“Our language is like a pearl
inside a shell. The shell is like the people that carry the language. If our
language is taken away, then that would be like a pearl that is gone. We would
be like an empty oyster shell.”
Galiwin’ku, North East Arnhem Land
Chapter 2 The role of Indigenous languages
The ability to communicate clearly is a key function for all people. Being
able to communicate effectively in an individual’s first or home language
connects a person to their ethnic group and helps to shape a persons’ identity.
As Australians we are aware of the particularities of our language and
culture when we travel to places where language and culture differs from our
own. Even when we might understand the language, for example, when travelling
to England, America or New Zealand, differences in accents, phrasing and
colloquial terms can reaffirm our sense of identity as Australians through the
use of unique elements of Australian English and Australian culture. Often we
recognise another Australian by the style of English language that is used.
In Australia, most Indigenous people identify strongly with a traditional
language identity. The tribe with which they identify is a language group and
in the great majority of cases, the tribal name is the language name.
Cultural heritage and knowledge is passed on throughout each generation
by language. Language is integral in affirming and maintaining wellbeing, self
esteem and a strong sense of identity. Languages contain complex understandings
of a person’s culture and their connection with their land. There is a wealth
of evidence that supports the positive associations of health, education and
employment outcomes as well as general wellbeing with language and culture. Indigenous
languages keep people connected to culture and this strengthens feelings of
pride and self worth.
It is important to emphasise that Australia is not a monolingual
society. Since British settlement English has been the main language in
Australia. The importance of learning and speaking English competently for all
Australians is not disputed. However it is equally important for all
Australians to recognise the several hundred unique Indigenous languages that were
spoken for tens of thousands of years in Australia. These languages have not always
received due recognition in the past.
This chapter discusses what Indigenous languages mean to Indigenous
Australians. It explores the link between language and culture and how that
shapes a sense of identity. Cultural knowledge, kinship, songlines and stories
are reliant on language in order for these important cultural elements to be
passed on from generation to generation.
The value of giving attention to and recognition of Indigenous languages
for all Australians is considered. A better understanding and recognition of
Indigenous languages will assist in the process of reconciliation between
Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians. This chapter discusses the importance
of promoting Indigenous languages as a valuable and historical part of
Australia’s cultural heritage and considers how Indigenous languages can help
to Close the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
Lastly, this chapter provides an overview of Indigenous languages and
the current use of Indigenous Languages in Australia. The Committee understands
that the inquiry’s findings could play an important role in reducing the loss
of Indigenous languages. This report aims to assist the Commonwealth Government
in suggesting ways to promote and recognise the value for all Australians in maintaining,
revitalising and reviving Indigenous languages throughout Australia.
Language, culture and identity
In 2012, the United Nations held a forum on ‘The Study on the role of
languages and culture in the promotion and protection of the rights and
identity of indigenous peoples’. The importance of language is summed up in the
Language is an essential part of, and intrinsically linked
to, indigenous peoples’ ways of life, culture and identities. Languages embody
many indigenous values and concepts and contain indigenous peoples’ histories
and development. They are fundamental markers of indigenous peoples’
distinctiveness and cohesiveness as peoples.
A large volume of evidence received by the Committee throughout the
inquiry reiterated the inextricable link between language, culture and
identity. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples commented in its
Language is central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
cultures. The two are intertwined. Language describes cultural attachment to
place, cultural heritage items, and puts meaning within the many cultural
activities that people do. Furthermore, language plays a fundamental part in
binding communities together as a culture, and individuals to each other in a
society. Wesley Enoch, Director of the Queensland Theatre Company and a Nunukul
Nuggi man, has said that “the loss of language is the loss of the ability to
describe the landscape… and your place in it.”
As noted by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) in
its submission ‘In the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities, traditional languages provide speakers with a connection to their
culture and their past, and a sense of identity and belonging.’
The Committee held public hearings in various locations throughout
Australia (see Appendix A) and received evidence from many Indigenous people.
Indigenous Australians know what their language means to them. However, many
non Indigenous Australians may not have considered the critical importance of
language to a persons’ identity, sense of belonging and cultural connection.
The following quotations summarise the many voices the Committee heard about
language and Indigenous identity.
In a submission from the Teachers and Students of Cert III in Learning
Endangered Aboriginal Language, Murray Bridge TAFE, South Australia, it stated
that ‘our language helps us with our identity and our culture, and helps us
work out where we fit in society, for example who we are related to.’
At a public hearing in Alice Springs, Ms Amelia Turner, speaking on
behalf of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, described how languages
connected her to the land, her ancestors and her community:
Our language is sacred to us. Every Aboriginal language is
sacred for those who speak it. Words are given to us by the land and those
words are sacred. What does it mean to an Aboriginal culture? The land needs
words, the land speaks for us and we use the language for this. Words make
things happen—make us alive. Words come not only from our land but also from
our ancestors. Knowledge comes from Akerre, my own language and sacred
Language is ownership; language is used to talk about the
land. Language is what we see in people. Language is what we know of people—we
know of him or her. If they speak my sacred language, I must be related to
their kinships. Language is how people identify themselves. Being you is to
know your language. It is rooted in your relationship from creation—in your
kinship that cycles from then and there, onwards and onwards. It is like that
root from the tree.
Language is a community—a group of people. Not only do you
speak that language but generations upon generations of your families have also
spoken it. The language recognises and identifies you, who you are and what is
you. Sacred language does have its own language. You can claim other languages
through your four grandparents. Know your own language first before you learn
other languages—to know it, to understand it and also to relate to it
Mr Lance Box from the Yipirinya School Council made the following
statement in relation to the interrelated nature of land, law, language,
kinship and ceremony:
In the Warlpiri, we have a word called ngurra-kurlu, which is
a term that speaks of the interrelatedness of five essential elements: land,
law, language, kinship and ceremony. You cannot isolate any of these elements.
All of those elements hang together. If you take people away from country, they
cannot conduct ceremony, and if they do not conduct ceremony, they cannot teach
strong language. Ceremony is the cradle to grave, a delivery place for
education for Indigenous people. If you do not have ceremony and you do not
have language, then your kinship breaks down. Then law breaks down and the
whole thing falls apart.
A submission received from people living in the Victoria River District
in the Northern Territory described the benefits in passing on knowledge and
culture through traditional Gurindji language:
We have been recording old people telling Dreaming stories
and stories about the old days, for example when Gurindji people used to work
at Jinparrak (Wave Hill station). We have also recorded the Gurindji way of
life, for example collecting bush tucker such as kilipi 'bush bananas',
kurlartarti 'bush oranges', kurtakarla 'bush coconuts', muying 'black plums'
and wayita 'bush yams', and medicine such as kupuwupu 'lemon grass', manyanyi
'medicine plant' and lunyja 'snappy gum'.
