It seems extraordinary that I am writing about why Australians should know something about Australian languages. How can anyone really know this country if they do not know its languages?
Ngaya Ngyamitjimitang. This is all I can say in my language right now. It means I am of the Ngyamitji clan of the Snowy Mountains, Ngarigu people. In the future I hope that revival efforts – including my own – will bring my language back into everyday use. This is the tragic state of most of our Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages, the Australian languages.
It is painful to me that I can’t speak my language and my daughter is also growing up without her language. We face this crisis in Australia because our languages were devalued as we, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, were devalued. It is only very recently that our languages have been regarded as part of our national heritage, part of the identity not only of us but of all Australians.
In February 2016 our prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, gave his first speech on Indigenous affairs using the language of the Ngunawal people of Canberra. He was widely applauded as the first national leader to do this and for the gesture of inclusion that his use of an Australian language embodies.
Very moved by the experience, Turnbull said he “realised this whole issue of language, and language preservation and culture, was so important it could be more than a mark of respect – more a statement about the importance of language and the continuity of language.”
It seems extraordinary that in Australia I am writing about why Australians should know something about Australian languages. How can anyone really know this country if they do not know its languages? It is through language that humans nuance understanding, reflect on knowledge about people and place. When you speak a person’s language you enter the world they inhabit, you become part of the community.
Imagine having to mount a case for speaking English in England or Japanese in Japan! But there it is, and I am asking you as the reader: can you speak one word of an Indigenous language?
In fact you can. Australian English is full of vocabulary that was “borrowed” from Aboriginal languages including: dingo, waratah, gunya, boomerang, billabong and many hundreds more. But this is not speaking a language, and indeed I suspect many people are not even aware that these words are from Aboriginal languages.
Fortunately there are many young Indigenous Australians who grow up in their own communities speaking the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages of their people. But there are only 13 of these languages that are “strong”, by which I mean continue being transmitted across all generations and for all purposes. This is according to the latest national survey of Australian languages conducted in 2014. The first national survey was conducted in 2005 and at that time there were 18 strong languages still spoken. At this rate there will be no strong Australian languages by 2025.
It is a very different story for non-Indigenous Australians, most of whom never have any exposure to learning an Indigenous language of their own country. It seems impossible that most of the population of this country only knows the place in which they live from a non-Indigenous perspective. All the knowledge embedded in our Indigenous languages is locked away from the vast majority.
To know our languages is to know us and to know us is to know our countries – this is how we refer to our ancestral lands. This is because we are our land and all that inhabits it, we have knowledge about country that we can share through sharing our languages. Even the most “urban” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to have a long held deep connection to the countries of their ancestors. In fact all the “urban” countries are also Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land.
Many Aboriginal people are only now relearning our languages and schools and universities are playing a big role in helping us do this. It is also a time of opportunity for non-Indigenous Australians to learn our languages. For the first time since the invasion by England in 1788 our languages are being taught in the schools system across Australia. Even our national curriculum includes a “Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages” that supports the development of local Australian language school programs.
Universities are also beginning to pay attention to the teaching of our languages. At the University of Sydney we are teaching Gamilaraay as a part of the new Australia’s Indigenous languages undergraduate offering.
Gamilaraay is a language of mid north-western New South Wales that almost went to sleep, but was caught just in time by its community.
Now there are many resources, grammars, dictionaries and teaching materials to support anyone who would like to learn Gamilaraay. This success story is one of many and universities and schools throughout Australia are working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to support the revival and maintenance of our linguistic heritage.
Every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child should be able to study their own language, study in their own language and – most of all – grow up speaking their language.
If everyone in Australia adopted one of those 13 languages that are still strong and made an effort to learn it and speak it with its people and with other people, those languages would not be critically endangered.
If everyone became involved in supporting the communities that want to wake up their “sleeping” languages, the ones that are not strong, we would win the fight to save the 250 or more Australian languages for all future generations, and for all Australians.
- This article originally appears at:
- Article taken from the following publication:
- The Guardian
- Article submitted by:
- Jakelin Troy