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Chapter 3 - Introduction: Social Justice Report 2009

Social Justice Report 2009

Chapter 3: The perilous state of Indigenous languages in

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3.1: Introduction

When I commenced writing this chapter in 2008, Australia did not have a
national Indigenous languages policy. However in August 2009, for the first time
in Australia’s history, the Commonwealth Government launched a strategy
for preserving Indigenous languages: Indigenous Languages - A National
Approach 2009
(National Approach). The National Approach sets out the
Commonwealth Government’s plan to preserve Indigenous languages through
targeted actions. They are:

  • Increasing information about Indigenous languages in all spheres of
    Australian life;
  • Improving coordination of language centre activity;
  • Supporting language programs in schools; and
  • Undertaking a feasibility study to develop a National Indigenous Languages

The National Approach document can be seen in full at
Appendix 3.[1]

It is extremely pleasing that the National Approach is guided by a number of
the recommendations from the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005 (Survey Report).[2] The Survey
Report provides the most comprehensive analysis of the Indigenous language
situation in Australia to date, and proposes some strategic and programmatic
solutions to redress the language decline. I do not intend to replicate this
work. In this chapter I intend to set out some of the challenges ahead for
Indigenous language preservation and revitalisation in the light of the National

(a) Context

The challenges to preserve and revitalise Indigenous languages are
considerable. Indigenous languages are critically endangered in Australia and
they continue to die out at a rapid rate. Prior to colonisation, Australia had
250 distinct languages that subdivide into 600
dialects.[3] According to the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005, most of the original
languages are no longer spoken. Today only 18 Indigenous languages are spoken by
all generations of people within a given language group, and even these
languages are endangered.[4] There are
approximately 100 Indigenous languages which still exist in some form in
Australia, though many of them are in an advanced stage of endangerment. Small
numbers of older people are the only full speakers of these languages. Without
intervention the language knowledge will cease to exist in the next 10 to 30

The loss of languages in Australia has received international attention. A
significant international study on language endangerment has singled out
Australia as a place where languages are disappearing at a faster rate than
anywhere else in the world.[6] Since
the early 1990s, international agencies such as UNESCO have been working to
prevent the extinction of many of the world’s languages. The Red
is UNESCO’s documentation of the decline of languages and a call
to governments the world over, to take urgent action to preserve endangered

In terms of cultural heritage, the loss of Indigenous languages in Australia
is a loss for all Australians. For the Indigenous peoples whose languages are
affected, the loss has wide ranging impacts on culture, identity and health.
Cultural knowledge and concepts are carried through languages. Where languages
are eroded and lost, so too is the cultural knowledge. This in turn has
potential to impact on the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples. There is
now significant research which demonstrates that strong culture and identity are
protective factors for Indigenous people, assisting us to develop resilience.

Decades of Australian government policies and practices have banned and
discouraged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from speaking our
languages during the assimilation
years.[7] Many people who were
forcibly taken to hostels and missions lost their languages due to the
prohibitionist polices and practices of governments and churches. These policies
and practices lasted in Australia right up to the 1970s.

It is only since the 1970s that Australian governments have taken any action
to preserve Indigenous languages. In 1974 bilingual education programs were
established in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and in the 1980s
Commonwealth funds were provided to establish community language programs across
the country. These resources have been significant in terms of language
preservation, though they arrived too late for the majority of Australia’s
Indigenous languages.

Responsibility for Indigenous languages currently sits with the Federal
Government. The Department of Environment Heritage and the Arts provides the
funding for language resource centres across Australia and for language revival
and language maintenance programs.

In August 2009 the Australian Government released the National Approach with
the aim of preserving and promoting Indigenous languages. This policy comes at a
crucial time. It reflects the will of the Government to take remedial action.
However, the National Approach is not accompanied by an increase in funding and
therefore can do little more than is currently being done to prevent the
language decline.

The current situation regarding support and promotion of Indigenous languages
is fraught by differing and contradictory policies across the Commonwealth,
state and territory governments. On the one hand, the Commonwealth has a
National Approach which acknowledges the value of Indigenous languages and
supports their preservation and promotion. On the other hand, some state and
territory governments have policies which ignore Indigenous languages or limit
Indigenous language teaching in the interests of promoting English
literacy.[8] Current Indigenous
language policy in Australia is inconsistent and in some cases

At this stage, the political will of the Commonwealth Government will not be
enough to shift the decline in Indigenous languages. It is the states and
territories that control the education systems and set the policies which govern
much of the language policy implementation. We have seen over the past year, for
example, efforts of the Northern Territory government to dismantle bilingual
education by making it mandatory for schools to teach the first four hours in
English. In most of Australia’s other states and territories, Indigenous
language activity is endorsed in principle, but implementation of language
programs is left to the discretion of local school administrations and school
principals. We know that school education is crucial in the preservation of
Indigenous languages, and therefore the policies of the states and territories
are very important.[9]

This chapter sets out evidence demonstrating that there are benefits
associated with preserving Indigenous languages and consequential costs
associated with losing them. The chapter also sets out a course of action aimed
at preserving and reviving Indigenous languages in the context of the new
National Approach for Indigenous languages. The chapter is divided into six

  • Section 3.1 Introduction
  • Section 3.2 Why preserve Indigenous languages?
  • Section 3.3 Australian policy and Indigenous languages
  • Section 3.4 Australian and international approaches aimed at protecting and
    promoting Indigenous languages
  • Section 3.5 Findings
  • Section 3.6 Recommendations


3.2: Why preserve Indigenous languages?

Language and culture are interdependent. It has long been understood that
language is the verbal expression of culture. It is the medium through which
culture is carried and transferred. Stories, songs and the nuanced meaning of
words contain the key to understanding one’s world and one’s part
within it. Strong culture gives the individual a sense of belonging to people
and places. For this reason, language and culture are deeply interconnected and
core parts of one’s identity.

There is now a significant body of evidence which demonstrates a range of
benefits for Indigenous peoples and minority groups when they maintain strong
connections with their languages and culture. Having one’s mother tongue
bestows various social, emotional, employment, cognitive and health advantages.
Bilingualism provides yet another layer of advantage for minority language
speakers. Keeping the mother tongue and then mastering English for example,
provides minority language speakers with the advantage of being able to operate
in different contexts. This in turn increases one’s life chances and
employment options.

(a) Promotes resilience

A 2007 research project in the United States found strong correlations
between language and culture and the development of resilience in minority
communities. The study found ‘that both traditional and cultural factors
were predictors of resilient outcomes (i.e., positive quality of life
indicators) for African Americans in [high risk urban
communities]’.[10] The
International Child and Youth Care Network found in 2004 that strong culture and
identity are protective factors for people in vulnerable situations, including
young people in out-of-home environments.

Children and young people’s ethnicity, religion, culture and language
form part of their identity. Preservation of their background and culture helps
to create continuity and a secure

However, where there is loss of language and culture, there are negative
impacts on resilience and this can lead to stress and problems with
socialisation and communication.

When children lose productive as well as receptive knowledge of their native
language, communication barriers result. Moreover, given a population of
preschool-aged children, such barriers can be disastrous as parents are then
limited in their ability to socialize and teach their children during a critical
period of early childhood social, cognitive, and linguistic development. In such
instances, parents are left unable to transmit knowledge, cultural values, and
belief systems effectively.[12]

In Australia, the loss of language has been measured to have specific
negative impacts on the generations who are directly affected. The Western
Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey
found high levels of acculturative
stress in children living in regional centres where language loss was occurring.

