Indigenous languages – staying in the background

Mirabile dictu… The 2020 summit background material on Indigenous Australia, “>Slide 10 of the 11 slides, notes the terrible state of Australia’s languages, and the need to do something about them. Considerable urgency is required if we are to preserve Australia’s Indigenous languages and traditions.
BUT, the urgency and importance have disappeared from the interim report arising from the summit. The Indigenous section doesn’t mention Indigenous languages once. Education ranks highly, but it’s the kind of education that focuses on the problems caused by the differences between children’s home languages and school languages (send the kids to boarding schools, make parents send kids to school), rather than on helping children negotiate between the two languages, and learn to value them both.
Some of the ideas from Yuendumu that didn’t make it into the summit appear in Wendy Baarda’s piece in the Education News of the Age . I quote a bit, but go read the whole!

After 30 years living and teaching at Yuendumu – a remote community about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs that speaks Warlpiri as its first language – I have watched literacy attainment levels slowly declining over the past decade. I believe there are two main reasons for this. One is the reduction and neglect of our bilingual or Two-Way program, a key to community involvement and pride in schools at Yuendumu and other bush schools.
The other factor has been the difficulty in attracting school principals of sufficient calibre and experience to be able to navigate complex relationships between two vastly different cultures and to develop innovative, community-based solutions.
There has been a steady loss of positions for Warlpiri staff since the early ’90s. Fifteen years ago our Two-Way program was thriving. We had 10 Warlpiri and 10 mainstream staff members, including a mentor and a teacher linguist to support Warlpiri staff.
Now we have only one trained Warlpiri teacher and four Warlpiri assistant teachers with seven mainstream teachers. With fewer Warlpiri staff in the school there are fewer families represented and therefore a declining interest in the school and fewer children made to attend. Attendance has declined over the past decade, a symptom of a malaise within the community itself.
The Aboriginal schools whose Two-Way programs were discontinued have not since lifted literacy standards. Across all remote indigenous schools, whether English-only or Two-Way, the standard of spoken and written English is very low.
Boarding schools may be the answer for some, but why should Aboriginal children need to be sent far away to boarding schools to become literate, when much more could be done to improve education and build strong communities at home?

In the 2020 interim report the only place that Indigenous languages do get mentioned is in the arts section:

  • Creativity is central to Australian life and Indigenous culture is the core to this. To measure, document and leverage the strengths of this culture, to articulate our role and improve protection of indigenous culture, language and heritage through a National Indigenous Cultural Authority.

Ho hum, I thought that helping preserve Indigenous languages was part of the job of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Studies. They hold the major archive of language material, and they presently employ two research linguists on short-term contracts. They advise on maintaining and documenting Indigenous languages. It’s a specialised field, and good advice could save Government departments and language centres heaps of time and money. And it could save Indigenous people much heart-ache.
There’s a bit more on languages of the region in another section

  • To reinvigorate and deepen our engagement with Asia and the Pacific.
    To ensure that the major languages and cultures of our region are no longer foreign to Australians but are familiar and mainstreamed into Australian society.

Again, amplification of this in an opinion piece by Matthew Davies in the Age. Again a BUT. Not sure about this word ‘major’. Leaving aside the many small endangered languages of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia etc, is Tok Pisin major? Is Solomons Pidgin? Is Bislama? Not in number of speakers, perhaps, but in being important languages for use in the region, undoubtedly.

4 thoughts on “Indigenous languages – staying in the background”

  1. That is really quite terrible. Language is the center of culture, and it is even now being recognized that it helps shape cognition and culture. I can’t see how the Australian Institute could not put it as a priority for the indigenous Australian and Torres Straits islands. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. It is depressing that there is so little attention on our indigenous tongues. Here in the Torres Strait there is little energy or enthusiasm and we wait and watch as deep language speakers depart this world and babies are born into a world of English lullabies. Sorry, feeling bleak today.

  3. It is very sad that educators are neglecting the very basics of their program. I can see the same occurring where I work in Lajamanu. The lives that are devastated by this is the entire youth population of this town. This seems to have been the standard for quite some years. Invariably blame is put on the community. I would have thought having lessons in a language a child understands would be mandatory. But here the children have classes given to them in a language and culture they do not associate with or understand. And it is delivered to them in a substandard manner. If a tiny country like New Zealand can deliver such a basic simple program of teaching in indigenous language why can’t a wealthy country such as Australia achieve this.

  4. Excellent comment Louisa… why indeed. See if you can raise your voice to make it heard. Some of us are listening. I’m here in Katherine and doing a few bits n bobs to try and make education linguistically appropriate. If there’s anything I may be useful for, get in touch! I’m at munanga at bigpond dot com. (I know a few ppl around town involved in Warlpiri this’n’that).

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