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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.


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. Angra

    There is an outrageous column this morning posted by Andrew Bolt which denigrates the teaching of indigenous languages.

    Here’s the worst section –

    “Two problems with this (bilingual indigenous language education), both likely to cripple the future of the children.

    First, finding teachers able to teach in indigenous languages will be fearsomely difficult, and likely to lead to language proficiency trumping any real aptitude to teach.

    Second, Aboriginal students out bush must learn to speak English fluently if they are to escape their welfare ghettos and find work elsewhere. No other skill is as important to their future. Language immersion at school is critical to that.

    “Saving” dying languages is a fool’s errand, and saving them at the cost of a child’s future is cruel.”

    I find this grossly r*cist, ignorant and utterly wrong in so many ways – words fail me…

  2. John Bennetts

    One primary thrust of this article is that language programs are unable to receive tax deductable status.

    I’m no tax expert, but is not education included as one of the headings under which deductible gift recipient status is available? So, what is the problem?

  3. wamut

    Not-for-profit organisations that are set up specifically to support Indigenous languages – and there are quite a few around the country – but are not schools, fall through the cracks when it comes to DGR status. They are not strictly education providers although that is often a big part of their brief. They are also ineligible to go on the Register of Cultural Organisations and get DGR status that way. The report has a nice summary of the issue in Chapter 3 (p.69 onwards).

  4. Scott

    This seems like an odd thing to focus on. The world is getting closer together and is moving towards a default English language but this report is trying to encourage indigenous languages that are spoken by no one outside Australia (and only by around half of the 2.5% of the population of Australia that identifies as indigenous).

    I’d rather they learn computer programming languages myself.

  5. Arlen


    I am surprised to see such a backwards view to language learning here at Crikey. The links between language and a persons connection to their culture and heritage are well documented. And working to conserve native languages does nothing to preclude that speakers of Australian languages learn English to a high level as well. As the authors submission says, most Aboriginal Australians have been multilingual for thousands of years.

  6. Aidan Wilson

    The world is getting closer together and is moving towards a default English language but this report is trying to encourage indigenous languages that are spoken by no one outside Australia (and only by around half of the 2.5% of the population of Australia that identifies as indigenous).

    Scott, the inquiry found that using the medium of the children’s first language is the most effective means of ensuring that these kids learn English. So supporting indigenous languages in early childhood education is not, as is commonly and naively thought by many people, going to keep them in an Aboriginal ghetto; it is the way to most effectively bring them into the wider English-speaking world.
    Section 4.163 through to 4.173 focus specifically on this, but most of section 4 is relevant.

  7. Scott

    “And working to conserve native languages does nothing to preclude that speakers of Australian languages learn English to a high level as well”

    I disagree. The school day is only so long. An hour spent learning indigenous languages is an hour less spent on maths, science, english and yes, computer programming.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for aboriginal history and culture in the school curriculum. There is also nothing preventing aboriginal language studies occurring in the home, where I believe they belong.

    I just don’t believe that public schools schould be dedicating scarce resources to teaching fastly diminishing languages that are mainly the preserve of older indigenous people. It is not equipping young indigenous Australians with the skills/knowledge they will need in the 21st Century.

  8. wamut

    Scott, the recommendation for bilingual education is for places where students speak a language other than English at home, so the situation where it’s only elderly people speaking the language is not relevant to the bilingual education recommendation.

    You miss the point that it’s not about teaching language, but teaching *in* or *through* an Indigenous language, when it is already the kids first language. Therefore, schools would in fact be teaching maths, science, PE, computers, and English, but using the kids own language as the language of instruction. That is the point of bilingual education and the evidence shows that it is a highly successful teaching methodology.

    Have a read through the report if you want the background on all of this stuff. The report is the product of a lot of research and investigation. They know what they are talking about.

  9. Daryn

    Yes DGR is a problem for us to obtain, it is a huge one and if anyone had heard the conversations which took place with myself and the ATO rep from the team who made the decision in our respect to our applications, you would be disgusted.

    We are also hoping that a review of the DGR system which recently took place not to long ago, goes in some part to changing the legislation which seems to be still back in the early 1900’s. Hopefully this report will add further weight.

  10. 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.

  11. 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…

  12. Hamis Hill

    A mother tongue does not die until all the mothers are dead.
    So while there are still mothers teaching their children their original tongue then why deprive children of their heritage?
    Besides, with modern equipment it is much easier to capture an oral record and them write it down.
    How many languages have been preserved by being captured in a bible version?
    As for vocabulary, is there nothing unique about this continent that is better described by the Language of the First Peoples?
    How much has been lost by neglect and arrogance?
    How poor are we from losing rich cultural currency?
    Having learned to read through the comic section of the newspaper before going to school( having already learned how to talk) how hard would it be to preserve and teach the First Australian languages by the same method, before school at or near the mother’s knee?
    Much neglect going on here.

  13. Angra

    Bolt’s at it again today, equating respect for indigenous languages with a lefty fetish.

    “Children aren’t museum exhibits”

    So Indigenous culture and traditions are just fit for a museum then Andrew?

    What patronising and offensive ignorance.

    He refers to bilingual education policy, then says “No English means no future.”

    What’s the connection? No one has said “No English”. It’s “bilingual education” This is typical of the distortion and ignorance surrounding this issue, and I am sad to see it repeated here by some commentators.

    It also involved gross ignorance of child development science. Children can quickly adapt to two languages – in fact far more easily than adults.

    Why has this been turned into a left/right issue?

  14. 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?

  15. Warren Joffe

    @ Angra

    It is one thing to have indigenous kids who know nothing but their indigenous mother tongue introduced by a kindergarten teacher or teacher assistant who speaks the same language to letters and numbers and writing but, if you don’t want indigenous children to fall behind for reasons that schools can do something about you are going to need highly competent teachers. Moreover they are going to have to be right up to scratch in English. How many are there? How many in serious professional training who will devote themselves to the demanding task? And in which indigenous languages?

    Doing things because you are aspiring to an ideal or because you have good intentions is not enough. It has to work or you are sacrificing the children you are pretending to help but, in reality, using, unseuccessfully, in an attempt to achieve something you think is a good idea and embellish with ennobling words about culture and identity.

  16. Arthur Bell

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

    Warren J,
    this is just as sickening and More Humbug and Waffle ! I am of obvious Aboriginal heritage from the bush and have lived and worked round most if this Country. I was bought up with a semi-traditional lifestyle hunting and fishing to help feed our family. I have a smattering of some Aboriginal languages but speak none. Yet, I know who I am, and I have a very strong sense of identity as an Australian and a very strong sense of belonging, to my Country Australia.
    This stuff is of the intrenched “Aboriginal Victim Industry” AVI. Those that seek to Encourage and to Perpetuate the Victim Status and Mentality of Aboriginal People. We are it seems, the only people on the planet that can’t Move On. Nor will the AVI allow us to !

    For more info http://www.whitc.info/

  17. Warren Joffe

    @ Arthur Bell

    At first sight I thought you were having a go at me. But I hope, for the sake of my respect for your logic and your attention to what others have said, that it is not so. Indeed I realise that your opening quote is from the original article quoting the recent report and you appear to be telling me, and others, that it is humbug because you have a perfectly adequate sense of your identity, which iincludes an indigenous component, without speaking an Aboriginal language. Glad to hear it. I believe you. Mind you, if you want to be really post-modern you could choose to identify as Ancient Celtic Druids with Cellphones 🙂 I hope to hear more from you.


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