Aboriginal languages a source of strength

Language is an expression of culture and gives a connection to family, country and community.

Ninety two percent of Indigenous languages are fading or extinct. Australia has suffered the largest and most rapid known loss of languages and past government policies have been largely to blame.

This is clearly outlined in the Our Land: Our Languages report which was released by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs late last year.

The committee found governments had actively repressed the use of Indigenous languages throughout contemporary Australian history. They did so by outlawing the use by Aboriginal people of their mother tongue.

Australia’s first chair of endangered languages, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann from the University of Adelaide puts it bluntly. Those policies have resulted in “linguicide”.

Languages strength

 Zuckermann cited the 2005 National Indigenous Language Survey (NILS) Report to reinforce his point. It shows Australia was home to more than 250 distinct languages before European invasion.

Aboriginal people were typically multilingual. They were likely to speak as many as half a dozen languages, in addition to their own. Today, most of Australia’s Indigenous languages are no longer spoken fully or fluently.

As many as 50 languages can be expected to reach this stage of endangerment in the next 20 to 30 years, as the most severely and critically endangered languages lose their last speakers.

Of the original known languages, the NILS report found only 18 to be “safe/strong” in the sense of being spoken by all age groups. Just over 100 are still alive but highly endangered, spoken only by small groups of people mostly over 40 years of age.

Without decisive action, NILS reported, such languages are at risk of being lost in the next 10 to 30 years. The remainder are either no longer used or remain active as strong markers of country and identity. All continue to face uncertain futures and require ongoing action and support.

So what, you may ask, is so tragic about the loss of a language? Isn’t language just a tool for communication? Does it really matter what language is being spoken as long as people can communicate?

The simple answer is yes.

It matters on a personal, cultural and historical level. Language is far more than just a communication tool. It is a source of pride and strength.

It is an expression of culture and a way to keep the very essence of that culture alive. It goes to the heart and soul of one’s identity. It gives connection to family, country and community.

Language is a crucial and often missing part of the puzzle when it comes to tackling Indigenous disadvantage.

Research has shown Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who speak their language have markedly better physical and mental health, are more likely to be employed and to attend school, and are less likely to abuse alcohol or be charged by the police.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages also carry an intimate understanding of the ecological systems and the land with which they are associated.

Speaking in one’s native tongue forms a crucial component in unlocking and passing down knowledge from generation to generation. Many Australians fail to understand this.

This is not surprising. The 2011 Census revealed 81% of Australians aged five years and over speak only English at home.

The census found first-generation Australians had the highest proportion of people who spoke a language other than English at home (53%).

The rate was much lower for second generation Australians at 20% while the incidence for third or more generations dropped to an abysmal 1.6%.

It is a sad reality and a reflection on the repressive need to conform that parents often choose to speak English at home instead of their native tongue in their pursuit to become more “Australian” and to help their children fit in.

As a first generation Australian of Indian descent, my parents made the decision to abandon their use of Tamil and Hindi in an effort to help my brother and I “fit in.”

Almost 30 years later that decision remains a highly contested point of conversation and source of tension between us.

When I travelled through India in 2011 with my father I felt locked out of my culture and family.

I could not understand what priests were saying during temple ceremonies or the reasons behind my great grandmother’s tears when she spoke in Tamil about our family’s history.

“What did he say? What did she say?” I would continually ask.

“I’ll tell you later,” my father would reply. He never did. I eventually stopped asking.

On a recent trip to Fiji, a close family friend of my mother’s broke down as she spoke in Hindi about her personal experience during the 1987 military coup.

She explained where the latest coup fit in the context of Fiji’s historic volatile relations between the military and government and what it was like for Indians growing up in Fiji.

It was an opportunity to understand the significance of my mother’s decision to leave her homeland in search of a better life for her family. But over the course of two hours I was only able to decipher a few details.

Despite being able to speak English fluently, my mother’s friend felt more comfortable relaying her deeply personal account in Hindi.

When I asked my mother what was said all I received were the broad strokes. The finer details remain locked behind the mother tongue.

By Shyamla Eswaran

[This article was first published at Tracker.]

