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Action needed to help preserve Indigenous languages

Language and Indigenous experts have welcomed a government report that recommends bilingual school education programs for…

After the Gonski review of school funding, the government has been given a new challenge to help preserve Indigenous languages in education. AAP

Language and Indigenous experts have welcomed a government report that recommends bilingual school education programs for Indigenous communities, saying it will benefit all Australians and help get some Indigenous languages off the endangered languages list.

The “Our Land Our Languages” report follows a 12-month inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

The Committee considered the role of Indigenous languages to strengthening aboriginal identity and culture, and the benefits of including Indigenous languages in early education.

“Estimates show that at the time of colonisation there was an estimated 250 Australian indigenous languages being used and today there are about 18 languages,” the report’s authors write.

“The Committee found that the use of languages, including Indigenous languages and Standard Australian English, can assist in improving education, vocational and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 16.6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island language speakers report that they do not speak English well or at all.

The report contains 30 recommendations, including establishing a national Indigenous interpreting service, improving community access to language materials through a dedicated Indigenous languages archive, and place names and landmark signage in local Indigenous languages.

“If the recommendations here were enacted (and allowed to run long enough to make a difference), Australia could go from a country which ranks among the worst in language endangerment to a world leader in language documentation and reclamation best practice,” said Claire Bowern, associate professor of linguistics at Yale University.

But we’ve been here before said Professor Bowern, with some of the recommendations in the report ultimately going back to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in the late 1980s.

“A number of the same recommendations were made in the “Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle” (Little Children are Sacred) report.”

Bill Fogarty, who is a research associate at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at ANU agreed the recommendations could be found in a string of other reports on Indigenous communities, but said they are well-timed given the Federal Government’s response to the Gonski review of school funding.

“There’s a real opportunity for the Federal Government to take the lead on implementing the recommendations in the report and making sure the states actually deliver what they have to in the process,” Dr Fogarty said.

He added that the number and quality of submissions to the inquiry was strong, and that it was nice to see the Committee taking on board evidence provided.

“In Indigenous affairs it sometimes feels like submissions are ignored for policy and political expedience purposes.”

Professor Bowern said it was also gratifying to see the importance of language documentation and archiving highlighted.

“The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS) has been important in this regard for many years but has been chronically underfunded,” she said.

Dr Fogarty said it was “critical” the recommendations relating to the IATSIS database and its research grant program be implemented.

“They’re the kind of wellspring to keep those languages relevant and going.“

He added that there were benefits to all Australians of protecting the knowledge contained within Indigenous languages.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Bi-lingual education in Australia over the decades has had a significant number of failures both as an avenue to maintain language and as a pathway from literacy in L1 to literacy in L2.

    Even the early successful programs of the Dunstan government in S.A were closed on the wishes of the Aboriginal community themselves (see Amery 2002). The same applied in the Torres Strait where most Islanders were not in favour of using the venacular in formal education. (see Shnukal 1992)
    The only way that…

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  2. John Coochey


    Will benefit all Australians? How will someone descended from indigenous studying dead or dying language benefit me? Why not teach them Latin or Ancient Greek and preserve other dead languages? What they must be taught is a sufficiently high level of English so they can get jobs, indigenous languages will not let them do that. Also which languages? I remember a comment by a teacher in Broom asking which of the local languages should be taught or all of them?

  3. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    What is missing from this piece is an argument on how preserving ancient indigenous languages is going "benefit all Australians".
    I read many statements saying how important it is to save these languages but there is little reasoning as to why it is important.
    Because so many different and expensive schemes have been tried and ended in failure, any new schemes will be treated with skepticism unless there is a very strong supporting argument.
    It must be sad for many indigenous people to watch their language die out, however in looking to the future, a stronger case needs to be made for the substantial effort needed in preserving dying languages.

    1. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Language embodies culture and identity.

      Destroying culture and identity fit within the UN definition of genocide.

      Indigenous culture embodies both history of our land and a 40.000 years of learning to live with it.

      Of what benefit is identity to all Australians?

  4. Michael Lenehan


    A National Language Policy in Australia is difficult and has always been.

    Indigenous language policy is about as hard as it gets.

    And it has been since 1788..

    Indeed for some first fleeters even there was probably a need for a lingua franca (Standard English) just to talk amongst themselves - if the evidence of their accents found in their sometimes odd spellings of English word in their original writings is any guide..

    George Bass was regarded as the early white invader most skilled…

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  5. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    The time, effort and expense required to maintain fluency in a few selected aboriginal languages is a waste of resources. We should spend this time and effort improving skills in English, the language of everyday usage and future employment. We can preserve some native indigenous tongues by sound recordings and there will always be some people, with a particular interest in these languages, who will keep the flame burning.

  6. Frank Baarda


    Five comments so far and all coming from an anglo/ethnocentric perspective.
    All questioning the "value" of Aboriginal languages.
    Linguistic/cultural diversity in my opinion is humanity's greatest achievement.
    I suggest that people should read the report and at least a few of the submissions on which it is based before they express disparaging opinions on it.
    If it's just a question of money, then instead of begrudging the funds required to support bilingual programs, one should look at the obscene…

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    1. Michael Lenehan


      In reply to Frank Baarda

      I'd thought I was actually arguing how important a part of a culture any language is. I would have even thought that saying - "It may all sound far too utopian but, in NSW at least, every child in a State High School seems to have the right to be examined in their background foreign language (even sometimes when there is only one student sitting the exam). It's only fair that every individual who identifies as Indigenous has the same right" - was hardly, as you phrase it, 'questioning the "value" of Aboriginal languages.'