... the rate of traditional language loss is greatest in those larger rural
communities (e.g. Kalgoorlie, Broome, Port Hedland, Carnarvon) that are service
and educational centres for more remote, outlying traditional Aboriginal
communities. Aboriginal children in these communities not surprisingly
experience more acculturative stress than those within more traditional
communities and those in larger metropolitan

The stress of being denied instruction in one’s mother tongue in the
school context can set up a powerful sense of failure in young people. Two
students for North East Arnhem Land had the following to say about the use of
English in the classroom:

We don’t retain information – we hear teaching, especially in
English and feel that we don’t grasp what is being taught, and so it
disappears. We go to school, hear something, go home, and the teaching is gone.
We feel hopeless. Is there something wrong with our heads because this English
just does not work for us? In the end, we smoke marijuana to make us feel better
about ourselves. But that then has a bad effect on us. We want to learn English
words but the teachers cannot communicate with us to teach us. It is like we are
aliens to each other. We need radio programs in [traditional Indigenous]
language that can also teach us English. That way we will understand what we

Being taught to learn in one’s own language is one way to avoid the
stress of acculturation to a new language environment. This is what the
bilingual education models seek to provide. Bilingual approaches allow students
to develop their first literacy in their mother tongue while gradually
introducing English into the learning environment.

(b) Improved health

While Australia lacks research on culture and resilience, we do have
longitudinal research data which demonstrates a correlation between strong
language and culture in Indigenous homeland communities and positive health
outcomes. A ten year study of Indigenous Australians in Central Australia found
that ‘connectedness to culture, family and land, and opportunities
for self-determination’ assist in significantly lower morbidity and
mortality rates in Homeland
residents.[15] The study compared
the rates of cardiovascular disease in the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr people of the
Utopia Homeland communities with the rates amongst the Indigenous population of
Northern Territory. In the Utopia homelands, high value is placed on the
maintenance of strong mother tongue languages and traditional cultural
practices. The study found that residents of these communities were less likely
to be obese, less likely to have diabetes and less prone to cardiovascular
disease than Indigenous people across the rest of the Northern Territory.
Interestingly, the study found that ‘conventional measures of employment,
income, housing and education did not account for this health differential.
Strong connections to traditional ways of life were the predictors for the
better health outcomes.

(c) Improved cognitive functioning

Research from the United States shows that there are opportunities in valuing
one’s first language, and costs associated with losing the mother tongue
language in the early years of schooling. The evidence showed that improved
cognitive function in children was achieved through bilingualism, where the
mother tongue was valued at home and in the classroom, and the second language
(such as English) was added.

Long and Padilla ... found that children whose low status native language was
valued and fully used in the household performed better in school than children
whose low status LI (first language) was neglected and substituted with L2
(second language) at home. Moreover, Dube and Herbert (1975) found that school
performance and linguistic proficiency in both languages increased when
children's mother tongue was valued and used in the

The cognitive advantages of bilingualism appear at the earliest stages of learning. Recent studies by the United States National Academy of Sciences identified greater brain plasticity in bilingual infants compared with non-bilingual infants at the pre-language stage. The study showed that the bilingual infants are more likely to learn new responses than non-bilingual infants.[17]

the understanding that bilingualism and multilingualism actually enhance
cognitive developmental processes in children, a number of states in South East
Asia are currently embarking on country-wide initiatives to promote and practice
bilingual education in schools.[18]

Nine Asia-Pacific countries are developing and supporting approaches to
assist ethno-linguistic minority groups who are generally recognised as being
disadvantaged by national educational systems. The nine countries are
participating in a UNESCO project in an effort to maintain the linguistic and
cultural diversity of each region, in recognition of the fact that one’s
mother tongue plays a crucial role in literacy acquisition.

The potential for languages to be lost in Asia is dramatic when one considers
that while there are more than 2,000 spoken languages, only 45 of them are
official languages with formal status in school and learning

(d) Increased employment options

Cultural knowledge has been proven to assist in the employment of Indigenous
people in Australia. For example, Indigenous cultural knowledge is increasingly
playing a role in preserving the biodiversity of Australia’s fragile
eco-systems. Knowledges that have been passed down through Indigenous languages
have been essential for preserving ancestral lands over the millennia. These
knowledges are now being used in fire abatement processes. Skilled Indigenous
fire managers are working with the broader community to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, protect culture and the biodiversity of large areas in Arnhem Land
and elsewhere.[20] Fire abatement is
increasingly important as the globe heats and dry season fires burn longer and

Indigenous languages and cultural knowledges have been associated with understanding the patterns of climate change and ways to address its impacts. The 2006 Garnaut Review into climate change reported that the Torres Strait Islander people had noticed changes in animal and plant behaviour and different patterns in seasonal temperatures.[22] Indigenous cultural knowledge about the seasons and the corresponding plant and animal behaviour dates back thousands of years. Traditional languages have vast vocabularies for naming species and describing their ecology which are little known to Western science. This is an endangered area of knowledge, and the loss of it would disadvantage all Australians. The same deep cultural knowledge that is contained in language has also been essential for Indigenous Australians to demonstrate their connection to country when they are making Native Title claims.

art and tourism industries provide an important stream of employment for
Indigenous people. Indigenous cultural knowledge is the foundation of these
industries and benefits from Indigenous cultural industries flow on to other
Australians and to the Australian economy. In 2001–02, the Tourism
Satellite Account reported that more than $70 billion worth of tourism goods and
services were consumed in

Europe, led by Germany, has emerged as the strongest market for Aboriginal
tourism. German tourists are the most likely to travel to the Australian
outback. While 35% of German tourists made a trip to the outback, only 5% of
Japanese tourists visited the outback in 1999 –2000. About 80% of German
tourists ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that Australia
offered very interesting cultural experiences. Visitors from European countries
generally indicated a high level of interest and knowledge about Indigenous
culture. In a recent survey of potential Chinese visitors, 39% expressed
interest in Indigenous cultural

Knowledge of Indigenous languages provides opportunities for Indigenous
people to be employed as translators and interpreters. In December 2008, COAG
committed $38.6 million towards interpreting and translating services as part of
the Remote Service Delivery sites. The Remote Service Delivery National
Partnership provides these funds for the COAG identified priority

(e) Costs and compensation

The costs of language loss are inestimable. The costs for Indigenous people
begin with simple economic costs associated with the loss of potential income.
In remote and regional Australia, much of the Indigenous-specific employment is
reliant on employees being able to speak Indigenous languages. Languages are the
basis of employment in translating and interpreting, cultural knowledge
industries and a range of Indigenous liaison positions aimed at facilitating
community access to government services.

The next layer of cost associated with language loss is about broken
relationships. The practice of removing children from their families and
enforcing assimilation meant that even when stolen children became adults, some
were unable to communicate with their families because they did not speak the
Indigenous languages spoken by their parents. The loss of language, the
destruction of culture and the consequential fracturing of kinship structures
has been associated with chronic addictions, community violence, broken families
and suicide.[26] The cost of these
losses is hard to estimate. They are personal and intergenerational for
Indigenous peoples.

The cost of social infrastructure to support people who have lost their
language and culture is one that is borne by governments. There is of course, no
monetary value that can be put on language loss. Nevertheless, in recognition of
the costs to Indigenous peoples, some countries have established healing funds
and compensation programs. In 1998 the Canadian government issued a 'Statement
of Reconciliation' and established an Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) with
$350million in funding. This was in recognition of the cultural harm that was
done by the Indian Residential Schools. The Canadian Government acknowledged the
state's role in the implementation and running of the schools, and acknowledged
the damage they caused to Aboriginal

(f) Intrinsic value

There are numerous reasons and arguments to protect and promote Indigenous
languages. Perhaps the most compelling argument is the value of Indigenous
languages to the people who speak them. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people we know we have a unique place in this country and we value our
languages. They are precious to us, and there is a sense of loss amongst those
of us who no longer speak our languages.

