The State of Indigenous Languages

Here is an article a friend just forwarded me, it is from The Australian (Newspaper) 10th March; The always insightful Langguj Gel has some interesting comments on it too:

The Australian
March 10, 2007

Noel Pearson: Native tongues imperilled
IN 1973, a linguist doing field work on Aboriginal Australian languages
realised he had met the last speaker of Yaygir, a language once spoken in
present-day northeast NSW. The custodian of this invaluable piece of

Australian culture, Sandy Cameron, was living in obscurity and had not
spoken Yaygir for several years. He was, however, eager to work with his
university-educated guest to record and preserve his ancestral language.
The linguist decided to return to Cameron’s home in a couple of months to
finish the recording of this national treasure.
But Cameron died before the linguist returned. A region of Australia lost a
large part of its heritage.
Such tragedies happened in many parts of Australia in our lifetime, and are
still happening. Our nation’s culture and history is needlessly
A few years ago my old friend, Urwunjin, died as the last speaker of his
people’s language from Barrow Point on the southeastern coast of Cape York
Urwunjin’s knowledge was at least recorded to a large extent. In the late
1960s and into the ’70s an organised effort was made by many young
anthropologists and linguists, urged by an indefatigable sponsor, Peter
Ucko, then director of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, to describe the country’s cultures and
languages before it was too late. Their salvage operation was dubbed Before
It Is Too Late or BIITL. Many of today’s senior ethnographers of Australia
were involved in this push.
The original BIITL preserved a large amount of information, now archived in
Canberra. Much of this record is inaccessible to laymen, however. When I
was a boy starting primary school, an American linguist, John Haviland,
came to live with a local family two doors away from us, and in the
following years he compiled a grammar and dictionary of Guugu Yimithirr –
the language that James Cook encountered in 1770 and which gave the world
the name kangaroo, after the Guugu Yimithirr word for a species of wallaby
called gangurru.
Haviland accomplished an astonishing feat in his mastery of classical Guugu
Yimithirr. His grammar is a great work of scholarship, that is a necessary
but by itself insufficient, foundation for the maintenance of our language
long into the future.
It is hard enough for privileged people to learn languages. It is near
impossible for dysfunctional people. Few of my people can learn anything
from Haviland’s published grammar, though it is an invaluable resource.
The social inaccessibility of the scientific work compiled through the
BIITL period has not been answered with effective language transmission
efforts such as has occurred in New Zealand through indigenous language
nests. The multitude of Australian languages compared with New Zealand
means that our challenge is so much more vast and complex, but we should
learn from the strategies adopted across the Tasman.
A new BIITL is urgently needed in Australia, because we risk losing our
country’s languages as spoken tongues. Intergenerational transmission of a
large number of Australia’s languages is declining or has ceased. This is
not the result of Aboriginal Australian’s choice to abandon our culture.
As almost everything else in our communities, it is a result of our
desperate disadvantage. Social dysfunction disables cultural and linguistic

Our country must understand that a new BIITL effort is an indispensable
part of reconciliation. It will be difficult to save our languages if the
gap in transmission becomes much wider than it already is. Other than the
work undertaken by AIATSIS in Canberra, the single most important (and more
promising in terms of providing a solution to the challenge of inter-
generational transmission) effort has been undertaken through the
translations of the international subsidiary of the Wycliffe Bible Society,
the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Two languages of Cape York Peninsula,

Wik Mungkan and Kuku Yalanji, have been the subject of magisterial
translations of the New Testament by SIL, along with a number of other
languages across the country.

The SIL website ( <; ) provides an estimation of the vitality
of each of Australia’s remaining indigenous languages, and the number of
languages that are on the brink of extinction should be the cause of
national consternation and urgent response.
But, notwithstanding the richness of this country’s linguistic heritage,
there is almost no public recognition of this national priority. To find an
eloquent expression of the preciousness of this heritage you would need to
go back to W.E.H. Stanner’s Boyer lectures of 1967. Since Stanner there
have been no prominent voices, the last being that of the American
ethnographer and author, Jared Diamond, in his 2001 Centenary of Federation
address. Reading Diamond’s lecture I was struck by how it is that the only
prominent advocate on behalf of Australia’s original languages is an

Let me make some points about language policy. A first step is that
Australia must recognise its languages. It is ridiculous that Australia is
behind Europe in this respect. The European states have signed the European
Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The status of minority
languages varies greatly, but a large number of European minority languages
are now official in the provinces where they are spoken. But Australia has
not even adopted an official listing of its languages.

Second, the purpose of preserving and maintaining Australia’s indigenous
languages is not just that these languages serve a communication purpose
within indigenous societies (for many communities they often do not), but
because they are inherently valuable as part of the country’s rich
heritage. And these languages comprise the identity of their custodians and
are the primary words by which the Australian land and seascape is named
and described. These languages are intimately related to the nature and
spirit of the country that all Australians now call home.

Third, indigenous people must understand that indigenous language
transmission must move decisively from orality to literacy if there is to
be long-term maintenance. This means that indigenous children must be fully
literate in the language of learning – English – in order to be literate in
their own languages. Reliance upon oral transmission alone will not work in
the long term.

Fourth, there must be a separate domain within indigenous communities for
cultural and linguistic education from the Western education domain.
Schools are not the places for cultural and linguistic transmission, and we
must stop looking to schools to save our languages. This is because the
primary purpose of schools is for our children to obtain a mainstream,
Western education, including full fluency in English. Schools will never be
adequately equipped to solve the transmission imperative, and all we end up
doing is compromising our children’s mainstream education achievement.
Indeed, without full English literacy our children are then illiterate in
their traditional language.