From GLW issue 992




Saturday, December 7, 2013



How cuts to the NT Education Department could widen the gap



How cuts to the NT Education Department could widen the gap

WAMUT | OCT 31, 2013


First, they rejected Gonski because too much funding would go to remote community schools. Now, the NT Education department is cutting positions that are key in supporting Aboriginal students who don’t speak English at home. Greg Dickson demonstrates the benefit that such support positions can bring and argues that the NT Government’s handling of education could easily cause the much-discussed “gap” to widen rather than narrow.

Yesterday’s report on school attendance paints another bleak picture for Aboriginal education in remote parts of the Northern Territory. School attendance, which already sat at a low base, is worsening. This is on top of unacceptably low rates of students meeting standardised testing benchmarks which puts the NT as the worst performing COAG member. Yet at the same time, the Northern Territory Government is responding in ways that raise serious doubts about whether they are acting to improve the situation.

Earlier this year when the former Labor Federal Government was working hard to roll out the Gonski recommendations to the states and territories, no amount of coaxing could get NT Chief Minister Adam Giles and the NT Government on board. According to them, it required them to spend money they didn’t have. Even after the Federal Government sweetened the deal by offering an extra $75 million to their contribution, the NT Government still decided to pass. In addition to budgetary reasons, the CLP Government felt it was an unfair model because, in rebalancing school funding, the main beneficiaries would be remote schools – i.e. predominantly Aboriginal students.

Giles’ press release bleated: Canberra is trying to hoodwink us into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools.

Increase support for remote schools where students are faring the worst? God forbid! And so it appeared that the status quo in remote NT education was to remain. But only until the NT Government started to put its cuts to the education department on the table, cuts that only look like exacerbating an already bad situation when it comes to remote Aboriginal students.

At a rally in Darwin last month, Dr M Yunupiŋu’s widow, Yalmay, a qualified teacher with over 30 years experience, presented a bark painting to the NT Government, symbolising the importance of education. The Government hasn’t budged and will cut positions; on Monday the ABC reported that 71 positions will be cut which “will include class support roles, such as English-Second-Language teachers and behavioural support staff”. Further reports on the ground are that the department’s linguists have been left off organisational charts, the “English as an Additional Language” unit has been decimated and ESL and Indigenous language support positions in North-east Arnhem Land are gone (despite NT Education Minister Peter Chandler claiming that part of the restructuring is about regionalisation).


Recent education rally in Darwin (Photo source: ABC)

It should be of grave concern that the NT Government thinks that ESL specialists are superfluous and is putting them on the chopping block. Such educational support is absolutely crucial to the Northern Territory which has the nation’s highest proportion of residents who don’t speak English at home. Linguists, ESL teachers and other specialised educational professionals who support non-English speaking students have been a key part of the NT’s education system since the 1970s when bilingual education was rolled out, allowing, for the first time, Aboriginal kids to read, write and learn in the same language they think in: their mother tongue.

But it’s not nostalgia for the era when bilingual education was strong that makes it worrying that ESL support staff and linguist positions are being cut. There are few local Indigenous teachers fronting classrooms, speaking the same way their students do. The vast majority of classroom teachers, despite doing fantastic work to deliver the curriculum they are given, are at an immediate disadvantage by knowing very little of the languages their students bring into the classroom each day. This is where specialised staff are crucial and there are already too few of them.

I’ve spent much of my time as a linguist working in the community of Ngukurr where everyone speaks Kriol – a creole language based heavily on English but distinct enough that it has its own sound system, grammatical rules, lexicon and norms on how to do things like ask for stuff, talk about personal issues and discuss grievances. A few years ago, because access to ESL support within the department was difficult to obtain, some motivated non-Indigenous teachers from the local school in Ngukurr asked for help from me, an outsider. Together with a couple of Ngukurr locals, we ran a very basic course on Kriol for about a dozen non-Aboriginal teachers. A two-day course doesn’t get you too far, but can set off some lightbulbs. Some teachers didn’t understand why their students just couldn’t get the hang of making plurals e.g. one dog, two dogs. When we pointed out that Kriol doesn’t mark plurals on nouns (but can do so with articles or adjectives), several teachers had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. When we told them that Kriol only has a few prepositions and that the Kriol preposition la covers in, on, at and to (among others), it suddenly clicked as to why kids took so long to acquire English prepositions. When we explained that Kriol, like many Aboriginal languages, doesn’t have a separate pronoun for he and she, but just uses im, suddenly teachers understood why some of their students confused the two. And then when we explained that the English pronoun we has four possible translations in Kriol, depending on whether you’re referring to two people or more than two and on whether you are including the person you are talking to or not, we managed to confuse the teachers and replicate what their students experience when they have to grapple with learning a new and complicated language.