Parents and community members at Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land described
the value of their languages in these terms:

It is unique – this language of ours - and we want to keep it strong.
We know that language has been taken away from other people in this country and
we don’t want this to happen to us... [The Government] should see our
language as our heritage and as a national

Phyllis Darcy, an Awabakal descendant in NSW described the place of language
in Aboriginal life in the following terms:

Language is very important to us; it is our connection to our ancestors and
for those of us who still use our language can connect with the ancestors of the
past. We belong to the land without the land we are nothing. Our life blood
comes from the land and what is of the land. Language holds secrets to the
connection of the land.[29]

In launching the International Year of Languages, the Director-General of
UNESCO said:

Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and
to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress
towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global
and the local context


UNESCO therefore invites governments, United Nations organizations, civil
society organizations, educational institutions, professional associations and
all other stakeholders to increase their own activities to foster respect for,
and the promotion and protection of all languages, particularly endangered
languages, in all individual and collective


3.3: Australian policy and Indigenous languages

For the past two centuries, Australia has maintained and enforced a culture
of monolingualism. While there is no policy which establishes English as
Australia’s official language, various factors have contributed to
entrenching the dominance of English. In the early years of colonial life, the
fiction of terra nullius was the basis on which the colonies established legal
and governance institutions as extensions of the British Crown. English was the
language that defined these institutions. In the following century, most
Australian immigrants were English-speaking. The proportion who spoke Irish or
Scots Gaelic was small and measures taken in World War 1 effectively ended the
German-speaking community. The relative distance from Europe and then the
emergence of the United States as a superpower in the twentieth century are
factors which further entrenched English. More recently, the forces of global
technologies have consolidated English as a language of preference for many
Western nations.

Bilingualism has never been considered an advantage in itself in Australia.
In recent years however, there have been some interesting changes in
Australia’s attitude to its geographic neighbours. The emergence of
powerful economies in the Pacific have influenced language education in
Australia. Languages from the Asia-Pacific are slowly finding their way into
school curricula. The potential for economic partnerships has been the prime
motivator for this shift in focus.

In June 2009, NSW Education Minister Verity Firth announced that bilingual
education in Chinese is to be offered in NSW schools. Four-year funding of $2.25
million has been allocated to a program that is to commence in 2010. The
Minister has been quoted as saying that ‘the program was vital to the
state's future economic and social

In his study, Organizing for Multilingualism: Ecological and Sociological
Joseph Lo Bianco outlines the reasons why some languages are
particularly fragile in globalising economies, while other languages are

Today, with economic globalisation, the ‘widening, deepening and
speeding up of world wide interconnectedness’ ...population mobility, and
information / communication technologies that produce instantaneous links across
great distances, there is great stress on communication, and far less on
diversity. As a result some kinds of bilingualism have become strong, additive
and materially rewarded, whereas other kinds of bilingualism have become
fragile, unstable and fading. The kinds of bilingualism that have become strong
and attractive tend to be those that involve the addition of instrumentally
useful languages, especially but not only English, to uncontested national
languages of secure national states.

... [T]he type of bilingualism that has been rendered unstable has been that
of minority populations, including the languages of sub-national communities in
these states, such as non-Han populations in China, indigenous peoples in
Brazil, Australia, the United States and

Joseph Lo Bianco goes on to describe the ways in which the dominant languages
are strengthened and perpetuated; primarily through the power structures of
nation states and through the powerful information technologies of the media.

These languages are used in education, the media, business and commerce,
international contexts etc, and therefore they have more rewards and more power
than other languages.[33]

We know that Indigenous languages do not have a place of power in Australia.
Indigenous languages are rarely, if ever, the means of communication with
governments, industry or the non-Indigenous community. For example, negotiations
about mining on Aboriginal land are usually conducted in English with (or often
without) interpreting or translations for Aboriginal people. English continues
to be the language of transaction in health services, in education, in
negotiations about infrastructure development and industry development on
Indigenous peoples’ land. English is the preferred language even in
situations that are exclusively concerned with Indigenous interests such as
Native Title negotiations.

While the majority of the mainstream English-speaking population may not
recognise benefits in speaking Indigenous languages, there are distinct economic
advantages for Indigenous people who speak their own languages. Bilingualism or
multilingualism enhances employment opportunities where cultural knowledge is
required. Indigenous languages and cultural knowledge can provide employment
advantages in land management and preservation, cultural tourism and the arts,
translator and interpreter services and cultural knowledge industries.
Governments and policy-makers must be mindful of the opportunities that
Indigenous languages bestow. Economic analyses of the opportunities and the
costs of language policies including English-only policies should be carefully
considered so they do not disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

(a) Commonwealth Government policy

Until August 2009, Australia did not have a stand-alone Indigenous languages
policy at the national level. Some earlier policies made reference to Indigenous
languages in broader Australian language and literacy

In August 2009, the Minister for the Arts and the Minister for Indigenous
Affairs announced the first national policy exclusively focussed on Indigenous
languages: Indigenous Languages - A National Approach
.[35] The stated aims of the
policy are to ‘improve coordination between those who are already working
to support Indigenous languages including government, cultural institutions,
Indigenous languages organisations, and education and research
bodies.’[36] Activity is to be
focussed in five areas:

  1. Bringing national attention to Indigenous languages;
  2. Encouraging the use of critically endangered languages to maintain and
    extend their everyday use as much as possible;
  3. Making sure that in areas where Indigenous languages are being spoken fully
    and passed on, government recognises these languages when it interacts with
    Indigenous communities;
  4. Helping restore the use of rarely spoken or unspoken Indigenous languages to
    the extent that the current language environment allows; and
  5. Supporting the teaching and learning of Indigenous languages in Australian

centrepiece of Indigenous language funding in Australia is the
Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR) program administered
through the Department of Environment Heritage and the
Arts.[38] The MILR program funds a
range of organisations to develop language databases, resources and programs
through a grants application process. This program has been in operation for a
number of years and is now the sole source of funding for the
Commonwealth’s new National Approach. No new money has been added to the
MILR to meet the new obligations of the National Approach. The allocation of
$9.3 million to MILR for 2009-10 was committed prior to the
National Approach. This means that the Commonwealth has been unable to be
responsive to situations that are new obligations. For example, the recent
abolition of bilingual education funding by the Northern Territory Government
now requires the attention of the Commonwealth Government if it is to implement
the fifth element of its National Approach which is: “supporting the
teaching and learning of Indigenous languages in Australian

Unless there is new money and mechanisms to regulate state and territory
Indigenous languages policy, it is unlikely that the National Approach will
change the status quo and reverse the language decline. The National Approach
has so far been impotent in directing the states and territories to comply with
its objectives. For example, the National Approach has not changed the education
policy of the Northern Territory which aims to dismantle Indigenous bilingual

The divide between Commonwealth, state and territory policy is a large
obstacle in the implementation of coherent direction in areas such as education.
Cooperative federalism is a worthy aspiration, though it is rarely a
straightforward process and it is often reliant on Commonwealth funding
incentives and COAG agreements.

(b) State and territory Indigenous languages policy

Indigenous language policies at the state and territory level are usually
embedded in education or arts policies, and relevant only to those portfolios.
NSW is the only jurisdiction to have a stand-alone Indigenous languages policy.
It is administered through the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The NSW
Aboriginal Languages Policy has influence on the activity of a range of NSW
departmental portfolio areas, including education and justice.

