I will be taking a clean break from CoEDL and ANU activities during that time. I’m deeply grateful to Jane Simpson who will be picking up the baton through the summer and keeping you in touch, until my return in February. 

So, somewhat early, I wish you all a deeply regenerative summer period, after this our second COVID year. Just like last year, I have been amazed at the courage and creativity that people across our community have brought to these very challenging times, but I also know that it has come at a heavy cost for so many, of simply keeping things afloat for month after month after month. I hope that this summer will give you all a chance to step away from those concerns for a meaningful fallow time and reconnect with your loved ones in the most congenial and human of ways. 

Nick Evans



We mourn the loss of †Cathy Bow, CoEDL alumna. Cathy died suddenly, as she was embarking on new collaborative practical reconciliation projects. She is best known for her tireless work in establishing, running and promoting the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

It houses over 4000 digitised books in languages of the Northern Territory: "This is a living archive, with connections to the people and communities where the books were created. This will allow for collaborative research work with the Indigenous authorities and communities." 

She then began a co-tutelle doctorate at CDU and ANU, building on her experience with LAAL to reflect, and extend her work on the benefits and challenges of digital technology for Indigenous people. This led her to another first — creating a Digital Language Learning Shell, which she used to help Bininj people teach their language at ANU and CDU. She then helped language centres to set up similar courses in Kriol and Gumbaynggirr. Her doctoral thesis, 'Entanglements of digital technologies and Indigenous language work in the Northern Territory', masterfully weaves articles for different audiences on digital technology for Indigenous people, together with moving reflections of how she came to understand her relations with Aboriginal people, as a researcher, as a digital technologist and as a friend. More recently she worked to bring Indigenous language professionals together in an Indigenous languages summer institute. 

We are grieving for the loss of a graceful person who worked with Indigenous colleagues to achieve some of the most imaginative and successful recent language projects, and who was extraordinarily generous in her support for students and colleagues. Her colleagues at Charles Darwin University have set up a Facebook page of condolences which they will pass on to her family and friends. 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University