Mr Ross Williams, of the Papulu Apparr-Kari Aboriginal Corporation based
in Tennant Creek commented ‘If you do not know your language, you do not know
your country and you do not know your Dreaming. You have got to follow lines
and you keep in line with the older people.’
The Walpiri Patu Kurlangu Jaru submission explained the following about
the importance of language:
Knowing that our own language and culture play the biggest
role in growing our spirit, our connection to our land and the stories of our
grandmother and grandfathers. With our language we know where we belong, we
know the names from our country and Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories and designs).
Young people can’t lead a good, healthy and happy life without this. Language
and culture come first. When kids feel lost and their spirit is weak then they
can’t learn well or be healthy. They need to feel pride in their language and
culture and know that they are respected. That’s the only way to start closing
The Indigenous Remote Communications Association (IRCA) viewed
maintenance and support for Indigenous languages as fundamental to
strengthening Indigenous identity and culture. Diagram 1 from the IRCA
demonstrates the interconnectedness of language with culture, family, country
and kinship for Indigenous Australians.
Diagram 2.1 Diagrammatic Interpretation of the
Inter-connectedness of Language (Diagram by Lionel James)
Remote Communications Association, Submission 68a
Benefits of giving attention to Indigenous languages
Central to the idea of giving attention and recognition to Indigenous
languages is that it will strengthen Indigenous culture and identity which will
lead to improvements in Standard Australian English competency and
socio-economic factors including improved measurements of wellbeing.
In its submission, the Commonwealth Office of the Arts commented that:
although there have been no Australian studies completed to
date that could demonstrate causal links between Indigenous language use and
other outcomes, and whilst the findings of cross-sectional studies should be
interpreted with care, the research ...supports the hypothesis and community
view that future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
could substantially benefit from efforts and policies enacted now to maintain
Analysis of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Survey (NATSISS) data shows positive associations between language use,
wellbeing and socio-economic variables:
n Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples who speak Indigenous languages have markedly better
physical and mental health; are more likely to be employed; and are less likely
to abuse alcohol or be charged by the police
n Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander 13-17 year olds in urban and regional areas are substantially
more likely to attend school if they speak an Indigenous language
n Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples who speak, understand or learn an Indigenous language
are more likely to gain a post-school qualification, and
n Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples in remote areas who speak an Indigenous language are
less likely to engage in high risk alcohol consumption and illicit substance
use, and to have been a victim of physical or threatened violence.
Trevor Stockley reiterated similar comments at a public hearing by
The process of re-awakening and revitalising those languages,
which are no longer spoken or remembered, is a strong tool in personal and
community development. Language learners have feelings of wellbeing,
self-respect, empowerment, identity, self-satisfaction and belonging when
hearing and speaking their ancestral language. Showing respect to Indigenous
languages and culture, learning about and using your language, will help in
understanding your indigenous history and identity. It is a strong tool in that
it provides many beneficial social, emotional and educational gains to people.
In Adelaide the Committee heard from an ex-principal, Alitya Rigney, of
the Kaurna Plains School. She emphasised the importance for Indigenous students
to learn their home language in order to develop an enthusiasm for learning. Dr
Have you ever seen a kid's face when they learn the language
of their people and country and see the joy, the pride and the identity that
comes from that and the wonder that will take them into the future? It is
In Darwin, Maratja Dhamarrandji commented on the importance of language
as a tool for good education:
It is really important and crucial for me as an Indigenous
person for not only me and the clan that I represent and my people—the Yolngu
people in north-east Arnhem Land—but the old people who want good education in
their communities. It is for their cultural identity not only for me but for
their Australian identity, because it is really important to see the best
outcomes for our people. Education is the key for us to have a good life in our
community. We have to have a good education, and language is part of the means,
the tools, whereby we can have good access to education.
The Committee heard from Patsy Bedford from the Kimberley Language
Resource Centre (KLRC) in Halls Creek, who made the following comment about the
intangible nature of language and how much it means to Indigenous Australians:
The government does not recognise language because it is
invisible. But language makes us strong. It puts something in us. This
organisation is struggling. You heard the old people talk about what language
means to us. Once the language is taken away then our country and our culture
are taken away. We will be nobody.
A submission from the Northern Indigenous School Support Unit,
Queensland summed up the benefits of Indigenous students learning their
language in schools with the following points:
n strengthening their
n including Indigenous
aspirations in the school curriculum
n building their cultural
and personal resilience
n respecting their
distinctive heritage as first peoples
n making meaningful
links with community, and
Reconciliation through redressing past wrongs of suppressing Indigenous
Valuing Indigenous languages for all Australians
The Committee explored the issue of valuing Indigenous languages for all
Australians. Although it was understood that Indigenous languages are valuable
to those who are descendants of a particular language group the benefits of
maintaining and revitalising Indigenous languages to all Australians was a
recurrent issue throughout the inquiry.
Trevor Stockley emphasised that from an historical perspective,
knowledge of Indigenous languages was valuable:
Gaining an awareness of an Indigenous language offers both
Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians a good opportunity to better
understand our combined history and to gain an understanding of Australia’s
Indigenous heritage of languages and culture. It is a positive way to help
close the gap.
The value of languages was discussed from the perspective of
reconciliation numerous times throughout the inquiry. A submission from
Reconciliation Australia highlighted this point:
Building the recognition and appreciation of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander languages will also contribute to the national pride of
all Australians. The concept of shared pride in the histories and cultures of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is a key part of
reconciliation in Australia.
An example of positive steps using language to reduce racism in regional
Australia was provided to the Committee by Tonya Stebbins:
Insofar as Closing the Gap involves changing non Aboriginal
people’s attitudes towards Aboriginal Australians, access to learning an
Indigenous language and learning about Indigenous culture is an extremely
powerful means of change. Indigenous languages and appropriate aspects of
Indigenous culture should gradually be incorporated more deeply into the whole
curriculum for all Australian students. This is already happening in some
communities (eg. primary schools in Parkes) and has had a very significant
impact on levels of racism within these schools. Whenever the opportunity is
available, this type of activity should be supported.
Ms Lola Jones, a teacher trainer with the Western Australian Department
of Education, reinforced how important introducing Indigenous language into the
school setting is for all Australians. She commented ‘There are really huge reconciliation
benefits for non Aboriginal kids, and also just the understanding about the
community and the country where you are living.’
