Thalayan Ngirang-ngan (My Mother Tongue)

By Joel Wright
Aboriginal drawing in red sand in central Australia
JanKratochvila/iStock

In identifying human rights inherent with Victorian Aboriginal languages, it’s necessary to understand pre- and post-colonial use and revival contexts, which differ around the country. Victorian Aboriginal Languages prior to contact with Western society have always been orally transmitted, as there has never been a written form of the language from which to study and learn.

This represents a profound difference to written languages, in that you could only learn an Aboriginal language by living in the lands and community, where and to whom the languages belongs. This nexus of language and culture is holistic, as every utterance defines individual and communal, spiritual and practical knowledge of place and law.

It is fair to say that the most significant cause of Victorian Aboriginal language loss was the destruction of Aboriginal tribes during the European colonisation of Victoria. Coupled with the continuing imposition of assimilationist ideology, policies and laws on the remnant Aboriginal population, Victorian Aboriginal languages have largely been decimated.

Tati Tati near Robinvale has recovered around 100 words, Wirnkill thallinoong-ngat has no words recorded and Gadubanud relies on dialectical relationships with neighbouring languages.

Subsequently all Victorian Aboriginal languages, have not been spoken as a first language since colonial times.

Aboriginal-languages-map-illustration-1

Art by Dave Foster, 380 language groups for Australian Geographic

A comparison of existing international and domestic human rights frameworks for language reveals a considerable disconnect with the realisation of rights inherent with Victorian Aboriginal languages. For example the United Nations, through several landmark documents, predominantly prescribes protections by the state to ensure language rights are enacted.

Whereas the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (VCHRR) only stipulates that language rights “must not be denied”, thus placing the onus of language revival and maintenance solely upon Aboriginal people.

As the VCHRR Section 19 states:       

Aboriginal persons hold distinct cultural rights and must not be denied the right, with other members of their community:

a) to enjoy their identity and culture;

b) to maintain and use their language;

c) to maintain their kinship ties; and

d) to maintain their distinctive spiritual, material and economic relationship with the land and waters and other resources with which they have a connection under traditional laws and customs.

Furthermore, the Victorian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2006 (VACHA) includes specific provisions for the protection of Aboriginal languages as a part of intangible cultural heritage, with the caveat but does not include anything that is widely known to the public”. There are around 3,800 Aboriginal place names recorded for Victoria and many have been adopted as official names without Aboriginal permissions. There are many names that refer to sacred sites, which are being used in commercial contexts and are culturally inaccurate in pronunciation and location. The effect of this caveat, in my view, is to exclude all historical appropriations of Aboriginal language, from the protection of the act.

Aboriginal language is about different ways of thinking, practice, spirituality, ideology and philosophy.

Section 1 of the VACHA states that the main purposes of the act are:

a) to provide for the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage and Aboriginal intangible heritage in Victoria; and

b) to empower traditional owners as protectors of their cultural heritage on behalf of Aboriginal people and all other peoples.

Language is the embodiment of our culture. It holds our knowledge systems, beliefs, art, morals, laws, and customs and provides the social meaning for a common life experience that is uniquely Aboriginal. Yet, whilst preserving our cultural traditions, language also drives cultural change. Language identifies who we are, where we belong and defines our ways of being and ways of knowing. Aboriginal language is about different ways of thinking, practice, spirituality, ideology and philosophy.

In this sense it is language that defines the human rights specific to Aboriginal people.

Today, Victorian Aboriginal people are reclaiming their languages without any restitution from the State for its role in historical language attrition and appropriation. The recent inclusion of Aboriginal language studies in Victorian schools though, represents a positive shift from the past, and the number of students studying Aboriginal languages in Victoria is now increasing significantly.

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Primary schools 0 76 1,174 1,099 1,239 1,159 1,373
Secondary schools 23 96 112 79 69 94 161
Total 23 172 1,286 1,178 1,308 1,253 1,534

Enrolment trends in Aboriginal Languages, 2011–17. Source: Languages Provision in Victorian Government Schools 2017

…current Victorian policy on Aboriginal languages is minimalist, and does not proactively support or fund Aboriginal language programs in Victoria.

Whilst language studies in schools deliver a number of important outcomes in strengthening cultural identity and facilitating reconciliation, reviving our languages has broader relevance that extends across the social justice imperatives critical to addressing Aboriginal disadvantages and inequality. The relearning of one’s mother tongue is now recognised to impact on Aboriginal physical health, mental health and wellbeing, educational success, economic development and is critical to cultural continuity.

UNESCO rates Victorian Aboriginal languages among the top five most critically endangered languages in the world. Yet, current Victorian policy on Aboriginal languages is minimalist, and does not proactively support or fund Aboriginal language programs in Victoria. This may change with the imminent launch of the revised Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework, which for the first time has a specific reference to Aboriginal languages.

2019 is the UN Year of Indigenous Languages. The UN’s action plan is calling on states to legislate support for Indigenous language maintenance, representing an ideal opportunity for Victoria to redress Aboriginal language policy as a part of its current Treaty negotiations with Aboriginal people. The absence of these restorative justice policies will represent a continuation of language dispossession, oppression and discrimination.

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