Kriol interpreting efforts misunderstood in Western Australia and abroad

Earlier this month, Australian politician Mark McGowan received harsh criticism for a video campaign intended to disseminate COVID-19-related information to Aboriginal people living in the state of Western Australia (WA).

Several political commentators within and outside of Australia ridiculed the video, even deeming it racist, for including an interpreter to speak in Kriol, a language which shares much of its grammar and lexicon with English — however, it’s likely that the outrage comes from a deep misunderstanding of Australian Aboriginal people and their languages. MultiLingual spoke with Lawson Stapleton, an Australian language services professional who developed South Australia’s first interpreting service for indigenous languages, about the video and why the outrage against it is largely unjustified.

“Kriol is widely unknown to the general Australian public and is often labeled as ‘broken English’ in a derogatory way,” Stapleton said. “What’s really important is that often critical words or adjectives in Kriol take an English word and change the meaning.”

As its name suggests, Kriol is a creole language, which is derived from English and various Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia. It’s quite mutually intelligible with English, a fact which likely contributed to commentators’ misunderstanding and outrage surrounding McGowan’s video. The video, developed with the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia, was created in order to share information about the pandemic with Aboriginal people groups living in WA, as a means of providing adequate language access services to the community.

McGowan, the premier of WA, is seen side by side with an interpreter reading a message about COVID-19 vaccination efforts; after each line, the interpreter renders the message in Kriol. Because the message sounds so similar in both languages, it may sound like the interpreter is simply speaking English, especially to viewers who are only familiar with English. While the video was first published in Dec. 2021, critics like Matt Walsh began sharing the video earlier this month, ridiculing what they believed to be a racist and simplified version of English.

But that’s not really what the video was doing, Stapleton said.

“The idea behind the video was to ensure clear communication rather than assumptions or a disinterest because it wasn’t in (the right) language,” he said. “Governments often have a habit of speaking in jargon, so this was simply an attempt to be inclusive and trade out jargon for colloquial language making it more accessible and comfortable.”

There are several words in Kriol that are pronounced similarly to English words with similar meanings, but the words have different connotations. For example, Stapleton noted that the word “deadly,” is often used in Kriol to mean “awesome” or “amazing” — having a Kriol interpreter to render McGowan’s message into Kriol ensures that there is no confusion when describing COVID-19 as “deadly.”

“If anything, this has been the creation of a fantastic opportunity to realize for a moment how little the general public actually know about our amazing indigenous languages and cultures,” Stapleton said. “In my experience only those who work directly with indigenous people tend to know something about it. Unfortunately this is a minority of people.”

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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