At a Brisbane public hearing this point of view was echoed by Nyoka
Hatfield, a Dharumbal woman living in Rockhampton, who works in Queensland
schools teaching Indigenous language and culture. She discussed the importance
of bridging the language barrier between Indigenous and non Indigenous
I believe that what I am doing is an enormous step towards
reconciliation and Closing the Gap for the present time and for the future. I
also believe that Indigenous language maintenance and revitalisation programs
should be supported where ever possible, without these programs our Indigenous
languages will slowly disappear. What is also very important is that Indigenous
languages need to be taught in schools and for it to be done in a culturally
When white people first came to Australia language was a
barrier between Indigenous and non Indigenous people, it was one of the causes
of the disastrous relationship that developed from the very beginning, and that
continues to this day. We need to turn that barrier into a language bridge by
giving all Australians a chance to learn about that which belongs to their
Incorporating Indigenous culture and language learning in schools
teaches all Australians about Indigenous culture and language and develops
respect within the school community. This finding was supported in evidence
which commented on the reports from teachers as a result of the language and
culture classes that were run in particular schools:
A common comment was that all of the children were learning
to have respect for Indigenous culture and language. Other comments were that
students are learning their country’s history and how it has changed over the
years and also about its rich Indigenous culture.
The IRCA suggested that:
more Indigenous language courses would increase community
awareness of Indigenous languages and there needs to be more language courses
available to the public. This would increase employment (as trainers) and
support reconciliation through greater cross-cultural awareness.
A better understanding of Indigenous languages and culture was suggested
as a way to improve the communications between non Indigenous and
Indigenous Australians who are working in the area of Indigenous affairs.
Trevor Stockley commented:
The communities who speak their Indigenous language as their
first language need to expect other Australians to learn to appreciate and
respect Aboriginal languages and aspects of history and culture within their
school education and in general Australian life. Particularly those non Indigenous
people living and working within these remote communities and high status
public and political figures in Australian society.
The Queensland Department of Education and Training submission alerted
the Committee to the Department’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Languages Statement which stipulated that ‘Reconciliation is a key priority
of the Queensland Government.’ The Languages Statement continues:
Greater understanding and shared ownership of our Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander languages – traditional languages, creoles and
related varieties – will contribute to the Australian identity of all students,
schools and communities, and will sustain Queensland’s unique Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander linguistic and cultural heritage.
Raising the profile of Indigenous languages through the use of
interpreters for government interaction in sectors such as health, legal and
education can be beneficial for Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians. The
Indigenous languages are given a status through recognition and use of
languages other than English.
International research has demonstrated that bilingualism also has
cognitive and developmental benefits. Internationally, there
has been recognition of the value of bilingualism in preserving and valuing
traditions, enriching individuals, and in creating modern flexible and tolerant
Indigenous media organisations such as The Central Australian Indigenous
Media Association (CAAMA) promote Indigenous culture, language,
dance and music while generating benefits in the form of training, employment
and income generation. CAAMA is an excellent example of how Indigenous language
and culture can be shared between Indigenous communities in a way that also
informs and educates the wider community of the richness and diversity of
Dr Nick Thieberger was supportive of this idea in his submission. He
Every language has been built up by its speaker community
over time and encapsulates novel ways of thinking of the world. Recording this
information gives everyone (speakers and outsiders) insights into Indigenous
cultures. The value for the broader Australian society is that we will all be
able to appreciate Indigenous societies in greater depth if we are able to
understand more of their languages.
Greg Dickson provided the Committee with the following examples to demonstrate
social, cultural and economic benefits that are gained from recognising and
valuing Indigenous languages. These benefits are evidenced at local community
levels, regionally, nationally and internationally. The examples provide a window
into what is possible when the potential of Indigenous languages is harnessed:
n Australian of the
Year recipients who speak an Aboriginal language as a first language: Galarrwuy
Yunupingu (1978), Mandawuy Yunupingu (1992)
n National TV shows in
Indigenous languages e.g. Bush Mechanics (Warlpiri, ABC TV 2001),Women of the
Sun (Yolŋu Matha/English, ABC/SBS 1981)
award-winning recording artists who speak and sing in Indigenous language/s
(e.g. Yothu Yindi, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu)
language-speaking AFL stars: e.g. Liam Jurrah, Liam Patrick (both Warlpiri)
n Award-winning feature
film Ten Canoes (2006 - Ganalbingu and other languages)
n Theatre productions,
e.g. Ngapartji Ngapartji (Big hART, 2007 - Pitjantjatjara language)
n National advertising
campaign (Qantas 2009 – Kala Lagaw Ya language)
journalism (Sydney Morning Herald, 2009 “Language is Power – Let us have ours”,
in English and Gumbaynggirr, received UN Media Peace award, 2010)
n Tertiary education courses
e.g. Graduate Certificate in Yolngu Studies (Charles Darwin University), Certificate
1, 2 and 3 in Aboriginal Languages e.g. Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr (TAFE NSW)
n Academic writing in
Indigenous languages, e.g. Bani, E. (1987), 'Garka a ipika: masculine and
feminine grammatical gender in Kala Lagaw Ya', Australian Journal of
Another excellent example of achievement is the 2012 Senior Australian
of the Year Laurie Baymarrwangga, who was recognised for ‘almost
single-handedly nurturing the inter-generational transmission of local
ecological knowledge through a lifelong commitment to caring for kin, culture
and country’ in the Crocodile Islands of the Northern Territory.
Ms Baymarrwangga initiated the Yan-nhangu Dictionary project in 1994,
and continues to pass on her language and culture through the Crocodile Islands
Initiative, which includes a ranger program, a language nest and a web-based
ecological knowledge base for schools. In Ms Baymarrwangga’s words:
Nhangu dhangany yuwalkthana bayngu bulanggitj Yolngu mitji
marnggimana dhana gayangamana mayili mana dhangany wanggalangabu mana limalama
ganatjirri wulumba (maramba)
“We continue to pass on the stories of our land and sea
country for the good of new generations”.
The benefits of dual naming were raised with the Committee during a
public hearing in Adelaide. One of the main benefits was that it raised the
awareness of Indigenous people and their language in localised areas in
Australia. Dual naming provides recognition to Indigenous Australians as well
as helping to preserve the language. Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Juta (the
Olgas), are well known Indigenous names for landmarks. The Committee found it
was occurring at a more localised level.
Professor Amery commented there had been a lot of naming activity in
In 2001 the River Torrens was officially dual
named—Karrawirra Parri—with its original name. There is also, Tarndanyangga,
Victoria Square. In the last couple of months the Adelaide City Council
approached Kaurna Warra Pintyandi again about dual naming of the squares.
The NILS report highlighted the importance of dual naming. The fact that
language is so important in forming Indigenous identity and people’s
relationships to areas of land means that there is an intimate relationship
between language-related activities and the current emphasis on Native Title
claims and determinations. As Native Title rights are asserted and put into
practice in land management schemes, it is likely there will be much more
emphasis on a ‘two-way’ approach to landscape involving use of Indigenous
placenames, names for landforms, water sources, flora and fauna and local
terminology for management practices, such as use of fire and hunting/culling.