When Indigenous languages policies are compared across jurisdictions it is
clear that there are some contradictions between Commonwealth and state and
territory policy positions. There is also considerable variation between the
states and territories in their commitment to Indigenous languages as
represented in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1: Commonwealth, state and territory government policies with
impact on Indigenous languages

Indigenous language policy
Commonwealth Government
Indigenous Languages - A National Approach.
The importance of Australia's Indigenous languages
August 2009
The Indigenous Languages - A National Approach policy supports the
preservation of Indigenous languages by raising the profile of Indigenous
languages and supporting education initiatives. Funding is available through the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program. $8.8 million was
allocated in 2008-09. This policy has no direct impact on policy direction in
the states and territories.
Northern Territory
Compulsory teaching in English for the first four hours of each school

Indigenous Education Strategic Plan 2006 - 2009
January 2009

The Compulsory teaching in English for the first four hours of each
school day
policy negatively impacts on bilingual programs –
preventing schools from following bilingual education models. Indigenous
languages can only be taught in the afternoon. The majority of the NT schools
have some form of Indigenous culture program and many have language programs
including LOTE focussed programs. The Indigenous Education Strategic Plan lists the teaching of Indigenous language at Priority 3 and English literacy at
Priority 1. Language Centres provide resources to communities including schools.
An Aboriginal Interpreter service operates throughout the NT.
Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Policy

State Library of Queensland Indigenous Languages Strategy


The Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in
policy advises that schools may provide Indigenous language
maintenance or revitalisation programs at their own discretion. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Policy 2009–2013 aims to
support communities in the revival, reclamation and maintenance of Indigenous
languages through the arts industries.

Queensland Indigenous Languages
Advisory Committee has been a principal advocate for a state-wide policy. The State Library of Queensland Indigenous Languages Strategy supports
language revival, reclamation and maintenance through the provision of language
information and resources.
Western Australia
Languages Services Policy

The Languages Services policy impacts on translator and interpreter
services. It does not have impact on language education. Other language activity
in WA occurs through federally funded language resource centres, Indigenous
corporations or research centres. Indigenous languages are taught in some
schools as a LOTE and at the discretion of school administrations. A Draft
Languages Policy 2007 has not been released since the change of government in WA
in September 2008.
Australian Capital Territory
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy 1997
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy
contains a statement of purpose: ‘to address the issue of maintenance
and development of indigenous languages’ through school education. However
there are no dictionaries and no Ngunawal speakers in the ACT and so school
activity has been limited to culture programs.
No Indigenous languages policy

The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages coordinates and assists
in the development of language programs including the development of
dictionaries and school and community education programs.
South Australia
Languages Statement 2007–2011

The Languages Statement 2007–2011 promotes the teaching of
Indigenous languages at the school, district and State Office level. Languages
are taught at the discretion of school administrations and most often with a
LOTE focus.
The SA Government is reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 for
future heritage protection and management. The Review Scoping Paper contemplates
a broad definition of heritage.
New South Wales
NSW Aboriginal Languages Policy
The NSW Aboriginal Languages Policy is a state-wide policy with
impacts in the following areas:
  • Programs in Aboriginal communities
  • Language programs in the educational system
  • Language programs in gaols and detention centres
  • Aboriginal languages in the broader community
The Aboriginal
Languages Research and Resource Centre in the NSW Department of Aboriginal
Affairs support the preservation and revival of the State’s 70 languages
through a $200,000 annual grants program
The NSW school syllabus provides that students can learn a language from
kindergarten through to year 10.
No Indigenous languages policy

Some language retrieval is managed by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and
provided to local communities. No Aboriginal language revitalisation is
occurring in Tasmanian schools

Advocates of Indigenous language preservation have long argued for a combined
national, state and territory approach to Indigenous languages; one which is not
limited by state and territory borders.

(c) Funding and resources for Indigenous

Commonwealth, state and territory governments fund various Indigenous
language initiatives designed to promote, protect, revive and maintain
Indigenous languages. However, when considered in total, the Indigenous language
resource picture in Australia is inconsistent and complex. Language preservation
initiatives are resourced from different government portfolio areas across the
different levels of government. Many of the existing Indigenous language
initiatives are funded through grants on short-term funding cycles.

Australia lacks a coordinated approach to guide practice in Indigenous
language maintenance and revitalisation activity and this means that there is no
framework for quality control. Governments and other project funding bodies do
not have nationally agreed measures against which to assess the benefits and
impacts of individual projects.

The lack of coordination means that there are lost opportunities for
efficiencies in resource sharing, and a lack of expertise about whether the
appropriate approaches are being applied to meet the requirements of each
language situation. There is no single organisation in Australia that has its
eye on the big picture and can apply expertise to a complex language
environment. The National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005 explains that different language situations need different approaches. It
cautions that there needs to be ‘some kind of general scheme for matching
programs to situations.’[40] Not all approaches will work in all situations, and sometimes good programs are
shelved because they have been applied in the wrong settings.

It is difficult to make assessments about the different language situations
without reliable research. It is also difficult to assess the resource situation
in Australia without comprehensive mapping at the Commonwealth, state and
territory levels and across the government portfolio areas. Indigenous languages
funding could be embedded in school programs, early childhood centres,
vocational and training institutions, universities and justice environments.

At the Commonwealth level we know that the majority of funds from the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR) program go to regional Indigenous language centres, research centres or community groups.[41] In the 2008-09 funding round for MILR, there were 104 applications seeking more than $18 million in funds. Sixty six projects were funded by the Commonwealth at an expenditure of $8.8 million.[42] When the new National Approach to Indigenous languages was announced in August 2009, the Australian Government had already committed $9.3 million to support 65 programs through the MILR for the 2009-10 financial year.[43] This is the money which has been dedicated to support the New Approach. There are no new funds to accompany the policy announcement. A breakdown of the MILR funding for 2008-09 and 2009-10 are at Appendices 4 and 5 respectively.

breakdown of the MILR funds shows that money does not go to schools where
children are still speaking languages. For example, no funding goes to the
Alyawarre, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri, Tiwi, or Anindilyakwa language groups where
children are still speaking their languages. Many of these communities have lost
funding since the abolition of bilingual education by the Northern Territory

The MILR Funding allocations range from $10,000 to $450,000 grants. Many
language projects and resource centres attempt to obtain supplementary funds
from state and territory governments or from philanthropic groups. This is not
always successful. In some instances language and culture activity has been
funded by mining companies as part of land use agreements or royalty agreements
such as the Warlpiri Education and Training Trust (WETT) which was set up as a
result of an agreement between the Central Land Council and Tanami gold miner
Newmont Mining.[44]

The grant-based nature of the MILR program means that organisations with
capacity to apply for funds are the ones that are in the best position to
acquire resources. Language grants are dependent on localised advocacy and not
necessarily on a careful assessment of the language requirements in a particular
area. The Kimberley Language Resource Centre argues that there is not enough
focus and resourcing for ‘teaching on country’ in the Kimberley
region, where Aboriginal language speakers carry out a unique role of teaching
and transmitting their languages in their communities.

The need for language transmission from the older generations to the younger
generations is a finding from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health
. It finds that older carers play an essential role in transferring
language to the next generations. However, success is dependent upon creating
opportunities for older and younger generations to interact in structured
learning environments.

