Australia’s responsibility for Aboriginal language rights

Language may not be an obvious victim of Australia’s past but just as we need to restore land rights, we need to work on restoring language rights

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recently urged Australians to see through “Aboriginal eyes” in order to move closer to reconciliation. He went on to argue that Australia should work to make culture Aboriginal culture “indistinguishable” from Australia’s national identity. This has been crucially missing for some time, and developing a strong national policy for teaching Aboriginal languages in schools would be a step in the right direction. The NSW government announcement that it would include Aboriginal languages to HSC subjects has the opportunity to benefit not only Indigenous Australians but also non-Indigenous Australians that have limited exposure to the country’s rich languages that we are in danger of losing.

Australia stands as the country with the fastest rate of dying languages, so the need to act is urgent. Of the estimated 250 languages before the British invasion, only 20 are still alive today. While they have been included in the state’s school curriculum since 2005, NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, announced in November that Aboriginal languages will be available for students to study in their HSC years from 2016. While this is welcomed news, Professor Jakelin Troy warns that keeping them from counting towards the ATAR devalues them. She highlights that just as we learn French and Classical Greek, we should be teaching all Australian students an Aboriginal language.

The death of a language can occur for a variety of reasons. In Australia, it is a history of repressive policies towards Aboriginal cultures since the beginning of the British invasion. When they began seizing and maintaining power, they understood that controlling language was important. Children that were forcibly taken away from their family were also forced to learn English. Up until our recent history other threats and punishments were given to those that did speak their native language, with some still living with the memory of not being allowed to speak their native language.

It was only in 2009 that Australia backed The United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous People, although as an “aspiration rather than binding document”. The declaration outlines the rights to “revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their history, language, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures”. Australia had first voted against it, joining Canada, the U.S and New Zealand as the only countries to do so of the 154 that voted.

In 2014 linguists Yalmay Yununpingu urged the government to take more action to see these rights realised instead of pushing for English to be learnt as a first language for native Aboriginal speakers. In 2008 when the Northern Territory government enforced the first 4 hours of school to be taught in English there was fierce backlash and it was eventually scrapped in 2012, admitting they got it “wrong”. There is evidence for academic and social benefits when you prioritise teaching children in their native language, which the Northern Territory saw. Engagement with learning improves and hence so does attendance rates. Teaching indigenous languages also shows that its culture is appreciated in Australia. This is important for young Aboriginal students to see in a country that mostly kept their art, literature and history on the fringes. It is also benefits non-Indigenous Australians that are disengaged from our country’s history before British arrival.

States around Australia should follow NSW’s language policy while we still have the ability to. Losing the languages of world’s longest continuous culture is not just a loss for Australians but for all of humanity since language is not only used for communication within communities but also between generations. As linguist Michael Kruass aptly describes the role of language as a “testament to the ways in which a unique group of people has understood and interacted with their environment and has come to terms with the human condition”.



Original image courtesy of Bec BeyondBorders

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