Contribution to Closing the Gap
The Committee received evidence on the contribution of Indigenous
languages to Closing the Gap and their interconnectedness with strengthening
Indigenous culture and identity. The Closing the Gap strategy identifies the
commitment to targets to reduce Indigenous disadvantage and lists the
associated building blocks for action.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) suggested that integrating
Indigenous languages policy into Council of Australian Government (COAG)
Closing the Gap targets could be a way to ensure that programs are
appropriately targeted and funded.
Ms Jacqueline Phillips from ANTaR referred to a lack of focus on the
importance of Indigenous languages as one of the missing pieces in the Closing
the Gap puzzle.
The National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) acknowledges that
culture must be recognised in actions intended to overcome Indigenous
Pride in culture plays a vital role in shaping people’s
aspirations and choices. Efforts to Close the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage
must recognise and build on the strength of Indigenous cultures and identities.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Mick Gooda commented that ‘It is my view that investment in preserving and
teaching Indigenous languages will assist in achieving the Closing the Gap
The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) commented:
Decades of research and experience show that meaningful
recognition of indigenous languages, along with their deliberate and systematic
incorporation into programs in the education, health, justice, and job training
sectors, along with reasonable cross-cultural training and orientation of
service providers are critical to Closing the Gap. The evidence consistently
indicates that doing so gives significantly better outcomes in:
n Standard English
n school retention
n learning in all
n reduction in
antisocial behaviour, and
n as well as progress
towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals.
Not doing so will continue to contribute to low levels of
performance in all these sectors, and seriously impede the goals of Closing the
Why Warriors Pty Ltd and the Arnhem Human Enterprise Development (AHED)
project echoed the above statements:
We see that valuing and supporting the use of Indigenous
languages is vital to “closing the gap” – and indeed, that the gap will not
otherwise ever be closed. We see the valuing Indigenous languages has enormous
impacts on health outcomes – and all areas of life for Aboriginal communities –
governance, social cohesion, economics and a sense of empowerment to control
their own future.
... our practice in the use of these Yolngu languages has
shown that there can be effective education and dialogue, a deep sharing of
knowledge and intellectual discussion in the areas of governance, land rights,
health/chronic diseases and economics.
The Indigenous Remote Communications Association emphasised the point
that Closing the Gap cannot be achieved in isolation of the nominated targets.
They noted that ‘these building blocks are linked – achieving the
Closing the Gap targets requires progress in each of these areas. Strategies
aimed at achieving improvements in any one area will not work in isolation.
Language maintenance, language media production and language curriculum
development are obvious links across these targets that will result in improvements
across these action areas.’
During a public hearing in Halls Creek, Ms Patsy Bedford, a member from
the Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC) told the Committee that the KLRC
had included language and culture as an eighth building block in the Closing
the Gap strategy for Western Australia.
In Darwin the Committee heard from Minister McCarthy about the work the
Northern Territory is doing with COAG. In relation to including language and
culture as part of the building blocks in the local implementation plans it was
stressed that this was happening. Minister McCarthy commented:
There are 15 in the Northern Territory and we have added a
further five to those, which comes to the 20 growth towns across the Northern
Territory. Within those areas, between agencies and the people of the
communities, we have established what is called local implementation plans, or
LIPs. In those LIPs each of these towns is stressing the importance of language
and culture and how they wish to grow those regions.
To assist in reaching Closing the Gap targets the New South Wales (NSW)
Government has formed a Ministerial Taskforce for Aboriginal Affairs to advise on
the development of an Aboriginal affairs strategy and to refocus efforts to Close
the Gap in Aboriginal disadvantage in NSW. The Ministerial Taskforce brings
together Aboriginal community experts and organisational representatives to
work directly with seven key Ministers to ensure that Aboriginal people and
communities are a core priority for NSW Government.
The Committee received a large volume of evidence that focused on the benefits
of including Indigenous language in education. Many submissions advocated for
more Indigenous language and culture to be incorporated into the school
curriculum in order to engage Indigenous communities with the local school
community including from the beginning of learning.
Numerous academics have spent many years working with Indigenous
communities looking at Indigenous language maintenance, revitalisation and
revival contributed to this inquiry and emphasised the benefits of including
Indigenous language in schools. A submission from Associate Professor Tonya
Stebbins, La Trobe University, made the following comment in relation to
teaching Indigenous languages in schools:
Indigenous languages have an enormous potential contribution
to make in relation to Closing the Gap. There is no more powerful way to
reassert community authority over the schooling of children than to allow
community members to teach community business within school spaces. Indigenous
language programs can lead the way to changing school culture and students’
perceptions about school. These changes are reflected in improved levels of
attendance with flow on effects in terms of learning more generally.
The success of including Indigenous languages and culture in schools was
highlighted in the following statement:
The pride in having Pitjantjatjara language and culture
explicitly taught and valued in the school is immense. It builds cross
generational interaction as well as helping kids master reading and writing in
their foreign language, English. While in community these students do not hear,
read or need English outside school hours.
The Australian Education Union commented in its submission that bilingual
programs are effective for children learning two languages:
Studies into bilingual programs in schools, whereby students
in the early years of schooling are first taught literacy (reading and writing)
in their first language, show the effectiveness of building on the knowledge
that children come to school with. By combining this with providing a strong
language foundation in English, by about Year 4 students are able to use their
knowledge of English as well as understandings of literacy in their first language
as a base to master English literacy.
The Why Warriors Pty Ltd and the Arnhem Human Enterprise Development
(AHED) project informed the Committee that there was ‘strong evidence in
working in the communities of north East Arnhem Land, that children engage more
thoroughly and genuinely show more interest in any education provided in their
Similar evidence was received in Alice Springs. The Committee heard
about the value of learning in two languages:
Warlpiri is like a vehicle to learn a new language and I
think only then if we can work together on that one part of what we are aiming
for. I think that the proper recognition of our identity and language makes us
strong and grown-up, knowing English and Warlpiri together. I think that the
Indigenous language can assist in many ways such as in translation, because
that is what I grew up on, especially the experience in the classroom of always
having two people, a Kardiya—a European—and a Yapa—an Aboriginal person, a
Warlpiri person. They were both there for me to make sure that I got the proper
education in both ways. That has been an important thing in my growing up in
both worlds, Warlpiri and English.