The rate of loss of traditional Aboriginal language from one generation to
the next can be gauged by comparing the distribution of carers and children who
are conversant in an Aboriginal language. This is highly dependent on the degree
of relative isolation (remoteness) and the extent to which there have been
systematic initiatives to preserve and recover traditional languages (e.g.
Kimberley Aboriginal Language Resource Centre) or where there are local
opportunities for bilingual or traditional first language education (e.g.
several Western Australian Aboriginal Independent Community Schools have
developed strategies which use the children’s traditional language and
culture as a bridge to developing competence in Standard Australian

The findings of the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey indicate that the Kimberley region would benefit from ‘language nests’. Language nests are pre-schools or crèches that are run by local Indigenous language speakers. Children attending the language nests are immersed in the local language and culture. Establishing language nests requires the coordination of policy and resources over a number of portfolio areas across the state, territory and Commonwealth governments. Language nests require complementary policy in the areas of early childhood services, employment services for Indigenous language speakers, training for elders and community members if required, and possibly infrastructure development resourcing. Initiating this activity goes well beyond applying for a grant from the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR) program.

The Kimberley is one of very few places to trial the language nest approach in the Bunuba community. However due to the lack of an effective resource and information sharing body, no other language group or community has been able to benefit from an evaluation of this trial. The new National Approach endorses language nests but there is no money for any implementation and no plan to role out a national trial as recommended by the NILS report.

this example in the Kimberley demonstrates, there is sometimes a disjunction
between the language requirements of an Indigenous community and the available
services and resources in the area. This problem is replicated across Australia.


3.4: Australian and international approaches aimed
at protecting and promoting Indigenous languages

(a) Strategic approaches to preserve
Indigenous languages

There are numerous ways to improve the situation of Indigenous languages in
Australia. However, the reach of any initiative will be limited if it is not
part of an overarching strategic direction. Commitment at the highest levels of
government is required to ensure consistency in action and direction. It is the
strategic approaches that set direction for programmatic responses and the
targeting of resources. The new National Approach to Indigenous Languages is the
beginning of a strategic response for this country.

Australia’s Indigenous languages situation has many unique features
which distinguish it from other countries. Nevertheless, there is much we can
learn from the international experience. To a large extent, the actions that are
required to preserve minority languages are analogous the world over.

Internationally, language movements have been shown to be successful when
they become a national responsibility. Language movements in North Africa for
example, led to legal and constitutional recognition of the Amazigh language in
Algeria in 1996. The movement for the Amazigh language in Morocco led to the
establishment of Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture in 2001. These actions have
had practical language promotion outcomes for these two countries. They have led
to new language policy including:

  • The adoption of TIFINNAGH (Amazigh writing) and standardization in M /Latin
    and Arabic in Algeria
  • Amazigh language for all Moroccan children and for all levels rogressively
    since 2003-2004/in some regions in Algeria
  • Didactics materials in Amazigh language
  • Training programs for teachers
  • A new dynamic with mother language in schools in both

(i) Constitutional

In Australia, constitutional recognition of Indigenous languages and culture
could take two possible forms. A statement in the preamble could describe the
place of Indigenous language and culture in Australian society, though it would
have no legal or enforceable status. The Constitution of the state of Victoria
makes reference to the unique status of Indigenous Australians as the first
peoples, though this has no bearing on the language rights of Indigenous

A provision in the body of the Australian Constitution would provide legal
recognition of Indigenous languages. Ecuador has a provision of this nature in
its Constitution. Ecuador recognises Indigenous languages alongside Castilian
which is the official language of use.

Castilian is the official language of Ecuador; Castilian, Kichwa and Shuar
are official languages of intercultural relations. The remaining ancestral
languages are in official use by the indigenous peoples in the areas that they
inhabit according to the terms established by law. The state will respect and
encourage their use.[47]

Removal of the races power and the addition of an equality clause or a
non-discrimination clause are additional changes that need to be made to
Australia’s Constitution to ensure the full and consistent protection of
Indigenous peoples’ language rights.

Other countries have acted to protect Indigenous languages through statutory
law. For example, the Māori Language Act 1987 is the centrepiece
legislation which gives Māori language official status in New Zealand. New
Zealand has three official languages; Maori, English and New Zealand Sign
Language. Because Te Reo Maori has official language status, speakers have a
right to use it in legal settings such as in court and to conduct their business
with Government in the language.

Many places in New Zealand have both Māori and English names and local
governments and other public institutions display all information in bilingual
formats. Schools also reflect the diversity of language. The New Zealand
Ministry of Education supports both Māori-medium and English-medium
education. In Māori-medium schools, Te Reo Māori is the language of
instruction. In English-medium schools, Māori language is an official part
of the curriculum. Section 61 of New Zealand’s Education Act 1989 requires that English-medium schools to take all reasonable steps to provide Te
Reo Māori to students when parents ask for

The following case study of the Māori Language Commission demonstrates
what is possible when language preservation is guided by national laws and
institutions aimed at achieving a common purpose. While Australia has more than
one hundred spoken languages compared with the single Indigenous language in New
Zealand, the actions and initiatives of this country have potential application
in the Australian context.

Case Study 3.1: The Māori Language Commission
The Māori Language Commission is able to exercise quality control over
all areas of Māori language policy, funding, program standards and research
projects. Since it was introduced in 1987 there has been a steady increase in
Māori language activity. The Māori Language Commission was set up
under the Māori Language Act 1987 to promote the use of Māori
as a living language and as an ordinary means of communication. The Māori Language Act 1987 does three things:
  1. It declares the Māori Language to be an official language of New
  2. In Courts of Law, Commissions of Inquiry and Tribunals, it confers the right
    to speak Māori to any member of the Court, any party, witness or counsel.
  3. It establishes the Māori Language
operations of the Māori Language Commission are divided into six areas
which are complementary and interconnected. The Commission carries out the
following functions:
(i) Lexicography, Terminology and Research: developing the first
monolingual Māori dictionary - and establishing and maintaining a lexical
(ii) Māori Language Development and Standards: developing language
standards, for quality assurance, and training and certifying translators and
(iii) Māori Language Community Initiatives: distributing funding to
support community-based Māori language initiatives.
(iv) Promotions: promotion and communication about Māori language
(v) Policy: providing advice to the Minister, State Sector agencies and
educational institutes.
(vi) Finance and Administration: financial management and general
administrative support for the office.
The Commission meets at least six times a year. The secretariat is headed
by a Chief Executive which carries out research, policy advice, translation
checking work, promotional activities, and tasks assigned by Commission

In recent years the New Zealand Government has monitored the uptake of
Māori language through national language surveys. The survey data shows a
steady increase in the numbers of people learning the language.

Following both the 2001 and 2006 Census, surveys were undertaken of the
Māori population aged 15 years-old and over, looking at the health of the
Māori language. Both surveys included self-assessment of three components
of language proficiency, namely: speaking, reading and writing, with the 2001
survey also assessing listening.

The 2006 Survey on the Health of the Māori Language found that 22.8% of
the Māori population aged 15 and over were proficient in reading Māori
(that is, they could read 'well' or 'very well'), a significant increase from
the figure in 2001 (13.2%). The 2006 survey found that 16.8% and 14.0% of the
Māori adults were proficient in writing and speaking Māori, compared
with 11.6% and 9.8% respectively from the 2001 Census. The increase in
proficiency levels from the 2001 Census was most marked for those aged 25 to 34

Figure 3.1: Age-standardised percentage of Māori population
proficient in Te Reo (2001 and 2006)

Source: Language Counts, Percentage of Māori population proficient in te
reo Māori, Website. At:

New Zealand has had a long tradition of celebrating it Indigenous language.
Te Reo has been celebrated annually for over 30 years during Māori
Language Week.

