Indigenous languages are under attack yet again. The federal budget, released on May 13, includes a substantial reduction of A$9.5 million over four years for the Indigenous Languages Support Programme (ILS), which will now be funded at A$11.1 million a year. The ILS assists language-related initiatives across Australia and provides important employment opportunities for Indigenous communities.
The Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, released the day after the budget, also has as one of its principle recommendations that the primary school curriculum be delivered (only) in English.
That’s despite the many submissions to the review process arguing for the benefits of bilingual education for children whose first language is not English. Research shows clearly that bilingual education, which combines a first language and English, is the best way to teach Indigenous children how to be literate and competent in English – a view also held by indigenous educators.
The most recent blows for Indigenous languages come despite the fact that an enormous body of evidence, as outlined below, highlights the importance of Indigenous languages for the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people.
The 2012 federal government inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities produced the Our Land, Our Languages report, which has as its first recommendation that:
the Commonwealth government include in the Closing the Gap framework acknowledgement of the fundamental role and importance of Indigenous languages in preserving heritage and improving outcomes for Indigenous people.
This is supported by recent studies showing that Indigenous youth who speak an Indigenous language have substantially better physical and emotional wellbeing, engage far less in risky drug and alcohol use, and have lower rates of suicide.
But if Indigenous languages are so central to improving outcomes for Indigenous people, and can have such significant impacts on health and wellbeing, why are they not supported by government and educational policy?
The answer lies in the monolingual mindset that grips much of mainstream Australia (and, indeed, most of the English-speaking world). This mindset sees monolingualism, in English, as the norm and the ideal.
Comments along these lines are easy to find on any website that talks about Indigenous or minority languages, including the following two, prompted by an excellent buzzfeed post about languages in Australia:
I personally think the world should try to blend eventually to a single language. Wouldn’t everything be so much easier? It makes perfect sense for all of us worldwide to speak together … I don’t understand why people are so against the idea. (Tommy Holland, 18/2/2014)
I don’t find it inherently bad that most people can communicate in English in Australia. Speaking a common language promotes mutual understanding and harmony. (Sage Stone, 18/2/2014)
What this common view misses is that people can communicate in the same language without it being their only language. Speaking multiple languages is a common human condition, and one that the human brain is very well-equipped to handle. Across the world, speaking multiple languages is the norm.
Monolingual English speakers (such as many of us in Australia) are in the overwhelming minority: there are now significantly more people who speak English as a second, third or fourth language, than as a first (and only) language.
The misplaced monolingual bias of mainstream Australia drives a devaluing of Indigenous languages in public policy. It assumes Indigenous people need to make a choice between speaking an Indigenous language and engaging with mainstream Australia.
Speaking an Indigenous language is seen as a deficit; a problem to be fixed, and an impediment to interacting with English-speaking Australians. This then leads policy makers to attribute failings in the education of Indigenous children to the languages they speak, or to treat language-related programs as expendable despite the well-established benefits to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people.
Putting Indigenous Australians in this position threatens their cultural safety, challenges their sense of identity and belonging, and reinforces a feeling of isolation from mainstream Australian society and culture.
The best way to ensure that speakers of Indigenous languages have the opportunity to participate in mainstream Australia is to support their traditional languages.
English for Indigenous Australians needs to be seen as an addition rather than a replacement. Indigenous Australians don’t need to make a choice between speaking their own languages and engaging with mainstream Australian society: it is possible for them – as with anyone – to do both.
Children who grow up speaking an Indigenous language are more likely to learn English and English literacy in a bilingual educational program than an English-only program. Supporting Indigenous communities to continue to speak their own languages, while also providing opportunities to learn English as an additional language, will ultimately lead to more equitable outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
The first step is to change the monolingual mindset of policy makers and the Australian community. Only then will we be able to truly close the gap.