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.
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.
This report recognises and celebrates the languages of Australia’s Indigenous
peoples who were the original owners of this land for tens of thousands of years.
Across Australia, there has been a groundswell of activity in the area
of language maintenance and revitalisation. The Committee was impressed by the
dedication and passion of people involved in Indigenous languages projects in
urban, regional and remote locations.
Language work is close to the heart of many Indigenous Australians. The
important role that language plays in terms of understanding and transmitting
culture and reinforcing the ties between kinship, country and family was
highlighted, as was the devastation to communities that results when language
A key understanding emerging and profoundly informing this report is
that Indigenous language is inseparable from culture, and is the foundation
upon which the capacity to learn and interact productively with other people is
built. In the Committee’s 2011 report into the overrepresentation of Indigenous
youth in the criminal justice system, Doing Time - Time for Doing, Indigenous
language was identified as an important component of cultural connection,
strengthened intergenerational relationships and community building. Many
people referred to Indigenous languages including traditional, contact or
creole languages, as playing a significant role in the wellbeing of young
The Committee sees the benefits of greater recognition of Indigenous
languages as having a positive impact on slowing the rapid decline of
Indigenous languages, improving self-esteem and identity for Indigenous
Australians, assisting in all areas of Closing the Gap on Indigenous
disadvantage and improving reconciliation outcomes for all Australians.
The Committee found that the use of languages, including Indigenous
languages and Standard Australian English, can assist in improving education,
vocational and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2011 data, 16.6% of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island language speakers report that they do not
speak English well or at all.
Throughout this report the use of the word ‘Indigenous’ respectfully
refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.
Conduct of the inquiry
During the Committee's previous inquiry into Indigenous youth in the
criminal justice system, language was identified as an important component of
cultural connection, strengthening intergenerational relationships and
community building. Many people referred to competency in and recognition of Indigenous
language as playing a significant role in the wellbeing of young Indigenous
The Committee Chair approached appropriate Ministers for terms of
reference for an inquiry into Indigenous languages. On 5 July 2011 the Minister
for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the
Minister for the Arts jointly referred the inquiry.
The Committee was asked to inquire into and report on Indigenous
languages in Australia, with a particular focus on:
n the benefits of
giving attention and recognition to Indigenous languages
n the contribution of
Indigenous languages to Closing the Gap and strengthening Indigenous identity
n the potential
benefits of including Indigenous languages in early education
n measures to improve
education outcomes in those Indigenous communities where English is a second
n the educational and
vocational benefits of ensuring English language competency amongst Indigenous
n measures to improve
Indigenous language interpreting and translating services
n the effectiveness of
current maintenance and revitalisation programs for Indigenous languages, and
n the effectiveness of
the Commonwealth Government Indigenous languages policy in delivering its
objectives, and relevant policies of other Australian governments.
The Committee invited submissions from interested organisations and
individuals. The Committee sought responses to a questionnaire. The
questionnaire aimed to find out about specific language projects in communities
across Australia and was intended to be used as a guide for people to make a
submission to the inquiry who might not normally do so.
The Committee received 154 submissions from a variety of sources,
including Commonwealth, state and territory government departments, Indigenous
rights’ advocacy groups, Indigenous representative organisations, land
councils, Indigenous media organisations, language centres, linguists and a
range of other academics, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities and individuals. A list of submissions received by the Committee is
at Appendix A.
The Committee conducted 23 public hearings in Canberra, Newcastle,
Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Utopia Homelands, Alice Springs, Broome, Halls
Creek and Darwin, as well as teleconferences with witnesses in Arnhem Land, the
Pilbara, the Kimberley region, Innisfail, Perth, Victoria and Tasmania. A list
of public hearings is at Appendix B.
In travelling to a variety of locations, such as Newcastle, Utopia
Homelands and Halls Creek, the Committee heard Indigenous languages in daily
use and recognised their place in Indigenous culture.
Submissions received and transcripts of evidence can be found on the
Committee’s website: http://www.aph.gov.au/languages
The Committee was given a number of children’s books, flashcards, DVDs,
posters and other material displaying the richness of Indigenous languages and
how language is being taught to our young people. The Committee thanks those
that provided examples of the many language resources being developed around
Structure of the report
Chapter 2 examines the evidence the Committee received from Indigenous
Australians about what their languages mean to them. It discusses the link
between language and culture, and how that shapes people’s sense of identity.
The chapter discusses the cultural knowledge, kinship and ancestral stories which
are embedded in Indigenous languages, and are transferred from one generation
to the next through those languages. The chapter discusses the value of
promoting Indigenous languages as a vital part of Australia’s living cultural
heritage and how a greater recognition of and support for Indigenous languages
can help to Close the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
Chapter 3 examines the policy context for Indigenous languages in
Australia, including the limited support those languages have received from
Australian governments in the past. The chapter discusses the current National
Indigenous Languages Policy, the policies of the states and territories, and
the sources of funding that are available to support the range of activities
that are being undertaken to maintain and revive Indigenous languages. The
chapter discusses proposals to recognise Indigenous languages in the Australian
Constitution, and international human rights instruments that have relevance to
Australian Indigenous languages policy.
Chapter 4 examines the value of commencing education in a child’s first
language and or incorporating some elements of Indigenous language, with an
emphasis on the partnerships that can be strengthened by incorporating Indigenous
languages in schools. The chapter discusses a range of issues that were raised
during the inquiry, including school attendance, student and community
engagement in education, the benefits of language nests, bilingual education, strategies
to improve Standard Australian English language competency, the Australian
Curriculum and literacy and numeracy assessments.
Chapter 5 discusses the training and qualifications required to teach
Indigenous languages and the career and accreditation pathways available to
Indigenous language teachers. The chapter discusses the important role of
Indigenous language teachers in the classroom, especially in schools with high
numbers of Indigenous students with English as an additional Language/Dialect
needs, and attracting and retaining Indigenous language teachers.
Chapter 6 explores access and the provision of Indigenous interpreting
and translating services across Australia, including the development of the
National Framework for the effective supply and use of Indigenous language
interpreters and translators, protocols on engaging Indigenous interpreting
services, the proposal for a National Indigenous Interpreting Service, and the
accreditation and competency training for Indigenous language interpreters.
Chapter 7 discusses enhancing networks and sharing language materials to
ensure that Indigenous languages are preserved for the future, and examines
best practice examples of good record keeping and the use of new technologies
to document languages. The chapter examines the role of the Australian
Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) as the
largest repository for Indigenous languages material in Australia.