New Zealand is not alone developing nation-wide organisations to promote and
preserve Indigenous languages. The following case study of the Greenland
Language Secretariat describes a national body that provides advice to
parliament and guidance to language authorities throughout Greenland.

Case Study 3.2: The Greenland Language Secretariat,

Greenland recently developed a national secretariat to develop normative or
standardized usage of the Indigenous language in the contexts of education,
communication and legislation. The Greenland Language Secretariat,
Oqaasileriffik is largely credited with saving and promoting the language as the
official tongue.

In 2009, the most prominent Indigenous language dialect of Greenland,
Kalaallisut, was made the sole official language. The name Kalaallisut is now
often used as a cover term for all of Greenlandic language. Before June 2009,
Greenlandic shared its status as the official language in Greenland with Danish.

Oqaasileriffik is an independent Greenlandic institution under the Ministry
of Culture, Education, Research and Church with responsibility to report to the
Minister. Oqaasileriffik's main objectives include:

  • to collect and maintain information on Greenlandic language and language
  • to participate in Nordic Boards and working groups in language matters and
    to join the ICC Language Board
  • to stay updated on changes in the spoken Greenlandic language
  • to carry out research on Greenlandic as a second

is the secretariat for the following Parliamentary Committees:

The Greenland Language Committee

The Greenland Place Names Authority

The Committee for Personal Names

The Parliamentary Committees report to the Greenland Cabinet every year.
They also have responsibility to give guidance to Greenland authorities and the
public on questions related to the Greenlandic

(ii) A national language authority for Australia

While the current language situation in Australia is considerably different
to New Zealand and Greenland, there is much we can learn from their actions.

Indigenous language activity in Australia currently lacks focus and quality
control. There is no doubt that a national organisation would significantly
assist Australia’s language situation. A national organisation could
monitor Indigenous languages across Australia, assist in the distribution of
appropriate funds and resources and set the direction for the preservation and
revitalisation of Indigenous languages. Ideally, such a body would bring
together the considerable language expertise in this country.

In 2005 the National Indigenous Survey Report 2005 argued for the establishment of a National Indigenous Languages Centre.[54] The Survey Report put the case that a feasibility study will be required to evaluate the merits of establishing this body. As its first listed action to implement the new National Approach to Indigenous Languages, the Australian Government agreed to conduct this study.[55] Three months on, there is no indication that any action has begun to conduct assess the feasibility of a national Indigenous languages body. It is essential that this activity begin immediately for the fast disappearing Indigenous languages in Australia.

large challenge for any national body in Australia is the interaction with the
states and territories. The divide between the Commonwealth, state and territory
government functions limits the impact that a national body can have at the
implementation level or the program level. The implementation of national policy
is reliant on the buy-in of the states and territories as well as the capacity
of the different levels of government to resource and mobilise people at local
and community levels.

(iii) A national curriculum for Australian schools

A future mechanism that will have impact on primary and secondary schools is
the national curriculum which is being developed by the Australian Curriculum,
Assessment and Reporting Authority. The Commonwealth Government assures that:

Indigenous perspectives will be written into the National Curriculum to
ensure that all young Australians have the opportunity to learn about,
acknowledge and respect the language and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres
Strait Islanders.[56]

‘Indigenous perspectives’ is one of three cross curricula dimensions to be integrated across all areas of Australian school curricula. Indigenous perspectives aim to give students the opportunity to learn about the history, culture, language and social context of Indigenous Australians through maths, science, English and history. This cross curricula dimension will provide good contextual information about Indigenous Australia, though it is not indigenous language studies.

The national curriculum is currently a work in progress. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority expects to complete the first phase of curriculum development for English, mathematics, the sciences and history by September 2010. A second phase will then develop curricula for geography and languages other than English (LOTE).[57]

Language studies will give students an opportunity to learn Indigenous languages as a LOTE if teachers have Indigenous language skills and the language resources exist in the school. Finding trained Indigenous language teachers will be especially difficult in urban areas. However, with appropriate resources, Indigenous languages will be available through the national curriculum as LOTE studies in much the same way as one might learn French or Japanese. This will suit students wanting to learn an Indigenous language or to revive their local language.

The LOTE approach to language learning is very different from bilingual education. A LOTE can be described as a discrete language subject whereas bilingual education is a methodological approach to learning across all subject areas in the early years of schooling.

In Australia, bilingual approaches are used in contexts where Indigenous students speak an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. In these schools the Indigenous language is the language of instruction in the early years of schooling and English is progressively introduced with each successive year. By the end of primary school, students are learning predominantly in English. Bilingual education is, in fact, an English literacy approach as well as a method for teaching literacy in the child’s first language.

will be some distinct challenges for schools wanting to follow bilingual
education approaches under the national curriculum. While the national
curriculum may not preclude bilingual approaches, governments will need to make
provision for the development of literacy materials in Indigenous languages. In
addition, bilingual schools require a specific staffing formula so that teachers
proficient in Indigenous languages and English are available to deliver the
learning program. Unfortunately, the Northern Territory Government has shown
that it is not prepared to fund bilingual approaches in 2009. This means that
the bilingual approaches, which are language maintenance programs where
Indigenous languages are strong, will not be able to function in future without
some form of funding.

There are many questions about the future of Indigenous language learning in
Australian schools. How can a national strategy and curriculum framework ensure
that language resources are available, sustainable and appropriate in the areas
where they are best applied? How can we be sure that state education departments
will assist schools to provide Indigenous language studies? Will language
studies be contingent upon the interest of school principals and the
availability of resources in the local area? Will teacher training colleges
provide courses and support some of the specific learning needs of Indigenous
language teachers? Will the national curriculum framework support the bilingual
teaching methodology and will it fund bilingual schools to the level required?

A series of complex interconnected actions are required to ensure that
appropriate Indigenous language resources find their way into Australian

(iv) Consistent action across Commonwealth, state and territory

One way that the Commonwealth can influence state and territory policy and
service delivery is through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
agreements. In fact COAG agreements are increasingly becoming the strategy
through which all Australian governments cooperate on national agendas.

Another way that the Commonwealth can exercise significant control over the
states and territories is through tied grants. The Commonwealth Parliament has a
vastly larger budget than the states and territories and less responsibility for
implementation of services. By using its power to make grants to states with
conditions, the Commonwealth is able to exercise significant influence over
state and territory governments in many portfolio areas. The Commonwealth is
also a source of significant infrastructure expenditure from its own separate
programs. Importantly, the Commonwealth has specific responsibilities for
Indigenous programs and funding.

Tied grants have been used by the Commonwealth Government to influence state
policy on matters such as Indigenous education in schools. For example, in
2008–09 the Northern Territory Government received approximately $18.1
million for special Indigenous education
purposes.[58] Tied grants are
commonly monitored by setting goals and targets to be achieved by agreed
timelines. The Commonwealth monitors the outcomes of tied grants through
various measures such as national reporting of student performance on literacy
and numeracy tests.

The complex challenge to preserve and revive Indigenous languages will
require the following coordinated action as a minimum:

  • an overarching agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories on
    key principles and a framework for Indigenous languages;
  • the negotiation of bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and each
    state and territory with tied grants attached; and
  • the development of priorities, goals, measures and targets for outcomes in
    service delivery performance, and in the increase of Indigenous people with
    access to first language resources and learning. Ultimately, the success of the
    agreements will have to be measured by targets of Indigenous language speakers
    over time.