Fifth, language learning must start in earliest childhood, and this means
both English and traditional languages. Children must have access to both
domains from the start if they are going to become properly bilingual.
Communities that delay the learning of English to late in primary school in
favour of traditional languages in the early years, end up disabling their
children because they remain far behind in the language required for them
to obtain a mainstream education.

Sixth, a new generation BIITL must integrate the newest technology. It is
the information technologies that provide the bridge between the scientific
record and its application to the transmission imperative between
generations. There are many breakthrough demonstrations around the
countryside of how information technology provides solutions to cultural
transmission, and these need to be brought together as part of a concerted

Finally, the basic infrastructure for this national project needs to be
developed and supplied as a national responsibility. There should be room
for a lot of regional and local adaptation, but there must be a range of
off-the-shelf technical solutions developed by people with necessary
expertise at a national government agency such as AIATSIS.

There needs to be a generous government funded campaign for the maintenance
of each indigenous language employing full-time linguists and other expert
staff. Private, not-for-profit and public organisations should work
together, but language policy and adequate funding must be provided by the
national Government.

Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and


7 responses to “The State of Indigenous Languages

  1. The article raises interestng issues and it is positive that there is an article advocating for Indigenous languages. Is The Australian considered mainstream media? The use of dysfunctional in the article is shocking to my American ears; is it OK to Australians? To remain critical, the article doesn’t explicitly call for the indigenization of language revitalization and the training of Aboriginal people to do the work that an outsider linguist would do. It does, however, recognize the beauty and importance of Indigenous languages and cultures, and the urgency with which humans must take action, which is a great start.
    In the Southwest USA, literacy is a source of contention between linguists and indigenous communities. Many traditional people do not want to see their languages written for diverse reasons. The article sites the necessity of converting oral traditions to literate ones for the maintenance and transmission of Indigenous languages to future generations. How do communities in Australia feel about literacy, and is literacy being pushed by linguists? From the perspective of a linguist, I see the benefits that literacy can bring, but if it means contradicting the wishes of elders I think that it can be a mistake. In other words, the community must call the shots when it comes to language revitalization, because efforts will be more successful when the decision making power comes for within, and each community is different. Thanks for providing the blog with this interesting article. -nanatay

  2. Hey Nanatay,
    great comments! I think things are a bit different in Australia, in regards to literacy- I have never heard of a community not wishing for their language to be ‘written down’. But then again I haven’t heard of many linguists asking the elders if they would prefer it wasn’t.

    Dysfunctional does sound a little rough to me, though not as much maybe as it might to you.

    I think this is an interesting article because it says some things that would say are controversial very strongly ( like schools are not the place for language work)- it is true that on their own they don’t offer much, but certainly the education of the young population, traditional heritage is of interest…

    Keep posting! Tell me about your Nambe work?
    Any plans to come to WAIL? AILDI?

  3. The Australian newspaper is mainstream media, but aimed at middle/upper class ppl.

    Regarding the place of literacy, in my experience, it is rare for elders/speakers in Australia to object to having their language written (and I do usually ask before I do it with each new person I work with).

    But one interesting point is that with speakers of endangered languages, they sometimes see having their language written down as something that will ‘save’ their language. They have been witness to the dramatic decline of their language and don’t really understand why young people aren’t speaking their language – they see the influence of western education with its literacy focus and believe that literacy will be the magic solution for new generations to learn their language.

    Generally, I think literacy can help, but it’s not a ‘solution’ in itself. Nothing can replace the magic of talking and communicating in your language.

  4. I think dysfunctional is ok, even helpful. It feels to me like we’re coming out of an era in Australia of not naming problems honestly because of a fear of betraying liberal (small ‘l’!) ideals. I.e. if we admit not much has improved for Indigenous Australians in the supposed ‘self-determination’ era, then it’s as though we’re giving the Howard Government permission to dismiss self-determination as a worthy ideal, so let’s not admit that it’s not working. I think we’re getting past that.

    I also think calling the social problems in Aboriginal communitites ‘dysfunctional’ suggests that there’s resaons for this – that there are causes of the dysfunctionality (taken at its semantic composition: something that is no longer working), rather than labelling the problems as inherently ‘Aboriginal’.

    I think Wamut, Sophie and I have all heard from Aboriginal people about their determination to overcome the endemic problems, and seen their bravery in not shying away from identifying and talking about these problems. Why then should we shy away from talking about them honestly?

    Further to that, I also think it’s our responsibility to be honest with the speakers we work with about what can and what *cannot* (I mean, is unlikely) be achieved in language revitalisation efforts. Like the example Wamut gave of people expecting a language can be saved simply by writing it down. Or like Sophie saying that school progams have a place, but are a long way from being a fix-all. I think it is our job to be really upfront with people about what does and doesn’t work, and what is required from individuals as well as the community as a whole. Otherwise we’re denying speakers and communities the choice to really tackle language endangerment.

    And I also think it’s really scary to tell a community you want to work with them but you’re unsure if you can really help address their concerns about their language being endangered, without huge effort on their part. But still, it’s their choice.

  5. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I will bookmark your blog and check again here
    frequently. I am quite sure I will learn plenty of new stuff right
    here! Good luck for the next!

  6. Hello to all, how is all, I think every one is getting more from this site,
    and your views are nice for new people.

  7. you’re actually a excellent webmaster. The website loading
    speed is incredible. It seems that you are doing any unique trick.
    Furthermore, The contents are masterpiece. you have performed a great job
    on this subject!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s