Australia’s endangered languages

The winning entry in the 2014 Opinion Competition, by Ezreena Yahya.

On the fourth of August this year, linguist and qualified teacher, Yalmay Yunupingu, a Yolngu woman, had this to say on the ABC’s live Q&A from Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, :

“…my mother who passed away on the 13th of January this year, she was last Warramiri clan, she’s the honey people, that’s her totem, and there was two people left and she was the last one who lived longer and only passed on the 13th of January. Her language is no longer be spoken.”

It was a powerful and arresting moment, yet melancholy at the same time. It was a eulogy not just to a mother lost, but to a language dead. A language which once connected her to family and country.

The endangerment and extinction of languages is not exactly a new phenomenon. Imperial and migrational forces, the loss of interest among children of speakers of threatened languages have all occurred throughout history. But thanks to social forces of globalisation and modernisation, the pace at which these languages are disappearing is at an alarming rate. In Australia alone, there are more than 250 distinct Aboriginal languages and 600 dialects. Approximately 30 of these languages are still going strong and being spoken daily. Over 100 however, are in danger of being destroyed.

Language archives are in need now, more than ever. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies library and audiovisual archive hold some of the world’s most comprehensive materials on Australian Indigenous studies. But archives should not be treated merely as the stamping ground of linguists. Though there is scientific value in recording and documenting Aboriginal languages, for Aborigines themselves, their languages serve as links to their land, stories, Dreaming tracks, botanical, medicinal and navigational techniques, and historical experiences of colonialism, racism and prejudice.

In the first episode of the SBS’s new documentary series on Aboriginal languages, Talking Language, Banduk Marika shares how the passing down of Yolngu, her native tongue, has taught her how to care for her country and people. Marika reveals how whenever someone from her Rirratjingu clan dies, the whole clan will ‘sing’ them under the local trees, to bring their spirit back to the forest. The meanings of these songlines, I’d imagine, could never really be fully captured when translated into another language. There are reasons why Dante’s Commedia has been translated into English on nearly 102 separate occasions – and I suspect the reasons are not that dissimilar.

Language is knowledge and archives, its treasury. However, as indispensable as archives are, they must not be the only domain where Aboriginal languages are imbued with new life. Language revitalisation should also be carried through to the classroom. At Woolgoolga High School, in North Coast NSW, all year 7 students are required to learn Gumbaynggirr, a local traditional Aboriginal language. The school’s Aboriginal education worker, Jo Hine has noticed that Woolgoolga’s Aboriginal students have become noticeably more confident and “more likely to speak up in class.” At Chifley College in Western Sydney, Richard Green has been teaching students Dharug twice a week by looking at the Dharug root of Australian place names, games, songs and weather reports. Students also have classes with community Elders, speakers from other nations and fluent Dharug speakers. The school’s Dharug Language Revitalisation Program is a remarkable testimony of Aboriginal self-determination and reclamation of an oral tradition long considered ‘dead’ since the end of the 19th century.

It isn’t hard to see how a newfound pride in Aboriginal students for their culture, heritage and knowledge systems can translate into better educational outcomes and participation – which has been the case at both Woolgoolga High and Chifley College.

In 2012, the Our Land, Our Languages Report, the end product of a twelve-month inquiry included a number of recommendations such as the support and progressing of signage of place names and landmarks in local Indigenous languages; increasing funding for indigenous language support; and storing and digitising indigenous language materials. Some of these recommendations have been brought into effect. The NSW Office of Communities and Aboriginal Affairs have committed to five language and culture nests while the Muurrbay Language and Culture Cooperative has also received ongoing funding. These are welcome and commendable commitments. Nevertheless, more needs to be done. Few if any recommendations relating to language from the 2007 Ampe Akelyernemane or Little Children Are Sacred Report have yet to be implemented. As Associate Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, Claire Bowern rightly points out, a penchant for surveys, inquiries and reports, which the Australian government has commissioned and conducted a considerable number of, must be reciprocated with action.

Some of Australia’s endangered languages will continue to be spoken actively, daily, by many traditional speakers and their children. Some may even die out with or without active government intervention. But the point is not to raise our white flags just yet by declaring the loss of languages an inevitable process. We may or may not be able to revive the language of Yalmay Yunupingu’s mother’s language. But we can aim to emulate the successful reclamation and revitalisation efforts of Woolgoolga and Chifley. And more recently, the revival of Kaurna, the indigenous language of Adelaide that was once dormant for more than a century. Learning the approaches, pitfalls and challenges of these success stories is what will turn the revival and maintenance of Aboriginal languages into what Noel Pearson pens in the latest Quarterly Essay, more than just “a prayer on behalf of people fearing their future non-existence.”

Image: Jennifer Yiu.