(b) Programmatic approaches to preserve Indigenous

Programmatic responses are as important as strategic responses because it is
at the program level that the real language work occurs. Not all Indigenous
languages are at the same level of use and of fluency across the generations of
speakers. In some places in Australia, Indigenous languages are spoken by all
generations, including the old and the young people; and in other places it is
only the older people who are the full language speakers. Different language
preservation actions are required for different situations. If the languages are
not spoken by the youngest generation, the children; then the task is language reclamation and revitalisation. If the languages are spoken by
children, then there are two tasks; to ensure that the children have the
opportunity to develop their mother tongue to the fullest extent (language
); and to ensure that they receive good quality English teaching
which does not seek to replace their traditional language, but rather to add
another language (additive bilingual education).

Approximately two thirds of specific language MILR funding goes to language
reclamation and revitalisation and about a third goes to language maintenance.
Addressing language situations is not a simple proportionate equation whereby
the worst language situations require the greatest resource allocations and visa
versa. A full range of programmatic responses is required if Indigenous
languages are to be preserved in Australia. The case study examples in this
chapter represent a sample of Indigenous language activity under different
categories of action. They are:

  1. Literacy materials for learning in first languages: The First Language
    of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation
  2. Drama, music and art programs in schools and communities: The Music
    Outback program
    of the Music Outback Foundation and Ngapartji
    of Big hART
  3. Mentoring programs: The tuakana-teina (language mentoring) project of
    the Māori Language Commission
  4. Using technology to bring the knowledge of Indigenous experts to tertiary
    education settings: Teaching from Country Charles Darwin University
  5. Bilingual education: Bilingual education in the Northern Territory
  6. Language nests and language immersion: Aha Pūnana Leo, Language Nest
    Preschools in Hawai‘i
  7. Regional language resource centres: Many Rivers Aboriginal Language
  8. Tertiary education programs for future Indigenous language teachers:
    Certificate course and higher education degrees in Indigenous language studies
  9. Secondary education: Embedding Indigenous language studies into state and
    territory curriculum frameworks

Literacy materials for learning
in first languages

Educators in schools and other settings need access to quality teaching
materials in whatever subject they are teaching. While English literacy learning
materials are abundant in Australia, texts and learning materials in Indigenous
languages are not. Developing reading, maths and history resources in Indigenous
languages requires the direct input of Indigenous language speakers as well as
publishing facilities. In Australia some excellent work has been done to
preserve languages through picture dictionaries and classroom learning materials
and readers.

IAD Press is Australia’s national Indigenous publishing house based at
the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) in Alice Springs. The purpose of
the Press is to:

  • publish the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and
  • promote the many and varied voices of Indigenous Australia
  • maintain and promote Indigenous languages and culture

IAD Press
has been producing quality publications for more than 30 years. Linguists
working in Alice Springs have developed picture dictionaries and electronic
templates for language learning in ten Indigenous languages so far. The picture
dictionaries have been developed by linguists working with groups of Indigenous
language speakers. Vocabulary is accompanied by pictures and good illustrative
sentences. The picture dictionaries have been used for a range of language
activities in schools as well as providing a learning resource for adult

Literature Production Centres in bilingual schools have also been publishers
of language materials in the local languages. Literature production Centres
develop readers for schools children as well as classroom learning materials
across all of the curriculum areas. For example, Yuendumu Community Education
Centre has more than 100 titles of readers and resources for use in
classrooms.[59] However the
defunding of bilingual education has had direct implications for Literature
Production Centres. These materials will no longer be produced with the support
of Northern Territory Government funding.

The following case study of the First Language Program profiles a
promising initiative which has the potential to set up online language resources
for Indigenous languages across Australia. This is one of a number of
initiatives that may provide some sustainable Indigenous language materials for
current and future language learners.

Case Study 3.3: The First Language Program

The First Language Program is an initiative of the Australian Literacy and
Numeracy Foundation aimed at preserving and revitalising oral Indigenous
languages by transforming them into written languages.

This program is set up to achieve three outcomes: to develop archives of
language materials for imperilled languages; to involve community members in the
development of local first language learning materials; and to provide learning
resources for the next generations of Indigenous language speakers.

While the overarching objective is to preserve and revitalise languages
through school-based and community learning, the program also provides training
and employment opportunities for Indigenous adults. Elders and adults have an
opportunity to be trained and potentially employed to collect and collate
language materials for school learners. (The training program for adult
community members is to be accredited through VETAB.)

One of the unique features of the First Language Program is that it uses
online technology to house the Indigenous language materials, providing a suite
of rich audio-visual and text based learning resources.

The prototype of the first language resource is currently being developed
at Tennant Creek. The Tennant Creek Language Centre; Papulu Apparr-kari, has
been working with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation to collect and
load images, photographs, videos and local language materials onto a website.
This work involves different people in the Tennant Creek community.

Local language speakers are being trained (with the view to potential
employment) to record local people speaking their language and pronouncing
vocabulary. These recordings become online learning materials of sound and

The audio-visual resources are only part of the online learning toolkit.
Audio-visuals are supplemented with phonograms, dictionary resources and other
teaching and learning materials. These materials are developed by experts at the
Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation. Language Workers use the
audiovisual materials and map the Indigenous language sounds to the English
alphabet. The materials are then developed into a range of learning, reading and
writing materials. This part of the program is called Coding Aboriginal
Languages for Indigenous Literacy (CALIL). CALIL has the added advantage of
assisting learners with English literacy skills through the development of
pre-literacy skills in a person’s first language.

The First Language Program is reliant on interactive and responsive
technology. The building of the First Language Program website is occurring at
the University of Sydney Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and
Cognition (US CoCo). An important aspect of the website development is about
ensuring that the resource is appropriate for the needs of the community.
Researchers from the CoCo team conduct focus group interviews with community
members and language workers at various stages of website development. This
gives language learners and workers the opportunity to reflect upon how they
would use the online tool and helps to ensure that the tool will be of value to
the community. As the resource is introduced into other communities, other
schools and the broader public, it will continue to be refined by US CoCo.

Ultimately, the First Language Program gives young language learners an
opportunity to learn to read and write in their first language. A resource such
as this one has the potential to transform literacy education in Indigenous
communities and to assist in the preservation and revitalisation of Indigenous
languages. The online teaching and learning materials from Tennant Creek are an
example of a process that can be replicated across Australia.

The First Language Program has developed its learning resource as an online
template. Communities across Australia can follow the same steps as Tennant
Creek and upload their local language materials into the online template. The
template provides a resource framework that can be adapted and utilized for the
teaching and learning of different Indigenous languages in sites across
Australia where language speakers exist.

At this stage, the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation is reliant
on sponsors for funding. These funds are time limited and currently insufficient
for a roll-out of the First Language Program to other locations in Australia.
The future of this program is now reliant on support from governments across
portfolios, including education, employment, and heritage preservation.

Drama, music and art programs in schools and communities

The combination of language, culture, music, art and performance is
irresistible for many Indigenous school-aged students. Combining these programs
with input from elders and other community members establishes the potential for
a rich language learning environment. Programs that combine languages with the
arts can achieve many positive outcomes including language and culture
preservation and revitalisation. As the Ngapartji Ngapartji website claims:

Ngapartji Ngapartji has many layers involving language learning, teaching and
maintenance, community development, crime prevention, cross cultural
collaboration, creating new literacy training models as well as film, art and
theatre making.[60]

The following two programs ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’ and ‘Music
Outback’ are examples of the ways in which projects can involve whole
communities in language activity and recording local stories and histories.

