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Australia

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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