Saturday, September 19, 2009

'I'm stuffed': Migrants boggled by Australian slang

The story below gives some idea of the difficulty I have in writing in an internationally understood way. I speech I am an inveterate user of Australian slang. It is just so much more vivid than standard English

While Australians might think we speak standard English, newly arrived migrants often struggle with the unusual colloquialisms that make up our everyday speech. To overcome that language barrier, an Adelaide TAFE teacher has designed a website so people learning Australian English can translate some of the sayings they hear.

"No worries", "I reckon", "that'd be right", "flat out" and "give it a crack" are just a few of the phrases that leave some new migrants mystified.

The website's creator, Keturah de Klerk, says learning these Australian phrases is crucial for new migrants to feel part of society, and even to hold down their job. Ms de Klerk, who teaches English at Adelaide TAFE, says it's not "coming the raw prawn" or other "bonza" cliched slang that confuses most new migrants to Australia. She says the words she found the hardest to translate were often the ones in most common usage. For example, the phrase "I'm stuffed" has at least three different meanings - "I'm tired," "I'm in trouble" or "I'm full".

"It's simple things, like last week I had some great news for my students. I said, 'guess what?' and they didn't know how to answer me," she said. "[And there are others, such as] 'can you give us a hand' and 'take your time doing this'. "Not to mention just irony and sarcasm, and giving a statement as a question like 'how good is this weather' - they think that they have to provide an answer."

And she says Australians have a habit of shortening words, which can confuse new migrants. "Mozzies, sunnies, chewies, I'm defo - all these sorts of things," she said.

Ms de Klerk found students were constantly coming to her for advice on words they had never heard before arriving in Australia, even though they had learnt basic English. "They would bring in their little tourist book with the lists of all the idioms and slang, but [it was always] the colourful stuff - "crikey", "sheila" and all that sort of thing, which is great but not overly helpful for them," she said.

Kavita Anil Gourd, who moved to Australia from India nine months ago, says it has taken time for her to get used to Australian vernacular. "It is very hard for me because some words like 'hang on' and 'I reckon' I never understand," she said. "Now I understand a little bit what the meaning of 'no worries', 'hang on' and everything."

Parvati Bhattarai, who came to Australia from Bhutan, says before doing the course she was constantly confused by Australian colloquialisms. "They speak English but it is quite different from our tongue and our way of talking, and the most important thing for us is to learn the slang word and to understand the jokes," she said. "When I get on the bus and the bus driver say 'ta'. Ta sound in my country has a very different meaning," said Kae Kwon from Korea. "I tried to get on and he said 'ta'. What's 'ta'?" ["Ta" (meaning "Thanks") is actually of Cockney origin but is also used in Australia]

And it's not just a matter of understanding casual conversation; Ms De Klerk says she knows of some migrants who have lost their jobs because of basic communication barriers. "We have students who we get qualified and who have the English level to get the job, but ... can't hold onto it because the boss sees them as not getting along socially with everyone, which ... has a high level of importance in Australia," she said. "Students were having that problem maintaining their job because they were not feeling comfortable to be social with Australian people at work."

The Aussie slang classes are now spreading around the country, with other TAFEs introducing similar courses. Ms de Klerk simply hopes her classes and the e-phrase website help new migrants make sense of Australian sayings that most of us take for granted.


Thousands of endangered kids 'without care workers'

Victoria's Community Services Minister says 2,000 children who should have been assigned child protection case workers last year were not given one. The revelation comes as the Government announced a $77 million boost for child protection services, or an extra 200 workers, following a damning Ombudsman's report.

The report found child protection workers were overworked and identified three instances of children living with convicted sex offenders. Lisa Neville has told ABC1's Stateline program last night there were 2,000 cases where children were not assigned a case worker last year. "Is that satisfactory in our view? Of course it's not," she said. "Our aim is absolutely that we need to be providing children with a permanent ongoing worker."

Ms Neville says her department failed to tell her about cases of child abuse and neglect raised in the Ombudsman's report. But she says the department's failure to inform her was more of an error of judgement, rather than a deliberate attempt to conceal information from her. "The department respond to a range of complaints all the time - I think that unfortunately they hadn't thought through the consequences of not informing me," Ms Neville said.

Earlier, the union representing child-protection workers in Victoria said the increased funding for the department was tokenistic and further changes were still needed.


Alarm over five "asylum" boats in 14 days

A FIFTH boat of asylum-seekers in a fortnight is emblematic of one of the world's biggest challenges, the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, said yesterday.

On Wednesday, a boat of 48 asylum-seekers and four crew was spotted sailing west of Darwin. The navy boarded the boat late that night and will transfer asylum-seekers to Christmas Island, taking numbers of detained there to about 750.

Facing growing pressure over the surge in boat arrivals, the Government insisted yesterday Australia's immigration facilities on the island were coping. The island, closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland, has a capacity of 1200. Surplus detainees face identity, health and security checks in Darwin, Senator Evans said. ''This will be one of the great issues of the 21st century: people movement,'' he said. ''We've seen record numbers of people moving throughout the world, record numbers of asylum-seekers, and some sort of naive belief that Australia is going to be somehow excused from facing those problems is a nonsense.''

Australia accepts less than 2 per cent of the world's refugees, United Nations figures show. The majority are resettled in developing nations closer to the countries they are fleeing.

People fleeing unrest in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are increasingly making the voyage to Australia. Indonesia and Malaysia are the stopover points.

Yesterday, the Opposition spokeswoman on immigration, Sharman Stone, asked what the Government would do when the Darwin detention centre was full.

