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.

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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.

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