This is the type of support and information that linguists and ESL specialists can offer teachers and their students. If the NT Government cuts these positions, not only will teachers not have access to such information and support, even worse – there won’t be anyone in the NT Education Department who even knows this type of helpful linguistic information.

I thought the point was closing the gap, not broadening it.

Written by G Dickson (Wämut) for Fully Sic, Crikey’s Language Blog

Accessed at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/fullysic/2013/10/31/how-cuts-to-the-nt-education-department-could-widen-the-gap/


SBS Radio News: Restoring Indigenous languages

6 Sep 13: "From an estimated 250 Indigenous languages at 
the time of European settlement, only about 20 are now 
widely spoken in Australia. ... But where governments once 
ordered that the languages not be spoken, they are now 
funding their revival. Whether the restoration efforts are 
enough for widespread revitalisation of the languages is 
yet to be seen, but Indigenous workers in the field say the 
seeds of success are beginning to germinate. South-eastern 
Australia bore the initial brunt of European settlement, 
and with that came a heavy impact on Indigenous culture 
and language." By Murray Silby



Bilingual learning - in the Australian Federal Elections


What are the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the Greens Party saying about bilingual learning?

Here are the responses about bilingual learning from the three main parties. Read each response, or the lack of one. As of today, only the Greens Party has a policy regarding bilingual education and bilingual learning for this next term of government. The Australian First Nations Political Party has stated it will re-instate bilingual education.

Liberal Party – no response from request for information from Natasha Griggs.

Labor Party – current position unknown, however response to follow up has been received from Senator Trish Crossin

Most Recent:

• Funding grants on a yearly basis to support Indigenous languages

• Report – Inquiry into Indigenous Languages in Communities (http://goo.gl/0JM0gW)

• Draft Australian Curriculum – Languages –Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages (http://goo.gl/DovYbI)

 Greens Party

Warren H Williams\' comments– standing for NT Senate

The Greens will take action to reverse the funds draining from NT schools and training institutions. We will pursue bilingual education programs that have demonstrated results. Kids learn better in their own language; and research shows bilingual education can achieve better literacy and numeracy outcomes. Learning in language keeps culture strong and supports healthy life in communities.

They say:

We will also dedicate $10 million a year to enhance the teaching and learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Australia risks losing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages without a more concerted effort. The Greens will provide funds on top of current programs for schools to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages alive. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest the educational outcomes for Aboriginal kids are significantly improved when they can learn in their own language.

The funding will ensure education service providers working in remote communities are supported to become bilingual in an Aboriginal language, that teachers working in Aboriginal communities can receive ongoing mandated training in Aboriginal language concepts and that Aboriginal language courses are made available to all pre-service teachers who are intending to work in Aboriginal communities. 

The NT Greens also issued a press release on education today too that explicitly supports bilingual education (see http://goo.gl/fHNCUk):

Policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Protection for cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including their right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs, including language, and to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures.

 Culturally appropriate education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which incorporates language and culture into curricula and supports families and children to engage with the education system.

 An education system which enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to establish and control their own education systems where they choose to do so, in their own language, consistent with their culture.

 Culturally appropriate services and resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on local language, cultural aspects and community priorities. These services to employ qualified community members where possible.

 Qualified local-language and cultural interpreters available in courts, hospitals, clinics, and government meetings when needed.

 Youth programs to be treated as an essential service in remote communities.


Four Corners 2009 program on bilingual education

Going Back to Lajamanu

Reporter: Debbie Whitmont

Broadcast: 14/09/2009

Reporter Debbie Whitmont travels to the Top End to discover what will happen following a government move to scrap a controversial 35-year-old experiment in bilingual education.

When it comes to selling Australia as a tourist destination it goes without saying that Aboriginal language is part of the Australian identity. But in the classrooms of the Northern Territory Indigenous language is not in favour.

Last year national tests found four out of five children in remote schools didn't meet basic standards of English literacy. The Northern Territory Government decided that bilingual schooling was a major cause of this poor performance.