Health advantages including mental and physical health have been linked
to learning and retaining one’s own language. For example, in terms of improved
mental health, a Canadian study demonstrated that ‘being able to converse in
one’s own language helps produce a strong sense of self and sense of cultural
continuity, which have been linked to reduced rates of suicide amongst
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released research highlighting the
benefits of maintaining Indigenous languages to enhance young peoples'
wellbeing. The research found that young people who spoke an Indigenous
language - almost half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in remote
areas between the ages of 15 to 24 were less likely to participate in high-risk
drinking and drug abuse than those young people who did not speak a traditional
In the Utopia homelands, high value is placed on the maintenance of
strong Indigenous languages and traditional cultural practices. A study found
that residents of these communities were less likely to be obese, less likely
to have diabetes and less prone to cardiovascular disease than Indigenous
people across the rest of the Northern Territory.
At a public hearing in Adelaide the link between health and languages
was brought to the Committee’s attention again. Rob Amery commented:
We are seeing again and again very positive health benefits
accruing. When people feel proud about themselves as individuals and feel proud
about themselves as a group of people then lots of things flow from that. If we
only look after people's physical needs—housing, employment, health, or
whatever—then a lot of that money will be wasted, I am afraid, unless people
are able to build a life for themselves and feel good about themselves as
individuals and as a group. Language is one of the means of doing that.
Knowledge and employment
The maintenance and use of Indigenous languages has positive
implications for capacity building in Indigenous communities, particularly
through community involvement and employment in resource management, art and
tourism, broadcasting and interpreting.
Indigenous languages and cultural knowledge have been associated with
understanding the patterns of climate change and ways to address its impacts.
The 2006 Garnaut Review into climate change reported that the Torres Strait
Islander people had noticed changes in animal and plant behaviour and different
patterns in seasonal temperatures.
Traditional languages have vast vocabularies for naming species and
describing their ecology which are little known to Western science. This is an
endangered area of knowledge, and the loss of it would disadvantage all
Australians. The same deep cultural knowledge that is contained in language has
been essential for Indigenous Australians to demonstrate their connection to
country when they are making Native Title claims.
In Darwin, Professor Christie discussed the value of supporting
languages for ecological reasons and scientific progress:
The languages not only refer to the world out there but
actually take place in particular sorts of knowledge work. Collaborations
between Aboriginal people on country and scientists are significantly enhanced
by the use of these languages. Those languages therefore need really to be
thoroughly supported at all levels. A key example of that, as you know, is
probably the fire work that has been done throughout the Northern Territory and
the tropical savannahs where Aboriginal knowledge authorities are working with
scientists on big carbon abatement projects. Our point was that language plays
a key role in embedding the knowledge practices that allow that to happen, and
the economic significance of keeping those languages alive and strong.
Dr William Fogarty, who appeared at a public hearing in Canberra reiterated
the importance of Indigenous languages for supporting employment pathways for
Indigenous Australians. He commented:
...Indigenous land and sea management and associated
employment and development outcomes depend directly on the continued strength
and availability of Indigenous language and associated Indigenous knowledge. It
is my hope that the new national Indigenous languages policy will explicitly
recognise the current and potential benefit and contribution of Indigenous
languages to development options, livelihood options and employment pathways
for Indigenous people
There are strong potential employment outcomes for Aboriginal
communities through language acquisition. Professor Muhlhausler et al, in the 2004
Economic Costs and Benefits of Australian Indigenous Languages report highlighted
a range of economic and social benefits for Australia from the enhanced
knowledge of complex phenomena gained from Indigenous languages. The report
acknowledged that Aboriginal languages are repositories of traditional
knowledge developed over thousands of years of interacting with their
environment, building a detailed knowledge of the ecosystem. Ecological
knowledge is invaluable in areas of environmental management, biodiversity, and
pharmaceutical development within ecosystems that are generally poorly
Other sectors of the economy that create employment opportunities for
Indigenous Australians through language include the art and tourism sector.
Indigenous cultural knowledge is the foundation of these industries and
benefits from Indigenous cultural industries flow on to other Australians and
to the Australian economy.
The Indigenous tourism industry offers Aboriginal language speakers significant
opportunities for employment. An increase in tourist numbers may reflect a
heightened interest among overseas tourists in Aboriginal culture. Any increase
in tourism benefits the whole community.
The Committee received evidence in Broome that demonstrated the value of
Indigenous language programs in schools leading to employment in the community
that utilised the language skills:
Anecdotally, we hear evidence of students who have gone
through the primary school program and into the high school program who in
their employment are able to use their Aboriginal language skills whether they
are in a bank, a CES office or working in an old people's home.
Radio and television broadcasting provides sizeable employment
opportunities through the use of Indigenous languages. The remote Indigenous
media sector regularly employs about 300-400 Indigenous media workers as
broadcasters, producers, journalists, trainers, translators, cultural officers,
archivists and performers. The Indigenous Remote
Communications Association added ‘the normalisation of Indigenous languages
through daily broadcasting and communications services is seen as critical to
The Committee was interested to hear about the number of Indigenous
languages being broadcast on the Indigenous Community Television (ICTV) service:
There are 60 hours of programming. There is a video streaming
site with over 400 videos available. Broadcast delivers video content in 23
different languages from around Australia. The program in language runs
approximately 70 percent of ICTV.
ICTV broadcasts/delivers video content in 23 different
languages from around Australia, as follows: Alyawarr, Anmatyerr, Arrarnte,
Bardi, Djambarrpuynu, Eastern Anmatyerr, Gija, Karajarri, Kukatja, Luritja,
Mangala, Martu, Nga_gikurunggurr, Ngaanyatjarra, Ngarluma, Pintubi,
Pitjantjatjara, Tiwi, Umpila, Warlpiri, Worla, Yindjibarndi, Yolngu Matha.
Recently, information technology has been recognised as an avenue of
employment. During a public hearing in Canberra, Dr Inge Kral informed the
... highlighted last year at the AIATSIS Information
Technologies and Indigenous Communities symposium, held in Canberra, was the
ability of IT to generate unique opportunities for employment and local
enterprise development in this emerging new digital economy. The advent of
digital technologies has seen young people developing expertise in filmmaking,
music production and digital archiving.
Knowledge of Indigenous languages provides opportunities for Indigenous
people to be employed as translators and interpreters. This is an area that has
been under review in Australia for some time and is discussed in greater detail
in Chapter 6.
A child learns their first language not at school but in the home and
community in which they reside. Similarly teaching a child their language and a
sense of identity must come from a family and community. The Committee notes
the vast diversity of Indigenous communities and the capacity of different
communities and families to provide children with a positive and strong sense
of culture and wellbeing. Sadly there are communities where the level of social
dysfunction is such that the children lack positive role models, a sense of
belonging and in some instances they lack a firm grounding in one language.