    2. Tony Xiao

      retired teacher

      In reply to Frank Baarda

      On the issue of bi-lingual education.
      While it's true that underfunding, government bungling and prejudices contributed to the closure of bi-lingual programs it is also true that there were other contributing factors, especially in the case of the N.T. where the bulk of the programs were carried out. A few being:
      Few Aboriginal adults had the required literacy skills to teach L1. Small speaker populations gave less chance to find people suited to teaching resulting in drastic shortages of trained…

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    3. John Coochey


      In reply to Michael Lenehan

      And your point is precisely what?

    4. Frank Baarda


      In reply to Michael Lenehan

      Oops, Michael. I was guilty of not following up on my own suggestion:
      "I suggest that people should read the report and at least a few of the submissions on which it is based before they express disparaging opinions on it"
      I had not clicked the "show full comment" and indeed as a result have wrongly accused you of questioning the "value", whereas you've done the opposite!
      My only excuse is that living on a remote Aboriginal (Warlpiri) community, I have developed a siege mentality.
      My wife is…

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    5. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email

      In reply to Frank Baarda

      "Five comments so far and all coming from an anglo/ethnocentric perspective.
      All questioning the "value" of Aboriginal languages".

      I don't think there is anything wrong in asking questions. You need to ask questions in order to get answers. How do you racially profile someone asking questions as being from a anglo/ethnocentric perspective?

    6. Michael Lenehan


      In reply to John Coochey

      That indigenous people should have as much right to maintain their community languages and be examined on them in the HSC (or other State equivalent) as people from other language backgrounds.

    7. Frank Baarda


      In reply to Steve Hindle

      As I mentioned above, I am guilty of having developed a siege mentality. Not surprising if you've followed the sustained multi-pronged assimilationist attack remote Aborigines are under.

      Certainly nothing wrong with asking questions, it is just that when it comes to Aboriginal languages the questions keep coming and the answers are ignored or not understood. Us on the front-line are tired of perpetually being imposed on to justify our support of bilingual education, and the need to respect and…

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    8. Gregg Ashcroft

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Frank Baarda

      Well said sir I admire your views and I wish everyone would be so open minded as you. Lets hope it gets implimented!!!!


  7. Linus Bowden

    management consultant

    Here we have yet again a group of upper middle class white people with vested interests (yet MORE taxpayer-funding given to them), using the Aborigines as a justification for their financial demands. If Aborigines wanted to speak these 'dying languages, they'd bloody well learn them. If they are not interested, why should the rest of us?

    1. Frank Baarda


      In reply to Linus Bowden

      Linus, you have no idea how offensive your confining support for bilingual education to be by "a group of upper middle class white people with vested interests" is to many Warlpiri people. But 'mea culpa' I myself generalised: "Five comments so far and all coming from an anglo/ ethnocentric perspective...."
      In this region there is 'Warlpiri-patu-kurlangu-Jaru' an organisation that on a shoestring actively supports bilingual education in Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, Wirliyajarrayi and Yuendumu. It most certainly…

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    2. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Frank Baarda


      Let's just say you are correct, and I have no idea how insulting I am to many Walpiri people. There would be a very good reason for that. There are no Walpiri posting here. My post was a reply to the authors of this post (and the other almost identical article by a white upper middle class Yale academic). Now, let's say that I might have an inkling about the Walpiri people - which I do. So allow me to tell you that you have no idea just how many Walpiri people would back me 100%, because…

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    3. Frank Baarda


      In reply to Linus Bowden

      Jampijimpa did not "write a letter"... I quoted part of the transcript of a hearing by the Parliamentary committee. Dozens of Aborigines travelled hundreds of Kilometres, most of them unpaid and at their own expense, to have their voices heard at the one day hearing in Alice Springs. Similar delegations attended the Darwin hearing. Big Whoop indeed.
      As for the "buckets of money" I can assure you that languages are one of the smallest buckets on the Aboriginal Industry gravy train.
      The Warlpiri…

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  8. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    I challenge any of the following to explain why they are so concerned about a powerful law graduate but have failed to be concerned about crimes being perpetrated on young girls.
    Professor Ann O’Connell
    Professor Miranda Stewart
    Associate Professor Beth Gaze
    Mr Matthew Bell
    Dr Sarah Biddulph
    Mr Jason Bosland
    Dr Anna Chapman
    Associate Professor Sean Cooney
    Professor Lee Godden
    Associate Professor Fred Ellinghaus
    Dr Jacquie Horan
    Associate Professor John Howe
    Professor Andrew Kenyon
    Associate Professor Jurgen Kurtz
    Dr Wendy Larcombe
    Professor Harold Luntz
    Professor Ian Malkin
    Professor Jenny Morgan
    Professor Diane Otto
    Mr Glenn Patmore
    Professor Sam Ricketson
    Ms Lisa Sarmas
    Dr Michelle Taylor-Sands
    Associate Professor Joo-Cheong Tham
    Dr Amanda Whiting

  9. Gregg Ashcroft

    logged in via Facebook

    This very good news. It´s true that in the past such bilingual education didn´t work very well, and that many indiginous people themselves were not in favour, yet this was during a time when they were still highly discriminated (which is still happening today) and so soon after certain historical event (that shall not be named) which made people think that the indiginous languages were worthless.

    It is well seen that bilingual education not only boosts the importance of a language but also gives…

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