Living Indigenous Languages

By Allison Worrall | 10 Jan 14
Aboriginal Flag Puzzle Piece

By Allison Worrall

At the time of European settlement, around 250 Indigenous languages were spoken in Australia. Just 200 years later, it is estimated only 20 are widely spoken. Most schools in Australia choose a European or Asian language to offer children but, increasingly, schools are opting to include classes in their local Indigenous language.

Each year the Commonwealth government channels millions of dollars into the maintenance and revitalisation of Indigenous languages. But some experts say a lack of skilled Indigenous teachers and a low level of community engagement in language programs are hindering Australia’s progress.


“It’s just a policy”

Earlier this year, former Education Minister in the Labor government, Peter Garrett said: “Keeping language alive in our communities is really important but until now there has been no national approach.”

The first National Curriculum for the provision of Indigenous language programs in schools will be introduced in 2014, but experts in the sector are unconvinced the curriculum will make a difference.

John Hobson, a linguist from the University of Sydney’s Koori Centre, said from what he had seen of the draft curriculum it was “light on for detail” and vague.

New South Wales, like other states, has been operating under state curriculums, which give schools and principals a large degree of autonomy in deciding how Indigenous classes can be incorporated into schooling.

Hobson says that even though some in the sector are nervous about losing their autonomy, the Australian Curriculum Reporting Authority’s national framework ultimately needs the support of the states and territories.

“The syllabus for the national curriculum puts it on the table nationally and gives it official status but I don’t think it will cause revolutionary change. It will just provide a collective banner for what is already going on around the country,” Hobson says.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckerman, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, agrees the National Curriculum doesn’t appear to make any significant changes.

“There are no instructions about implementation. It’s just a policy,” he says.

Language maintenance is a right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Zuckerman and Hobson say if Australia is serious about maintaining the small amount of Indigenous languages spoken and revitalising the rest, more needs to be done.


“In Australia we seem to have … forgotten about homes and families”

Zuckerman points to a shortage of trained Indigenous teachers in the field and in universities as a major problem.

In 2012, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs undertook a wide-ranging inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities.

Their report “Our Land Our Languages” made a number of recommendations to the Commonwealth including the development of a national framework of flexible and accessible training for Indigenous people to gain limited authority qualifications to teach.

Julie Long studied Aboriginal linguistics and now teaches Indigenous languages along the mid-north coast of New South Wales. She says the national curriculum doesn’t tackle the real problems in language programs.

“It gives a framework for what to teach and how to teach but it doesn’t help you get teachers on the ground which is the biggest drawback,” she says.

“Really it would only be correct that Indigenous people teach the language. But in that respect, there’s not a lot of Indigenous teachers in schools already so often they’re community members who come into schools and are fairly poorly paid.”

The Koori Centre’s John Hobson says that if Australia is aiming to revive languages and create a generation of children fluent in their native tongue, it will not work unless the wider community is involved.

“In terms of the big picture, just having languages in schools is one thing but it’s quite different to having languages in communities and in people’s homes,” he says.

“In Australia we seem to have put most of our eggs in the school’s basket recently and forgot about homes and families.”

Programs aimed at engaging the local community as well as school-aged children would be more effective at rousing the remnants of a sleeping language, according to Hobson.

“You’d need to look at the provision of language education for adults of child bearing age.

“You’d need mums and dads learning to speak the language and support for them to speak the language at home to reach their children. Those kinds of mechanisms are capable of restoring a generation of first language speakers.”

In some parts of Australia, Indigenous children are brought up in communities that speak their mother tongue and when they reach school, English is their second language. It is these communities where Indigenous languages are considered “healthy”, however tensions have arisen in recent years over the way bilingual programs should be taught.


 “…every Australian should learn an aboriginal language”

In the rest of Australia, language programs are seen as a way to fight the increasing extinction of languages.

“93 per cent of languages are either dead or dying or either sleeping or about to fall dormant,” says Ghilad Zuckerman, who believes the loss of language should be compensated for, not unlike land.

“For me as a linguist, it’s a paradise because there is so much to do. But I have to say I’m actually very sad.

“We need to right the wrongs of the past.”

Zuckerman says language learning is one way of reconnecting Indigenous people with their heritage.

“Language death means loss of cultural autonomy, loss of spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, loss of soul, loss of everything.”

He also says learning Indigenous languages can be an important part of reconciliation. A recent inquiry found that over 16,000 Indigenous students and 13,000 non-Indigenous students in 260 Australian schools were involved in Indigenous language programs.

“It is a small step but it is definitely a step forward. However, it is so far from where it should be. I believe every Australian should learn an Aboriginal language,” he says.

The government has clearly recognised the significance of Aboriginal languages. The draft version of the National Curriculum states that “[l]earning to use these unique languages can play an important part in the development of a strong sense of identity, pride and self esteem for all Australian students.”


“We thought it was successful hearing kids insult each other in language”

Julie Long, who has worked in countless schools teaching Indigenous languages, says “You certainly can’t learn any language without being exposed to the culture of it”.

“There’s a lot of money thrown at a lot of different things for Aboriginal people and not all of them achieve what they try to. But for language, at least there is always pride and identity.”

Long says since language programs were implemented in the small town of Bowraville, where Gumbaynggirr is the indigenous language, there have been small changes.

“There’s a lot more language spoken in the streets by kids. We thought it was successful hearing kids insult each other in language.

“You’d walk and past and go ‘No really, you have to put the adjective behind the noun’.”

Seemingly not phased by the national curriculum, I ask the Koori Centre’s John Hobson if the sector needs more funding.

“There’s always room for more money. But ultimately, money won’t revive a language.”

“It’s got to be people. People who are choosing to learn it and speak it to their kids and families.”

Hobson admits there are often other concerns in Indigenous communities that can cast a shadow over the importance of language programs.

“Overall looking at the value that Australia as a nation places on Aboriginal languages, what proportion of Aboriginal communities are actively engaged in language revival, and the number of more pressing Indigenous issues like health, housing, employment and welfare – it makes it very hard to give a high priority to languages.”

While there has been an increasing interest in the wellbeing and revival of Aboriginal languages, educators and linguistic experts seem far from confident that either increased funding or a national curriculum can ultimately save our country’s oldest spoken languages.


Allison Worrall is a freelance writer, co-editor of Catalyst magazine and journalism student at RMIT University. She tweets stuff about things from @allisonworrall.