The Committee does not see it as the role of the government to teach a
child their culture or their first language. However, there is a role for
governments to assist communities to take on this responsibility when a history
of social problems has diminished the current capacity of a community to be
able to do so for itself. The Committee argues that governments must continue
the early education of language and culture but it is families and communities
that raise a child with the language and values that are important to that
There is a critical role for governments to ensure that the services
delivered, such as health and education, are accessible to any child in
Australia and to value that child’s heritage and culture. For Indigenous
Australians, valuing and incorporating culture and language should be a core
element of all schooling across Australia for the benefit of Indigenous and non
Indigenous language learning must proceed as a partnership where
different parties bear the responsibility for the nurturing and learning of a
child and collaboratively raise them to live both ways – strong in their
language and culture, skilled to make choices for their future and proud in who
they are and the contribution they make towards growing a strong Australia as a
The evidence collected during the inquiry was supportive of languages
fostering higher levels of self esteem, developing an enthusiasm for learning
and a better understanding of cultural identity for Indigenous Australians.
Therefore the Committee believes that it is essential for language learning,
revitalisation and revival to be well supported by Commonwealth and state
Past policies of Australian governments have contributed to the loss of
language and culture in many Indigenous communities. The Committee acknowledges
that many of the same themes that are covered in this report have been
addressed over several reports spanning more than two decades. The Committee
believes successive governments have failed to prevent the continued decline of
There has been considerable funding and effort by all governments and
community groups in assisting with the Closing the Gap strategy. The Committee
views the link between Indigenous languages and improvements to overall wellbeing
as an essential element that will continue to help meet governments’ targets of
Closing the Gap.
The Committee believes that a lack of focus on Indigenous languages is
one of the missing pieces in the Closing the Gap framework. The Committee
considers that the incorporation of the National Indigenous Language Policy
into the Closing the Gap framework would bring to the forefront the importance
of preserving language and culture in meeting Closing the Gap targets.
The Committee sees the inclusion of Indigenous languages in the Closing
the Gap targets as an essential acknowledgement of the collaborative approach
that must take place between governments and Indigenous communities. The role
of governments is to assist Indigenous communities to achieve the same
opportunities and wellbeing outcomes as non Indigenous Australians. Indigenous
Australians must continue to demonstrate a commitment to develop partnerships
with governments to preserve and maintain languages within communities.
Recommendation 1 - Closing the Gap framework
||The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government include
in the Closing the Gap framework acknowledgement of the fundamental role and
importance of Indigenous languages in preserving heritage and improving
outcomes for Indigenous peoples.
The Committee believes there are substantial benefits to be gained for
all Australians in raising the awareness and profile of Indigenous languages
throughout Australia. Non Indigenous Australians being made aware of Indigenous
languages and culture clearly has reconciliation benefits. The fact that many
Australians are unaware of the rich diversity of Indigenous languages that have
existed in Australia is an area that should be improved.
Recommendation 2 - Signage in Indigenous languages
||The Committee recommends the Commonwealth Government include
in the National Indigenous Languages Policy 2009 a commitment to support and
progress signage of place names and landmarks in local Indigenous languages.
While dual naming or Indigenous naming may be viewed by some as merely
symbolic the Committee is convinced of the value and place of symbolism in
changing attitudes, healing scars and forging new futures.
The Committee thought the example of dual naming had great potential for
many local and national sites throughout Australia. The Committee views this as
a way of reaching out to many Australians and increasing awareness of
Indigenous language and cultural throughout Australia. The Committee recommends
that the Commonwealth Government give full support to projects that fund dual
naming of places throughout Australia.
The Committee considers that Parliamentarians are in unique positions to
demonstrate leadership in promoting the benefits of strengthening and recognising
the languages and culture local to their electorate, and therefore build on the
reconciliation path between Indigenous Australians and non Indigenous
Recommendation 3 - Parliamentary recognition of Indigenous languages
The Committee recommends the Commonwealth Parliament
demonstrate leadership in the recognition and valuing of Indigenous languages
how to incorporate Indigenous languages in the Parliament House building and
in the operations of the Parliament, and
all Members of Parliament to:
Þ be aware of and recognise the Indigenous language groups local
to their electorate
Þ where, possible and appropriate, acknowledge traditional owners
and utilise language names for places and landmarks, and
Þ support schools and community groups in their area to
recognise, value and where possible utilise Indigenous language names.
The Committee notes that in the airline industry QANTAS has made
significant contributions towards reconciliation by committing to a Reconciliation
Action Plan which sets out key strategies to create meaningful relationships
and sustainable job opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
QANTAS uses symbolic representations of Indigenous culture such as the exterior
painting of aircrafts in Indigenous artwork and creating Indigenous art
inspired uniforms for flight attendants, which has great value in reaching out
to all Australians and overseas visitors travelling by air in Australia.
The Committee suggests that airlines could help raise the awareness of Indigenous
languages throughout Australia, by announcing to all passengers the name of the
traditional lands the aircraft has landed on. Further, a greeting could be
announced in the local Indigenous language if available. For example, in
Broome, the Committee learned how to say a greeting (Ngaji mingan?) and thank you
(Galiya) in the local Yawuru language. Indigenous communities should look for
opportunities to develop partnerships with the business and non government
sector to facilitate a greater understanding of the significance of Indigenous
languages in Australia.
The Committee views this recognition of Indigenous languages would benefit
Indigenous Australians, non Indigenous Australians and foreign visitors.
Indigenous languages are unknown to the majority of Australians and by
encouraging the use of Indigenous language in every day settings would raise
the awareness and understanding of Australia’s valuable Indigenous culture.
Just as all Australians appreciate the art, dance and music of
Indigenous Australians, so languages should be taking their place as part of
the rich cultural diversity and heritage of this country.
The Committee encourages all Australians to take pride in the Indigenous
languages that surround us and to value our rich heritage. We should all have
an interest in and where possible learn about and incorporate local Indigenous
languages into our workplaces, our communities and our everyday lives. Each and
every one of us has a role to play in progressing us along the path of reconciliation
and in defining what it means to be Australian.
Overview on Indigenous languages
The challenges to preserve and revitalise Indigenous languages are
considerable. Indigenous languages are critically endangered in Australia and
they continue to die out at a rapid rate. Prior to colonisation, Australia had
250 distinct languages that subdivided into 600 dialects. 
Of an original number of over 250 known Australian Indigenous languages,
only about 145 Indigenous languages are still spoken and the vast majority of
these, about 110, are in the severely and critically endangered categories.
This critically endangered category indicates languages that are spoken only by
small groups of people mostly over 40 years old.
Eighteen languages are strong in the sense of being spoken by all age
groups, but three or four of these are showing some signs of moving into
endangerment. There are many other languages where only a few words and phrases
are used, and there is great community support in many parts of the country for
reclamation and heritage learning programs for such languages.
