Indigenous languages have been embattled since European settlers took over the continent, and have been in severe decline across Australia, particularly in the last 100 years. Today we have reached a dire situation where only around 20 of the remaining languages are being passed on to children in their full form, and even those are beginning to face threats.
Around 100 more languages are still spoken by older people but are not being passed on effectively to children and young people. For most Indigenous and many non- Indigenous people, this is a tragic situation.
Many Indigenous people are struggling to maintain and reclaim their languages and the search for effective ways of halting and reversing the loss is an urgent task.
The purpose of this report is to provide solid evidence about the current state of Indigenous languages in Australia. This report presents recommended ways of tackling the preservation and maintenance of Indigenous languages and methods of targeting areas and types of programs that require urgent action and support.
The report presents data collected on Indigenous language needs on the one hand, and resources and programs on the other. Programs and activities utilise resources to meet needs. The desirable situation is where needs are correctly identified and resources are in place so that programs and activities effectively target the needs.
Urgent support is proposed for several key types of programs. Some of these are already fairly well established but require further support to achieve better results, and others are relatively new. This report will show that these programs could effectively meet the most important and urgent needs, according to the criteria the NILS Report has established and the evidence it has amassed. Since there is limited funding, we provide indicators to assess which particular areas should be targeted as priority pilot programs.
The types of programs that require the most urgent support are outlined below. These are listed from local to regional, state and national levels. Each of these programs requires the existence of the other to operate effectively so that support and services are coordinated.
These are pre-schools/crèches run by local Indigenous people where there is immersion in the local language and culture [Recommendation 1].
In order to have Language Nests and other programs which function well, it is necessary to have a support team resourcing and backing up the effort. These teams would include elders, who typically might know more of a language. It is also necessary for younger Indigenous adults to be involved to learn from the elders, to take responsibility for administration and be part of the teaching, care and production of resources on the languages [Recommendation 2].
- Regional Indigenous Language Centres
These already exist in many, but not all, parts of Australia, and generate and conduct valuable community language programs [Recommendation 3].
- A National Indigenous Languages Centre
Beyond the regional and state language centre levels there is a need for some higher functions to be carried out, to assist regional and community initiatives and to provide policy advice to government [Recommendation 4].
We believe the recommendations that are detailed in Chapters 8 and 9 of this report are the most cost-effective means of supporting language development and that they could significantly improve language maintenance outcomes for Indigenous Australians. If implemented, they would protect an enormously rich part of Australia’s cultural heritage—a heritage which is in grave danger of being completely lost in this century.
In order to ensure that these recommendations have positive outcomes for communities and languages, it is necessary to have both a process of consultation and a system of evaluation after a trial period. This consultation and evaluation is an important theme in this report [Recommendation 2, Recommendation 13].
All too often policy options have been presented in terms such as ‘Indigenous languages versus English’. In fact there is no conflict, because bilingualism and the use of more than one language in education can bring enormous advantages. The Indigenous approach to languages as a community cultural resource and non-Indigenous ‘scientific’ approaches to languages are often wrongly represented as being irreconcilably different.
In fact, they can complement and support each other as has been shown in many successful projects. The requirements of language and cultural programs and the ‘bread and butter’ programs providing health, housing and employment have also been seen as conflicting. In fact though, these approaches can complement and support each other, as this report will explain.
At least part of the reason why programs are seen by some as conflicting and not mutually supportive is that different approaches are construed as being in competition for resources. However, Indigenous ‘two-way’ ideas provide ways of building more cooperative and collaborative schemes.
In this report we stress programs that use the positive interactions between these different approaches. These factors, which have been seen as competing with each other, can be combined in positive ways.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together on languages: English and Indigenous languages can be combined in much better coordinated approaches to Indigenous education. Language and culture programs can support and improve the delivery of practical programs and can lift people’s spirits, encouraging them to engage in community development based on traditional knowledge and values.
Recent government initiatives that, in some cases, seem to be breaking down the old divisions and are allowing for a more creative approach, have been encouraging. One example of this trend is an initiative of the New South Wales (NSW) state government—the first initiative by any state government to recognise and fund Indigenous languages programs in their own right in education as well as through a state language centre.
This initiative followed the production in 2000 of a report on NSW languages, Strong Language: Strong Culture, produced by AIATSIS, through initiatives by the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages (FATSIL) and in consultation with the language community network.
The NSW initiative is in the process of being replicated in Victoria (VIC) and South Australia (SA), with promising discussions also taking place in Queensland (QLD). There are also promising signs that the Northern Territory (NT) Government will revive positive bilingual programs in its schools.
Another promising development is the ‘whole–of-government’ approach to Indigenous affairs by the Australian Government that promises to break down many of the barriers that have hampered progress—and that could create for example better links between community language and education programs [Recommendation 6, Recommendation 8].