In October 2008 the then minister Marion Scrymgour made a decision that from January 2009 all schools must teach the first four hours of classes in English. For remote area bilingual schools and the communities they serviced it was a major blow.

"It's a matter of commonsense that in all education, whether you're teaching people of five, nine or ninety you've got to go from the known to the unknown." Senior educator

For others it was simply a knee jerk reaction. One senior academic who went to see the minister claims she told him she had been too hasty in making the decision.

"She said, look, I fucked up. And I think what she was referring to is that there was a lack of consultation beforehand and that the application of her four hour English directive ... had many unintended consequences."

The government though did not back down. In fact the Chief Minister told Four Corners he completely supports what's been done:

"We are not banning the speaking of Indigenous languages, the teaching of Indigenous culture in our schools. What we are saying explicitly is that we should have the same expectations for these kids to get to benchmark in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 along with all other kids."

But the decision to stop the bilingual program ignores much available research that shows even those schools primarily using English performed badly in tests.

"Well I was really shocked. I was shocked because there was no consultation with communities ... other schools by and large already had the first four hours of English in any school day and yet their results were still terrible." Jane Simpson

To find out the rationale behind bilingual education and to look at how it has performed, reporter Debbie Whitmont went to two Aboriginal communities in the top end, Lajamanu and Yirrkala. In 1986 Four Corners went to Lajamanu to look at what was then considered an innovative and apparently successful program of bilingual education.

Returning there, the program looks at what happened to the bold experiment of bilingual education. It also asks how the new policy, making English the dominant teaching language, would impact on the students. Perhaps not surprisingly the people there felt their view had been ignored and their culture devalued...

"It's like when you lose your loved ones, you feel the same way when you lose your language," Zachariah Patterson

"Well I think language is a large part of people's identity and their pride in who they are." Wendy Baarda


Naplan Inquiry

The effectiveness of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy

Information about the Inquiry

On 15 May 2013 the Senate referred the following matter to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committees for inquiry and report.

The effectiveness of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), 
With specific reference to: 

a) whether the evidence suggests that NAPLAN is achieving its stated objectives; 
b) unintended consequences of NAPLAN's introduction; 
c) NAPLAN's impact on teaching and student learning practices; 
d) the impact on teaching and student learning practices of publishing NAPLAN test results on the MySchool website; 
e) potential improvements to the program, to improve student learning and assessment; 
f) international best practice for standardised testing, and international case studies about the introduction of standardised testing; and 
g) other relevant matters. 

Submissions should be received by 07 June 2013. The reporting date is 27 June 2013.

The Committee is seeking written submissions from interested individuals and organisations preferably in electronic form submitted online or sent by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. as an attached Adobe PDF or MS Word format document. The email must include full postal address and contact details.

Alternatively, written submissions may be sent to:

Committee Secretary
Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committees
PO Box 6100
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Consultation- Australian Curriculum: Draft Australian Curriculum: Languages Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages

The overall rationale for learning Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australian schools is that they are the original languages of this country. Through learning them, all students gain access to knowledge and understanding of Australia that can only come from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective. The languages by their nature embed this perspective. Learning 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. 

Consultation closes 25 July 2013

Information about the Framework for Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages

Draft Document

Online and Written submissions

Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities

On Monday 17 September 2012, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs tabled its report on the inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities entitled Our Land Our Languages.

From Introduction


  1. The Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia on 3 June 1992 legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land that existed prior to colonisation. The Mabo decision recognised that ‘terra nullius', the concept that Australia was unoccupied at the time of colonisation, is a fiction.

  2.  Similarly, the notion that Australia is a monolingual nation and that only Standard Australian English can benefit a person is a fiction. Estimates show that at the time of colonisation there was an estimated 250 Australian Indigenous languages being used and today there are about 18 languages, strong in the sense of being spoken by significant numbers of people across all age groups. 

  3. Read More


Select Committee Submission

Friends of Bilingual Learning are a network of academics, professionals and interested citizens who recognise the importance of first languages in the acquisition of education, identity and human rights. The "Bilingual Learning" within our name refers to a society that operates with multiple languages, and subsequently accepts a continual cultural learning throughout life.

From the Gallery

Languages of the Top End


Upcoming Events

No events