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Director weekly highlights 4 June

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 4 June 2021

This week has plunged us back into a state of deep concern about COVID transmission, as the kappa variant has shown how frighteningly easily it can be transmitted and reminded us how quickly the best-laid plans can need revision. 

I’m writing this with a slightly sore arm — that, and a light headache yesterday, are (touch wood) the only side-effects I’ve had from the Astra-Zeneca shot I had yesterday. Ironically, while I was sitting in the 15-minutes post vaccination observation room, I received a message from my friend and Nen teacher Jimmy Nébni in Daru, Papua New Guinea, which I reproduce here: ‘’Is there anything else behind the scenes in this vaccine because of the media news through the media network saying that there is something evil behind this”. I sent him a link to Dr Fauci getting vaccinated and told him he was one of the people I trust the most on this, but it was a stark reminder how hard it can be for people in remote settings to know who to believe, and of the ease with which conspiratorial rumours can block the progress of public health campaigns. I talked to the Australian Academy of the Humanities about this in connection with the need in many communities to hear from senior, trusted community members, with the use of local language adding further bona fides. There are already some excellent resources out there — check out the vaccine rollout information in eighteen Northern Territory languages here. But we can also act more directly, as people known in communities and countries of the region, to help people get access to reliable information. 

The last week has also been a stark reminder that the enormous push last year to block COVID from entering Australian First Nations could so easily be jeopardised again, particularly now that the kappa variant has upped the ease of transmission. In addition to the need for further messaging through the various channels that worked so hard last year, we all need to be extra careful about any risk of introducing COVID to First Nations communities. This new wave has happened so fast that not all university guidelines may have kept up with it, but in case you are still travelling into First Nations communities — which seems a risky thing to do at present — please make sure to have a COVID test beforehand and get vaccinated as soon as you can. It’s worth checking the nearest hospitals (e.g., Darwin, Alice Springs) which often have walk-in vaccination possibilities, including for Pfizer, beyond the expected demographic groups. 

There are some cracker talks coming up over the next couple of weeks, in person, on Zoom, and in hybrid modes. I’d also like to draw your attention to some really interesting talks over the last couple of weeks, on a range of topics from the health impact of learning Indigenous languages through the use of ELPIS on recordings in Mboshi (Republic of Congo) to the application of ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) to code-switching in Indonesian-teaching contexts. And, again, a slew of intensive courses, conferences, and jobs! As most of you will have noticed, we maintain a rolling list of these so you won’t overlook a vital job, PhD or conference opportunity if you miss reading a particular week’s mailout, so please check carefully since new jobs are coming up all the time. 

Speaking of jobs, I reckon that a good index of the intellectual vigour of a field is how many other seemingly distant fields its graduates find jobs in. So, a big congratulations to Joshua Arnold, one of the driving forces of the ELPIS team at our UQ node, who is moving from working on problems of transcribing natural languages to building tools for neuroscientists interested in zebra fish brains (well, they do share 70% of our DNA...), and definitely a CoEDL first for this particular crossover. I like poking around in old science articles, many of which really stand the test of time, and you might enjoy this one (from 1960!), on what makes instruments indispensable in science. It’s salutary to ask ourselves what instruments (including conceptual) from the language sciences are, or should be, indispensable in other fields. 

And of course, what blazes the trail for crossovers like this is getting our field out there and connected with others — like getting words for ‘moon’ in First Nations languages out into the Australian Space Discovery Centre (growing out of the 50 Words Project), or reopening the question of what senses humans have available to them, building on the extraordinarily accurate compass-reckoning ability in many First Nations groups (see Felicity Meakins’ upcoming talk). 

Have a good week everybody, and I hope that in next week the tide of this zigzag pandemic campaign can be pushed back again, a life and death battle we can each contribute to. 


Nick Evans

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