More than 90% of Australia’s Indigenous languages are critically endangered and two-thirds of those languages spoken a hundred years ago are now dormant. The seeds of the current situation were sown long ago, even before English was widespread in remote communities and Aboriginal children went to school.
Genocide, forced population removal, disease, stolen children, and community disruption — all of these have contributed to the precarious state of Indigenous languages today. Meanwhile, most Australian educational policies have been apathetic at best towards fostering Indigenous language use in schools.
Some states are making strides, such as New South Wales, which last month launched the first of five community-run language nests aimed at saving Indigenous languages. Meanwhile, other states and territories, like the Northern Territory, have begun winding back Indigenous language initiatives.
Can a mere policy cause people to shift to English, or back to an Indigenous language? Probably not. You can’t make people speak a language if they don’t want to. But if education services are provided in a language that the kids don’t use regularly and don’t understand well, it can be damaging.
What works and what doesn’t?
When the language resources are unavailable, it makes education less relevant and more difficult, and makes it less likely that children will attend school.
In short, education entirely in English for speakers of Indigenous languages impedes access to literacy and its benefits. Study after study has made that clear.
The most effective policies for language maintenance and reclamation are those that support communities in their own attempts to preserve or reclaim their languages. That’s why the language nest program, currently being rolled out in New South Wales, is such a welcome sign.
Language nests were originally developed in New Zealand. A language nest is like a creche, with older community members providing care while speaking their language. This provides much needed exposure to the language while the children are still young enough to acquire native fluency. Language nests have been successful in New Zealand and Hawaii in slowing down language shift, but have yet to be used much in Australia.
The language nest program is one of a series of recommendations made by the recent government inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. That report included a raft of recommendations to increase Indigenous participation in education, to raise the profile for Indigenous languages in the wider community (through, for example, dual naming), and to make language documentation and instructional materials easier to create and distribute.
Barriers to change
A barrier to the realisation of these recommendations is that responsibility for many of the relevant policies lies with state bodies.
Indigenous education policies over the last 30 years have been a patchwork of half-implemented ideas combined with poorly funded frequently broken promises.
For a case study, we can look to the Northern Territory, which has been a battleground for Aboriginal education policy. The Northern Territory has the most first language speakers of Aboriginal languages of anywhere in Australia.
Yet while the NSW government is supporting language transmission through language nests, the NT government is making it harder to teach both Aboriginal languages and English in remote community schools.
As the ABC reported, the NT education department is cutting support for English as a Second Language (ESL) and removing Indigenous language support positions in Eastern Arnhem Land (an area where very few students speak English before going to school).
A better legacy
Languages can survive despite adverse policies, through the determination of their speakers and their willingness to do whatever it takes to pass their cultures on. The submissions to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report are testimony to this.
And in some cases, languages have continued to lose speakers despite Government policies to promote their use. Perhaps the Irish language is the most famous example, where the numbers of first language speakers have continued to decline even though the language is compulsory at Irish schools and widely promoted.
If language transmission can continue without proactive policies, and policies promoting language use sometimes fail, does that let government off the hook?
Certainly not. We shouldn’t be living in a climate where minority groups have to do “whatever it takes” to ensure the survival of their languages.
Many factors have contributed to Indigenous language loss in Australia, and the long-term effects are still with us, even if the policies that led to language attrition 50 years ago have been abandoned. Let’s ensure that inquiry recommendations which promote language, culture and learning make it into policy. That would be a better legacy.