In November 2005, the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report
2005 (NILS report 2005) was prepared by AIATSIS and the Federation of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Corporation (FATSILC) for the
then Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
The NILS report 2005 is the most recent assessment on the state
of Indigenous languages in Australia. At a public hearing Doug Marmion informed
the Committee that an updated version of the NILS report is due to be released
at the end of 2012.
Classifying Indigenous languages is not a straight forward task. The NILS
report 2005 detailed the challenges that are presented when carrying out
such a task. The NILS report 2005 discussed the ways languages can be
classified as language vitality and language endangerment. This included the
subjective nature of collecting language data on speaking, using and
identifying with a language.
The NILS report 2005 made the following comment on the three main
categories of language:
It has been widely understood and accepted that there are
three basic types of language situations:
n Strong—all age groups including children
are speaking the traditional Indigenous language;
n Endangered—the children are not learning to
speak the language (although they may understand it a little); and
No longer spoken or ‘sleeping’—nobody speaks the language except
for a few words and phrases.
The NILS report 2005 concluded that the situation of Australia’s
languages is grave and requires urgent action. Without intervention the
language knowledge will cease to exist in the next 10 to 30 years.
Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages refer to all
the languages spoken within Australia prior to colonisation. These languages
inform a holistic worldview of land, culture and identity, and are
linguistically very different to English.
Traditional languages are recognised and named as languages of country.
They are acknowledged as having cultural and heritage significance. In some
remote local community contexts they are the everyday languages of
Contact languages are spoken across many regions as first languages.
Contact languages have evolved from traditional languages as a result of
several different language groups coming together. English has been
incorporated into traditional Indigenous languages and as a result creoles have
developed in particular areas in Australia. Contact languages can be called
home language, first language or a named creole.
Creole was described to the Committee as being a full language which
develops from a pidgin because people start to use the pidgin as a general
means of communication and children then grow up learning it as their first
language. Australian creoles combine characteristics of English, Indigenous
languages and other languages.
The Committee was informed that creoles were full linguistic languages:
There has been widespread misunderstanding about contact
language varieties in Australia. They are often referred to as being a bad form
of the dominant language, which is English. People might refer to them as
'broken English' or 'bad English' and other terms like that. Creoles and
related varieties are actually full linguistic languages.
The Committee was informed about several creoles that are currently is
use in Australia. The most widely spoken creole is ‘Top End Kriol’ which is
spoken throughout the Northern Territory, across to the Kimberley region and
even extends into some regions of the Cape York. This creole is sometimes
called Broome English, Broome Kriol, Kimberley Kriol or Aboriginal English. ‘Yumpla
Tok’ is spoken in the Torres Strait and several other creoles exist in
Queensland. Ms Claire Gorman made the following comment at a public hearing in
There are a number of creole varieties that are spoken
throughout Queensland. These creoles may not be officially recognised but they
may be referred to in their communities by a range of names such as Murri
broken slang, 'lingo' and 'Aboriginal English'. Many Torres Strait Islander
students speak Torres Strait creoles, which is now known in the Torres Strait
as Yumpla Tok. In some places there is strong recognition and ownership of
these language varieties such as Yumpla Tok in the Torres Strait. At Yarrabah
in Far North Queensland they are now referring to their everyday vernacular as
Yarrie lingo, and the community has quite a lot of ownership around that.
The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) informed the Committee of
the languages being spoken in the Torres Strait. They stated:
There are two traditional languages in the Torres Strait
region. Meriam Mir, spoken in the Eastern lslands, has two distinct dialect
groups, and Kala Lagaw Ya has four distinct dialect groups. A lingua franca
known as Torres Strait Creole is also spoken as a common language shared
between all the different languages and dialect groups.
The Committee was provided with an example of what was called Broome
English during a public hearing. Ms Yu explained the following to the
I think Broome English is an amalgamation of Asian languages,
English and all the different Aboriginal languages around the place. It is also
English words which could have a completely different meaning. I will give you
an example. I do not know if they still use it in football, but one of the
terms in football was he "upstairs 'em"—meaning he took a screamer
over somebody else. So that is an example of Broome English.
In many areas of Australia, the traditional/heritage languages of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are no longer in everyday use, so
they are no longer spoken as the home language (sometimes also referred to as
the ‘first language’ or ‘mother tongue’) of the young people within the
community. These young people may speak a variety of Aboriginal English and/or
an Aboriginal or Torres Strait creole and/or Standard Australian English as
their home language.
Varieties of Aboriginal English and Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander creoles have distinct and systematic differences from Standard
Australian English, both linguistically and conceptually. These languages are
sometimes referred to as ‘contact languages’ or ‘mixed languages’; they will be
the only language spoken by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
beginning school, and thus these students strongest language for learning.
At the public hearing in Brisbane the Committee was interested to hear
more about the term contact languages. Miss Gorman explained:
The term 'contact language' has been used because there is a
spectrum. Not only can creole move along a spectrum from more like standard Australian
English to more like the traditional language, but there is also confusion. The
distinction between creole and a dialect is a very grey area. That is why that
term has been used.
The Queensland DET summarised the different Indigenous languages in use
in Queensland. In Queensland most students in Indigenous communities speak a
contact language (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creole or related
variety) as their vernacular or everyday language. Contact languages, such as
creoles and related varieties, are languages that have evolved through contact
between people who speak different languages. A number of different creole
varieties are spoken throughout Queensland.
In a few areas in Queensland, students may speak a traditional language
as their strongest variety. These areas include:
Aurukun where students may speak a Wik variety as their first
on Saibai, Dauan and Boigu Islands in the top west of the Torres
Strait, where they may speak Kawa Kawaw Ya as their first language or as a strong
far west Queensland from Camooweal to Urandangi where some
children whose families have links to places to the west (such as Lake Nash in
the Northern Territory) may speak Alyawarre. 
Number of speakers
Languages or dialects can be maintained by very small groups of people.
The small number of speakers of some Indigenous languages is not necessarily a
result of declining use. Indigenous people who speak Indigenous languages now
have increased contact with speakers of other Indigenous languages, English and
creoles. They are exposed to English through the education system and the
media. In this context, the maintenance of Indigenous languages with small
numbers of speakers is more difficult.
In 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that:
of Indigenous children in remote areas spoke an Indigenous language as their
main language at home.
n For Indigenous people
aged 15 years and over:
Þ 42% in
remote areas spoke an Indigenous language at home;
Þ 73% in
remote areas spoke, or spoke some words of, an Indigenous language in
comparison to 32% of those living in major cities and 28% of people in regional
Þ 15% had
difficulty in both communicating in English and being understood by English
The difficulty in categorising Indigenous languages was brought to the
Committee’s attention. For example, the data collected by the ABS may have
asked if an Indigenous language was spoken however it does not analyse the
proficiency of the language spoken nor the type of Indigenous language, such as
whether it is a traditional or contact language.
