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"Lives transformed by mastery of a foreign language" Full text of Nick Evans' speech at the Patji-Dawes Award

Nicholas Evans, Patji-Dawes

Date: 26 November 2015

Didjurigura – and many thanks to Kerrie Kenton for your moving welcome, particularly appropriate given our naming of this award after Patyegarang or Patji – more on this shortly.

As director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to the inaugural Patji-Dawes award.

One of the goals of our centre is to turn around the shockingly low levels of achievement in second language learning in Australia. Changing that is a complex and difficult problem but the teacher-learner relationship lies at its heart, which is why our Centre, in partnership with LCNAU, has established the prize in the way we have.

A nominator, whose life has demonstrably been transformed by mastery of a foreign language – here, Derek Bayley – proposes a language teacher whose inspiring teaching successfully set them on the path to fluency –  Sarah Payne, for this inaugural award. Nominations were carefully screened by a distinguished committee of language teachers – Kylie Farmer, John Hajek, Tim McNamara, Carolyn Stott and Lia Tedesco – all of whom I thank for their involvement.

In naming it the Patji-Dawes award we pay tribute to a remarkable teacher-learner dyad at the first moment in recorded Australian history when two very different languages were brought into contact: Patyegarang, a young woman from the Aboriginal nation sometimes called Daruk and sometimes Eora and sometimes Kadigal, and Lieutenant William Dawes, a young astronomer with the first fleet. Each was engaged in learning the other’s language, in an atmosphere of deepening affection, discovery and intellectual excitement, well captured in Kate Grenville’s magnificent novel The Lieutenant. Both nominator and winner will receive a facsimile copy of Dawes’ notebook on the Sydney language, and I thank the Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation for their permission and support in making this book available.

 To introduce our inaugural winner and nominator, we are most privileged to have Robert Dessaix here, today. Robert, perhaps more than any other Australian novelist, has absorbed the sensibilities of Russian and a number of other literatures into his writing. It is a special personal pleasure for me as well, since – after a number of uninspiring exposures to poor French and German teaching at high schools which looked like putting me off language study for life – I later had the good fortune to squeeze some Russian classes into my science degree at the ANU, and it was these that finally convinced me that learning another language was both a possible and a deeply rewarding endeavour. Robert’s wonderful teaching of Turgenev and Chekhov were a key part of this reorientation of my own life – so I would now like to ask him, as a great language teacher in his own right, to introduce our awards.

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