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Get Fact: are indigenous languages mounting a comeback?

We often hear statistics like “a language dies every two weeks” and predictions that by the end of the century half of the world’s 7000 languages will no longer be spoken. Having worked on endangered languages over the last seven years, I can say from my own experience the situation is critical and is not being overstated.

So how could the census possibly reveal that there isn’t a problem?

That’s what the The Australian reported late last year, claiming census data revealed the Aboriginal language crisis was “exaggerated”. I’ve read the original report and found its findings don’t bear much resemblance to those of The Oz. As it states clearly:

The main finding was that there has been a steady decline in the percentage of indigenous Australians who speak an indigenous language between 2001 and 2011. Given the potential individual and community benefit of indigenous language retention, this is clearly a negative finding.”

The numbers The Oz quotes are correct —  the proportion of Aborigines speaking an indigenous language at home rose from 59.1% in 2006 to 64.7% in 2011 in the Northern Territory — but there’s nuance in the numbers and the breakdown of individual languages.

Alongside the report, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research published a spreadsheet of data showing indigenous languages and their speaker populations in both 2006 and 2011. What’s strikingly obvious is the extraordinary increase in the number of speakers for some of the languages on the list. Some languages that (reportedly) had very few or no speakers in 2006 apparently experienced miraculous rejuvenation over the subsequent five years. Dalabon for example, exhibited a phenomenal rate of uptake, with only seven people reported as speaking the language in 2006, shooting up to a whopping 73 in 2011, a 10-fold increase.

This, to be brutally honest, is impossible, and many of the languages in the list exhibit a similarly inexplicable increase in the number of speakers.

Respondents are clearly answering the language question based on their linguistic affiliation — the language they claim in virtue of being born into a particular linguistic group — rather than their actual linguistic ability. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially given the census doesn’t otherwise ask for anything such as one’s ancestral language. Nor is this specific to Aboriginal people — many migrant communities and families grapple with the same thing. A third generation Italian family might only speak Italian sparingly, with their grandparents for instance, but they’ll still put down “Italian” as the language they speak at home, just as my father — a staunch atheist — always answered “Methodist” under religion.

It simply highlights the limitations of a simplistic, self-reporting survey such as the census for enumerating more complex questions such as language (and religion, for that matter).

Another methodological problem is the inclusion of non-traditional Aboriginal languages such as Kriol (the most populous language in the list) and Yumpalatok (or Torres Strait Islander creole; incidentally the second-most populous language on the list). Since the census is being interpreted to assess the linguistic health of Aboriginal langauges overall, including these languages only serves to cloud the data. For instance, if a community switches from their traditional language to Kriol (as has happened many times in Australian history), but the size of that community grows over time, then the overall numbers would show an increase in the number of people speaking “an Aboriginal language” rather than, more accurately, that the traditional language is no longer being spoken.

The census is simply not the best way to assess the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Fortunately there’s the National Indigenous Langauges Survey  — the first survey, completed in 2005, was a huge national undertaking that attempted to get accurate figures for the state of indigenous languages. It found (emphasis mine):

The situation of Australia’s languages is very grave and requires urgent action. Of an original number of over 250 known Australian indigenous languages, only about 145 indigenous languages are still spoken and the vast majority of these, about 110, are in the severely and critically endangered categories.”

The second survey is currently being conducted. It will probably show the situation hasn’t improved in the last seven years, contrary to the claims of The Australian.

The census is an extremely useful enumeration of the population for a whole range of different reasons, but gathering accurate and useful information with respect to the health of Aboriginal languages isn’t one of them. To suggest claims of the demise of languages are “exaggerated” is, mostly, rubbish.

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