The NILS report 2005 used the UNESCO indicators to assess the
state of languages. Indicator one focused on intergenerational language
transmission, Indicator two focused on the absolute number of speakers and Indicator
three focused on the proportion of speakers. Results from the NILS report
2005 highlight the dramatic decline in the number of language speakers:
Using the NILS Indicator One—Intergenerational
Language Transmission data of proficiency/use by age group it is evident that:
n Between 3 and 6
languages are ‘safe/strong’ (Grade 5)
n 2 languages are ‘definitely
endangered’ (Grade 3)
n 9 languages are ‘severely
endangered’ (Grade 2)
n 14 languages are ‘critically
endangered’ (Grade 1).
Table 2.1 shows the Grading system that was used in the NILS report.
Table 2.1 Grading System
Degree of endangerment
Language is used by all age groups including children.
The language is used by some children in all
domains; it is used by all children in limited domains.
Used by between 30% and 70% of the <20 age group
The language is used mostly by the parental
generation and upwards.
Used only by >20 years old
The language is used mostly by the grandparental
generation and upwards.
>40 years old
The language is known to very few speakers of great
>60 years old
There is no speaker left.
Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005, p. 31
At risk languages
The NILS report 2005 emphasised the urgency of the problem facing
all Australians to keep many of the endangered Indigenous languages alive. The
NILS report stated:
Australia has been singled out as the country that has
witnessed the largest and most rapid loss of languages of anywhere in the
world, over the last century. The overall decline and current situation in
Australia is similar to North America—in both cases Indigenous groups are
similarly relatively small and powerless inside states dominated by settler
groups mainly of European origin.
An interesting point was made by Lola Jones where she discussed the
urgency to revitalise traditional languages but noted two main difficulties
traditional languages faced. One was due to the fragility of the elders who
know the language and secondly, the influence of and prevalence of English:
We need our old people, and our old people are the ones that
we need to keep going back to. It might be three or four old people you have to
go to. But it is very hard, because our old people are getting frail. In some
communities people do not see the urgency because they say, 'Plenty of people
talk language.' But the reality is for all of our languages that they really
are endangered by English, Kriol and Aboriginal English.
This finding was noted in the NILS Report 2005 in discussions
about intergenerational language transmission and endangerment:
At Lajamanu in the NT, a similar first phase of shift could
also be occurring, in the Warlpiri language, since although the children there
still understand the old language and can speak it under certain circumstances,
they mostly choose not to and instead speak a mixed code of ‘Light Warlpiri’.
Current languages in use
The 2011 Census data showed that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people are speaking an Indigenous language at home in comparison with
the data from the 2006 Census. This increase could be attributed to either an
increase in work being carried out in this area having positive impact on the
number of Indigenous speakers or possibly an improvement to the way the data is
collected more accurately.
For example, the Census head of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
statistics commented on the improvements in the way the data was collected:
[The ABS] ... employed people who know everyone in every
house, speak the local languages, so that people could have some ownership of
the process. In urban communities people provided support for Indigenous people
and also tried to break down barriers by explaining that the information is
kept private and what it is used for.
In Australia about 61 800 people speak an Indigenous language up from 56
000 in 2006 census data. Of these, about 21 percent speak an Australian creole.
In 2011 the ABS calculated that 56 681 Northern Territory residents had
a language background other than English, equivalent to around 27 percent of
the population. The 2011 census found that, of the total Northern Territory
population, 16.3 percent (34 438 people) speak an Indigenous language:
The largest group of Indigenous language users (5 417)
identified as speakers of Arandic language varieties; 77 percent (4 173)
claimed to speak it well or very well. The second largest group are the 5 097
who identify as Yolngu speakers; 68.7 percent (3 501) claimed to be proficient;
that is, to speak it well or very well. What these figures could be taken to
indicate is that intergenerational language shift is more evident in the
northeast of the Territory than it is in the Centre.
AIATSIS has been managing a database for Indigenous languages called
AUSTLANG. The core of AUSTLANG is a database which assembles information about
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages from a number of sources. The
database contains the following information about each Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander language: alternative/variant names and spellings, history of
the number of speakers, geographical distribution, classifications from various
sources, resources, documentation, programs and researchers.
During the inquiry the Committee noted the significant momentum on
language projects and research being carried out throughout Australia in
relation to Indigenous languages. It was evident by the number of submissions
received for the inquiry as well as the number of projects on the ground either
maintaining or reviving Indigenous languages. The Indigenous Languages Support
program, administered by the Commonwealth Office for the Arts stressed the point
that each year, funding requests far exceed the total amount of funding
available. In 2011‑12, the program received 90 applications seeking
approximately $14.5 million against the 2011-12 budget of $9.6 million.
Using estimated numbers of speakers of languages, based on several
available sources including NILS, there are 145 languages still being spoken,
n 19 languages have
more than 500 speakers
n 45 languages have
between 10 and 50 speakers, and
n 67 languages have
less than 10 speakers.
It should be noted that language shift and endangerment are the critical
factors in languages having less than 50 speakers. The NILS report predicted
that based on current trends, by 2050, if allowed to remain unchecked, the
situation of Australia’s Indigenous languages would be such that there was
unlikely to be any significant numbers of Indigenous languages spoken in
Australia. It may be that of the current 18, only a small number of strong languages
would be left by 2050. 
The Committee notes the evolving nature of languages and understands
that research and data collection is challenging given the sparse geographical
spread of Indigenous languages throughout Australia. The Committee commends the
significant work that was carried out for the National Indigenous Languages
Survey and published in 2005 (NILS 2005 Report) and keenly awaits the
updated report due to be published in the latter part of 2012.
The Committee considers that the status attributed to traditional
languages should be the same for all creole languages, also called contact
languages. In the past, creoles have not been classified as languages in their
own right however a majority of witnesses who spoke with the Committee deemed
creoles to be distinct languages. The Committee believes there will be
important benefits for Indigenous children in schools where the contact
language or creole is recognised as their first language and ESL teaching is
used accordingly. This is discussed further in Chapters 4 and 5.
The Committee notes that through processes of colonisation, changed
settlement patterns and dispersed kinship connections, creoles have become the
identified home language for some communities. These languages must be
recognised for the value and meaning they hold for the communities that speak
The Committee was disturbed to realise the dramatic decline in
Indigenous languages that is continuing within each generation. The Committee
recognises the significant role that languages play in assisting to improve
health, education, employment and general wellbeing indicators within
The Committee is aware of the significant Indigenous cultural heritage
that is stored with Indigenous languages. Therefore the Committee strongly
encourages the Commonwealth Government to increase the prominence and
understanding of Indigenous languages for all Australians through a variety of
measures that are discussed in the following chapters.