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Precarious state of our Indigenous languages

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 25 November 2016

Last week the NSW Government announced new measures to protect Aboriginal languages. In the context of seeking to preserve part of Australia's threatened native culture, the measures superficially come across as a potentially great idea.

According to its Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Leslie Williams, NSW will become the first state in Australia to introduce landmark legislation to protect traditional Aboriginal languages and establish an Aboriginal Languages Centre to support community-led revival efforts. The NSW Government will develop a bill that "will explicitly recognise that Aboriginal people are the owners of their traditional languages", while "giving higher priority to government efforts to support the protection of these languages for future generations".

"Aboriginal people have told us language is indivisible from their identity and we have listened – the cultural inheritance of our Aboriginal communities is too precious to be lost," Mrs Williams said. "Two hundred years ago there were 35 Aboriginal languages and about 100 dialects spoken. Today, all Aboriginal languages are critically endangered. Research shows that Aboriginal children learning a language do better at school and language renewal strengthens communities."


All the rhetoric on this subject coming from the Minister hides that the NSW Government's new measures amount in reality to little more than a load of pious platitudes and unrealistic twaddle. Worse still, because the rhetoric actually denies reality, it may actually divert policy away from areas, where progress could actually be made.

What is wrong with all this rhetoric is that, firstly, you can't legislate the revival of a language so that the proposed legislation will make not one iota of difference. Lack of legal protection is not a material contributor to the continuing decline of Aboriginal languages in NSW in the twenty-first century. Secondly, the NSW Government is too late anyway. Aboriginal languages in NSW are past reviving and already are all but dead. "Post-vernacular maintenance" (teaching some words and other aspects of the lost language) and recording their last vestiges is all that is realistically possible in NSW at this late stage.

The experts tell usthat (historically) the biggest problem in protecting Australian Aboriginal languages was that there were so many of them (and lots of dialects), each spoken by a relatively small number of geographically isolated communities. Of the Indigenous languages that existed in the 20th century, nearly all are considered highly endangered, and, of those that survive, only about 10 per cent (located in the most isolated areas) are being learned by children. Seven of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages, such as Warlpiriand Tiwi, are said to retain only between 1,000 and 3,000 speakers.

According to the New York Times, of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say that nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. Indigenous tongues are being overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television. Research has identified the five regions of the world where languages are disappearing most rapidly. Northern Australia (the home of most of our surviving Indigenous languages), heads this list.

In Australia additional causes of Indigenous language decline include that, in all but remote areas, the great majority of Aboriginal people are marrying a non-Aboriginal partner, which is not conducive to a native language being spoken in the home. In remote areas the prevalence of social problems in many communities has also not been helpful to the emergence of a strong language revival movement.

It should be a matter of broad concern that, in Australia, we risk losing (as a living tongue) all our remaining native languages. Given the billions the Government spends (with limited effect in many cases) on Aboriginal affairs, a good case can be made for making a greater effort to preserve Indigenous languages. Geographically, efforts need to be concentrated in remote areas that still have living languages, not in the populous south east, where Indigenous languages for all intents and purposes have already died out.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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