First Nations languages will not survive if English is pushed into every region of this continent as the be-all end-all. Languages and language restoration academics and linguists argue that the loss of one’s mother-tongue or that of their parents is the loss of a significant part of their identity, and they argue that this could lead to the death of culture. Some argue that the push for English and the neglect of first languages are old-school racism.
Many experts say that the first languages of each region should be taught in their schools. The East Arnhem’s Yalmay Yununpingu, an educator who is fluent in her region’s several languages said that the “bush languages must be taught in our schools by our bush teachers.”
“The Education Department needs to support our bush teachers and the retention of our languages and to stop getting in the way of this.”
“Our children are sky-high literate in our languages even if they are not in English. If we teach in our languages our students will do very well.”
Ms Yunupingu has argued again and again that the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights Indigenous Peoples states that First Nations children have the right to education in their own language.
Many believe the Australian continent will be enriched by many of its regions speaking their first language as other than English.
Oxford and Cambridge scholar, linguist Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann said that the Federal and State and Territory Governments should fund language reclamation and restorations. He said that governments should compensate First Peoples for the loss of their languages.
“People who have lost their mother tongue due to linguicide should receive generous financial compensation to be used for linguistic revival activities.”
“Each Indigenous Australian tongue ought to be declared the official language of its respective region, and bilingual signs should be erected throughout Australia, just like in Wellington, New Zealand,” said Professor Zuckermann.
“Schools in Australia should be bilingual and both languages, English and the regional Indigenous languages should be taught.”
“The importance of language to one’s self esteem should not be underestimated. Language is about belonging, just like belonging to the Land is.”
The Australian National University’s chair of Indigenous Linguistics, Professor Jane Simpson said that language must be practiced in order to survive. Professor Simpson has studied several First Nations languages – Warumungu, Kaurna and Warlpiri.
“There’s a broad consensus that Indigenous students need to be taught English to fully participate in society. Most people also agree Indigenous languages need to be preserved,” said Professor Simpson.
Professor Simpson said that children who are taught in their home language are best set up for various success.
“Where the home language is used as the medium of instruction in the classroom at the start, children begin school with teachers who explain what’s happening in the classroom in their home language. These teachers can teach children English in a systematic way, building up their confidence in speaking, reading and writing English grammatically.”
“They can explain the fascinating and complicated ideas of maths and science in a language that children can understand, until they have mastered enough English for a switch of language of instruction to English. This is ideal. For it to work, governments need to invest in training fluent speakers of the languages as teachers, in helping them learn how to teach children to speak, read, write and understanding English, and in developing elementary curricula and material in the languages.”
Stewart Riddle is a lecturer in Literacies Education at the University of Southern Queensland. Mr Riddle warns that the First Nations languages are shrinking and will be lost if governments do not act. Mr Riddle said that raising literacy levels in English in First Nations children at the expense of their first languages may work adversely to closing the gap.
“There are some concerns about the normalising effect of policies that claim to work towards closing the gap. One example might be the assumption that raising Indigenous literacy levels across Australia is inherently a good thing, in and of itself. It might be argued that such attempts are not better than historic attempts to make Aboriginal kids more ‘white’ by sending them off to missions to be properly educated,” said Mr Riddle.
“Perhaps we should be asking questions about the underlying assumptions that are made about what it actually means to be literate, how this changes over time and how it differs across cultures. Who gets to decide? Are there different literacy demands for students in our major cities and those who live in remote communities? What cultural literacies are valued?”
“What relevance does sitting for the NAPLAN tests have for a young child, living in a largely oral-language culture in remote communities, where English may be their third or fourth language?”
Mr Little said that anything that “is imposed” simply does not work.
“When families and communities are not only involved, but also deeply committed and in control, then there is a real chance for lasting change.”
“While direct instruction itself is not a bad thing, declaring a narrow focused top-down literacy intervention is going to ‘fix’ anything is a pipe-dream.”
The Dean of Aboriginal Scholarship at the University of South Australia, Professor Peter Bucksin is adamant that the right to reclaim one’s language is pivotal to recovery from the impacts of colonialism.
“People might not understand that there were around about 54 nations within the state of South Australia.”
“We have generational speakers in the north of the State, but even they are under threat without funding support from the government for maintenance of languages.”
“You need to develop curriculum.”
Professor Buckskin said that he remembers growing up on the Yorke Peninsula – part of the Narrunga nation – but “our languages were denied to us by government.”
“We were not allowed to speak our languages or to have them taught to us in our schools.”
“Our language is our culture and it connects us to our spiritual belonging to our lands and waters.”
Professor Buckskin said that “when languages are reawakened they deliver a great sense of pride”.
“A real simple thing for Australian schools to do is for every school to put a sign out of the front of their school of the land on whose land they stand on, we’ll take us to think about who were there before using the land – the oldest living cultures.”
“More so than just symbolically looking at the Aboriginal flag, we begin conversations of who were here before and this then becomes a national conversation.”