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Sep 17, 2012

Parliament reports on indigenous tongues: can they be saved?

The release of the Our Land, Our Languages report could be the start of a new era for Australia’s rich and remarkable indigenous languages. Greg Dickson of Crikey blog Fully (sic) reports.

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Today federal Parliament releases the Our Land, Our Languages report, stemming from the recent inquiry into Learning Languages in Indigenous Communities. Our Land, Our Languages draws on 154 submissions and 23 public hearings held throughout Australia over the course of a year. The report comprehensively argues for greater recognition and resourcing of indigenous languages and calls for action to halt the embarrassing rate of loss and endangerment of native languages. It is a thorough, measured, yet still ambitious document arguing for indigenous languages to be elevated into a position of greater prominence and prosperity.

The inquiry found that indigenous language education programs are thin on the ground; interpreter services are under-utilised and hampered by a lack of resourcing and trained interpreters; indigenous languages are ignored in our constitution; and that many community-based language programs and language centres do “outstanding work”, driven by people who demonstrate “impressive” dedication but such programs and organisations battle over a federal grants program with limited, stagnant funding. Furthermore, they are unnecessarily reliant on such grants because of cracks in legislation that means they can’t receive tax-deductible donations.

The report challenges Australia’s infamous “monolingual mindset” in the same way that the Mabo decision proved Terra Nullius to be a lie, stating:

“… the notion that Australia is a monolingual nation and that only standard Australian English can benefit a person is a fiction.”

The track record of indigenous languages since European invasion is appalling. Over half of our nation’s indigenous languages have already fallen silent and only a handful are still being learnt by children as a mother tongue. National Geographic identifies a large chunk of northern Australia as a global hotspot for endangered languages, placing those languages in the “severe threat” category — the highest category there is. On the occasions when indigenous languages are given the chance to shine, they demonstrate great potential for social, cultural and economic good. But too often they are unrecognised by wider Australian society — or worse, left maligned in environments that foster their disappearance.

The report is released at a time when the limited public dialogue about indigenous languages is plagued by questions about their social and economic value. Common arguments against supporting indigenous languages point to the economic importance of English, the cost and difficulty of servicing and resourcing small languages, the symbolism of English as the national language and its role in nation building. Our Land, Our Languages politely tells people with such attitudes to pull their heads in, arguing, for example, that:

“Many non-indigenous Australians may not have considered the critical importance of language to a person’s identity, sense of belonging and cultural connections.”

The committee sees increased recognition of indigenous languages as being entirely in line with the Closing the Gap agenda and “improving reconciliation outcomes for all Australians”. The use and maintenance of indigenous languages contributes positively to capacity building in remote communities. Committee chair Shayne Neumann emphatically declares:

“To all Australians, I say: take pride in the indigenous languages of our nation. Indigenous languages bring with them rich cultural heritage, knowledge and a spiritual connection to the land.”

The report puts up 30 recommendations, ranging from the practical — changing legislation to permit language organisations to receive tax-deductible donations — to the symbolic constitutional recognition of Indigenous languages. Some carry a price tag such as increased funding for the federal government’s indigenous language funding program (which currently sits at less than $10 million) and some do not. Overall, the recommendations are not budget breakers. They are reasonable and achievable but still meaty enough to “play an important role in reducing the loss of indigenous languages”.

Some who have been around longer than I have seen similar reports before, with their sensible recommendations becoming inert in the hands of various governments. The Our Land, Our Languages report acknowledges this too:

“… the same themes that are covered in this report have been addressed over several reports spanning more than two decades. The committee believes successive governments have failed to prevent the continued decline of indigenous languages.”

Time will tell whether the political impetus for action is there this time around. Perhaps in the report’s favour is that many recommendations target education and will bypass Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin. Instead, Peter Garrett and state education ministers are being asked to look carefully at how schools handle indigenous languages. Recommendations relevant to education include the provision of bilingual education, better cultural awareness training for teachers, a revamp of NAPLAN testing and for better ways to train and employ indigenous language teachers. Depending on the extent to which the government accept and enact the inquiry’s recommendations, Australia has the potential to become a world leader in indigenous language preservation and reclamation, rather than remain a shameful example of language loss.

Keep an eye on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, which will be providing further analysis on the report and its reception over coming days and weeks. This may just be the start of a new era for Australia’s rich and remarkable indigenous languages, which all Australians will be able to take pride in.

*Greg Dickson is a contributor to Fully (sic) and has worked in indigenous language documentation, research, training and resourcing for 10 years. He is a PhD fellow in linguistics at the Australian National University and the public officer of the Ngukurr Language Centre. His submission to the inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities can be found online (submission 125).