But the Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O'Connor, dismissed her question as ''dog whistling''. The Coalition maintains the rise in boats is linked to the scrapping of temporary protection visas last year.


More Federal waste on trains

Rudd's splurge is beginning to make Howard's Alice to Darwin boondoggle look sane

THE third stage of the Rudd government’s fiscal stimulus risks wasting billions more dollars on unnecessary infrastructure. After the $22 billion cash handouts and the $14bn-plus for building primary school halls comes another $22bn for “nation-building” infrastructure in roads, rail, ports, broadband and so on.

The big-ticket infrastructure splurge means the budget stimulus will last until mid-2012, when it will amount to close to 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product. Employment creation is supposed to peak at 18,000 jobs in 2011-12, with up to another 25,000 broadband jobs.

But on the government’s own forecasts, the economy won’t be in need of emergency demand stimulus by then, as it will be growing at an above-trend 4.5 per cent. The stimulus could end up pro-cyclical rather than counter-cyclical, leading to rising interest rates.

The conceptual muddle of using supply-side infrastructure investment as a demand-side stimulus encourages the political spin that more is always better. In fact, infrastructure is a cost that should be minimised. We may need a lot more of it but only if we’re confident it will be worth the cost. That’s doubtful with the Rudd government’s $4.6bn move into rail networks in Australia’s increasingly congested cities. This is the biggest component of the $8.5bn allocated in the May budget for 15 road, rail and port projects mostly approved by Infrastructure Australia.

The flagship is the $3.2bn allocated to the Victorian government’s $4.3bn Regional Rail Express project to build a 40km western rail line from Melbourne. This would allow express trains from Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo to run into the CBD on their own line without clogging up the suburban rail network. The price tag is huge. Six years ago, the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line cost $1.3bn for 1420km of new track. And the Rudd government is throwing in another $40 million downpayment on the associated $4.5bn Melbourne Metro.

Despite its name, the Melbourne Metro will not provide a Paris-style underground metro system for Australia’s second biggest city. Melburnians will still mostly get around town on their trams. Instead, a 17km inner city tunnel is mainly supposed to reduce congestion between the east and west surburban rail lines. The whole project was recommended in a report to the Victorian government by Rod Eddington, now Infrastructure Australia chairman. Nevertheless, the economics of the program were dismantled by economists Henry Ergas and Alex Robson at the Productivity Commission’s annual policy round-table last month.

Ergas and Robson note that the cost-benefit estimate of the combined project from consultants Meyrick and Associates (now GHD Meyrick) was line-ball on traditional measures, with a $7.9bn net present value for both costs and benefits. But they also note that this wrongly double counts the benefits by including the estimated extra rail fare revenue. This is actually a cost to passengers to pay for the travel time savings, which already have been included as a benefit. Moreover, the project’s stated benefit-cost ratio exceeds 1.0 only by adding $1.3bn of “wider economic benefits”, such as questionable “agglomeration” economies from reducing the “economic distance” between Melbourne and regional centres.

And Ergas and Robson convincingly argue that the consultant’s report is technically wrong to assume that the estimated reduction in travelling time will have the same impact as an increase in wages in encouraging people to work more. Rather, instead of the wider benefit of increased tax revenue, reduced commuting time may mostly prompt a shift to part-time work spread over more days.

Even more basic doubts are raised by public transport advocate Paul Mees, a senior lecturer in transport planning at RMIT University. Mees sensationally claims Melbourne’s train system already has more than enough capacity to deliver the extra 40 trains per hour - including 14 trains at peak hours - promised by the expensive east-west tunnel.

Back in the Australia of the 1920s, Melbourne’s suburban train network was world leading both in its geographical coverage and its operational efficiency. By 1929, Flinders Street station was handling 113 suburban trains at peak hour compared to only 94 in 2008. The network handled more traffic after World War II than now. The official 1969 transport plan, which led to the existing four-track underground CBD rail loop, envisaged passenger trips would double to 300 million by the mid-80s. Instead, they slumped to 100 million.

The decline in patronage that flowed from the rise of the motor vehicle in the 20s and the excess capacity built in from the 70s inexorably eroded operational efficiency. The fat solidified and peak-hour trains now are increasingly over-crowded even through passenger trips have rebounded to less than 200 million.

Tracing how the Swiss-like performance of 20s Australia’s urban train systems degenerated into the world-lagging inefficiencies of today’s Melbourne and Sydney rail networks would make a fascinating historical study. Mees notes that a strong culture of on-time running allowed Melbourne trains to arrive two minutes apart in the 20s. Now this has blown out to three minutes. Cutting this back by just 30 seconds would allow an extra 32 trains per hour.

He points to inefficient work rules (drivers have to leave their cabins to unlock wheelchair ramps), a culture of late boarding (which frequently adds up to 20 seconds to “dwell time") and train layout (two, rather than three, doors per carriage per side). He also identifies underused suburban tunnel space that could separately accommodate country trains.

Sydney’s train system is even more notorious for its inefficiencies. And the shambles of the NSW Labor government meant that Sydney alone missed out on serious Infrastructure Australia money for its proposed $5.3bn CBD metro rail project, which is supposed to link to an $8.3bn 24km underground metro line to beyond Parramatta. Passenger forecasts are now being inflated to support the case.

Some suggest that the project is one way to escape the inefficiencies and union control of the existing system. If so, that would be a hugely expensive surrender to failure.

It suggests that Infrastructure Australia needs to adopt two key principles. First, it must demand that existing suburban rail systems are operating close to world’s best efficiency before spending billions more on new capacity. Second, it must urgently develop a credible, consistent and public cost-benefit framework for assessing and comparing all infrastructure proposals involving federal money.


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