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17 thoughts on “Parliament reports on indigenous tongues: can they be saved?

  1. Warren Joffe

    “To all Australians, I say: take pride in the indigenous languages of our nation. Indigenous languages bring with them rich cultural heritage, knowledge and a spiritual connection to the land.”

    Arriving at that was enough to put me off the whole report and report of report as humbug and waffle. It sounds like recent defences I have heard of the Ayatollhahs Iran because of its “ancient and proud history” (actually done in by the Muslims in the 7th century and the Timurid Mongols a few centuries later to make sure that the Sassanids of the 5th and 6th centuries were the last) or the equivalent crap from Maoists barely recovering from the Cultural Revolution. I would prefer to take pride in my Viking ancestors’ pretty execution of the Blood Eagle even if, regrettaby, it can’t be used today as a signifiier of one’s attitude to foreign people and gods.

    What a “rich cultural heritage” that hasn’t got a language to begin to describe the religions of other peoples, science, engineering, political organisation…. The only example that could be held up to give hope would be modern Hebrew which is all about binding one people together as a nation and has invented thousands of neologisms unknown to biblical Hebrew to allow it to serve its purpose. Just to mention that example shows what a fraudulent enterprise it is to try and make Aboriginal children use their indigenous language at school. How many words does a typical Aboriginal language have? (It is fairly obvious that the supposed multilingualism of many pre-modern people is dependent on them and their neigbours not having a language with a large vocabulary).

    Disadvantaged children need particularly good teachers yet there are virtually no good teachers of modern subjects who could teach them in indigenous languages. Bilinugual enthusiasts ought to look at the realities which cause several states in the US to pass, with enthusiastic support of Hispanic parents but opposition from teacher unions and ethnic lobbies, “English for the Children” by referendum, mandating a year of total immersion for non-English speaking children so they could actually take advantage of living in a rich English speaking country.

    None of this means that prosperous educated parents are doing something wrong for their children when they give them the chance of being bilingual by going to non-English medium schools. None of it means that studying Aboriginal languages and the cultures they are associated with is not a good thing for the advance of anthropology. Just don’t pretend that teaching children in their mother tongue at school is doing them a favour.

  2. wamut

    Ah that old chestnut… perpetuate the myth the Indigenous languages have small vocabularies. Why stop there? Why not claim they have simple grammars? Or maybe no grammar? Little more than a series of grunts and clicks perhaps?

    The online dictionaries available here start to demonstrate how rich they are: http://ausil.org.au/node/3717

    And I hate to disagree further, but if I’m teaching little kids computing skills, for example, I am absolutely doing them a favour if I can instruct them in their first language. It may mean the difference between them focusing, paying attention and learning what I have to teach them in one lesson, rather than it taking five lessons if I keep speaking in a language that’s hard for them to follow and engage with. By that fifth lesson, there might only be half the class turning up…

  3. Warren Joffe

    @ Wamut

    How lucky are those you teach. You are, unfortunately, a very rare person as a good teacher who can teach in an indigenous language. But, if Aboriginal people themselves have not managed to make sure there are more like you, and the churches have been put out of business, what hope is there of the public bureaucracies doing more than waste yet more money doing b-all for the Aboriginal communities of northern Australia?

    I am glad that you are not a secondary teacher however as clear thinking, and Clear Thinking demands more than your silliness about grammars and grunts and clicks.

    Thank you for the link. Unfortunately it doesn’t at all assure me that Aboriginal languages have large rich vocabularies or could readily become the indigenous Australian equivalents of Hebrew. I have no doubt that the variety of words and phrases for aspects of pre-settlement/invasion indigenous life and the natural environment are fascinating and suggestive but more useful to professional scholars and researchers than to young Aboriginals struggling with too few teachers like you and little help from their parents to become people who can live anywhere in the 21st century.

    Given the cost of providing (mostly white) public service support of dubious competence of understanding to the most needy communities with Aboriginal children wouldn’t it be better to spend the money on very intensive immersion in English education with all stops out to make it interesting and stimulating followed by scholarships to good boarding schools which already have traditions of educating students from backgrounds where English is not the mother tongue? Obviously it wouldn’t forced on children or their families and there would be cases of homesick children dropping out of the boarding stage but, eventually, there would be enough successful products of such education to serve as encouraging role models.

    What happens after you have done what you describe for the children you teach? Where do they go? How do they progress? Where do they get jobs?

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