Case Study 3.4: Ngapartji Ngapartji

The Ngapartji Ngapartji project is run by Big hART; a group of professional
artists and producers who have been creating theatre, film, dance and art for 15

Big hART works in small (and large) communities around the country with
people experiencing the effects of marginalisation in geographically or socially
isolated communities. Big hART experiments with the process of making art with
groups over three year periods, honing the quality of their work and showcasing
the results in national and international festivals and media.

The most well known work of Ngapartji Ngapartji is the Ngapartji Ngapartji
performance: a main stage theatre production and a five-part language show about
a family’s story from the desert. It tells the story of Trevor
Jamieson’s father and the Pitjantjatjara people, who lived in the desert
country between South Australia and Western Australia. In the 1950s the British
nuclear testing at Maralinga and Emu Field moved the people from their country.
A large number of people were subsequently contaminated by the nuclear fallout
from the atomic tests and many died as a consequence.

The production is only a small part of a much broader project and
community, which is ever-growing. This includes the Ninti website,, an online
place of language learning and cultural exchange with a national community of
participants; and a long-term community development program which takes place in
Alice Springs, Ernabella (SA) and Docker River (NT). A project of this magnitude
requires years of research, relationship building, language learning,
experimenting, and the ongoing development of trust.

Most recently, Ngapartji Ngapartji are involved in creating a new
performance ‘Nyuntu Ngali’. This project is informed by a series of
community workshops running through 2009. Workshops include music recording,
song-writing, film-making, instrument building, naïve image-making,
story-recording, multi-generational trips to sacred-sites of relevance to the
story, dance and weaving. In 2009 the workshops will be taking place in
Ernabella, Mimili and Alice Springs.

Nyuntu Ngali’ which translates as ‘You, we two’ will be
an intricate examination of traditional Central Australian survival methods
through the framework of a love story. It examines themes of climate-change,
endurance, culture and dependence.

Ngaparti Ngapartji also involves young people in explicit language learning
activities. For example, part of their work has involved young Pitjantjatjara
speakers in developing and videoing Pitjantjatjara language lessons.

The Ngapartji Ngapartji model is one which brings people together for
creative purposes and ultimately achieves a number of social and cultural goals.
While Indigenous language and culture preservation is at the core of Ngapartji
Ngapartji activity, embedded within this activity is community building and
history building. Cultural projects that are conducted over years assist
communities to build a sense of purpose and enhance a sense of identity. This in
turn can have positive impacts on social cohesion.

Case Study 3.5: The Music Outback program [61]

Music Outback Foundation is a non-profit organisation providing music and
arts based education opportunities in remote parts of central Australia. It is
another example of a community-based initiative that brings different segments
of the community together to engage in language and culture activity. Music
education provides excellent opportunities to support language and culture
curricula in remote schools.

The Music Outback teams work with linguists and community members to record
traditional stories in language and develop them into first language
contemporary songs. The songs are then taught to school students, recorded and
performed. The process has been important for community elders who are the
custodians of these stories. The music has given them a method to engage young
people in the content of important traditional stories. The music has also
strengthened meaning between English and Indigenous languages as songs are
developed that include verses in English alongside their local language

Many of the schools that Music Outback has visited have incorporated the
music program into their regular curriculum every term. In the eight years of
its operation, Music Outback has visited 30 remote communities, covering 6
language groups and an area over 350,000 square kilometres. Over 30 musicians
have been involved in the delivery of the program, including internationally
recognised musicians Mal Webb and Greg Sheehan, and the leaders from the up and
coming band Blue King Brown - Nat Pa'a Pa'a and Carlo Santone.

The Music Outback program considers language preservation to be one of its
core objectives. The program has shown that passing traditional stories to the
next generation through a contemporary music can be an important action in
preserving the long term life of local language and culture, and enthusiasm for
this process by traditional custodians and elders continues to grow.

The Foundation operates under the principle that continuity and
sustainability are essential factors in program design and delivery in remote
Indigenous Australia. A challenge for education in remote locations is to
maintain continuity in the relationships between students and teachers. Many
teachers leave remote schools after a very short posting and because teacher
turnover is high in remote locations students lack continuity in their learning

Music Outback is committed to working with the same schools and communities
term after term. The school visits usually last one week and Music Outback
teachers choose the number of schools to which they can commit on a sustainable
basis. This means that the same teachers make commitments to the same schools
and are able to form long term relationships with community members and school

More information is available at:

Mentoring programs

Language mentoring programs are assisting in efforts to revive minority
languages. Mentoring is an efficient and effective method for language
transference between competent speakers and learners. Its efficiency as a
national language revival strategy rests on the fact that it is cost neutral to
governments. It relies on the goodwill and relationships between language
mentors and language learners. There are no limits to its effectiveness except
the willingness of people to engage. It has been one of a number of strategies
to increase Māori language resources for the New Zealand population. It has
been part of the picture that has seen a rise in the number of Māori
speakers as reflected in the 2001 and 2006 Census

Case Study 3.6: The tuakana-teina (language mentoring) project [63]

The tuakana-teina project of the Māori Language Commission is a simple
and effective method to pass Māori language skills onto others who are
developing new language competencies. The aims of the tuakana-teina project are
to increase the number of people actually speaking Māori and increase the
domains of Māori language use. It is a strategy for the revitalisation and
revival of the Māori language in New Zealand.

The tuakana-teina project is based on the premise that each Māori
speaker 'adopts' a person who wishes to learn to speak Māori language. The
Māori speaker assumes the mentor role and continually speaks Māori to
the person wishing to learn, as often as possible, and in everyday settings
about everyday things.

The role of the mentor is to provide constant, good-quality examples of
Māori language use. The mentor does not teach or correct the learner who at
first is required only to listen. In time the learner should be able to
understand and reproduce some language used by the mentor. For people with some
knowledge of Māori language, the tuakana-teina project will re-enforce and
extend what they already know.

This model of language transmission of tuakana-teina is based on
methodologies used in Māori language preschools and advanced immersion
models of language teaching. The tuakana-teina project extends the language
learning methodology out of the formal learning settings and into everyday
living environments. All that is required is the time and commitment of the
tuakana (mentor) and the teina (learner), and a willingness to work

The Māori Language Commission Website sets out a process to guide
mentors and learners. The sections of information include the following:

  1. Finding a Tuakana or a Teina
  2. Developing the tuakana-teina relationship
  3. Common hurdles and how to overcome them
  4. Some more advanced activities
  5. Some useful guidelines
  6. The tuakana-teina project in action; successful

Using technology to bring the knowledge of Indigenous experts to tertiary
education settings

Technology now provides the medium for communication across cities and
countries and increasingly it is reaching into some of the remotest places on
the planet. Places that were hitherto isolated in their geographic remoteness
are now able to connect and interact with others via the internet. Internet
services are beginning to be rolled out to very small Indigenous communities
using satellite dish technologies. The internet is now a portal and a means
through which Indigenous people can document their lives, record their histories
and interact with others without geographic boundaries.

In remote Australia, the internet is being used as a conduit for the teaching
and learning of Indigenous languages. For example, the Online Language Community
Access Pilot (OLCAP), is a trial community-focused approach to accessing
language documentation online. This project provides online audio-visual and
text in Indigenous languages. Audio or video is linked with transcripts in
English and an Indigenous language. OLCAP currently focuses on three areas:
Cape York Peninsula, centred around Lockhart River; The Victoria River District;
and, the Iwaidja language community. Online materials such as those developed
through OLCAP assist people with vocabulary, pronunciation and language context.

The following case study is of an Indigenous language program operating out
of Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. The program is entitled Teaching from Country, and it demonstrates what is possible when free
media software such as Skype is used as a conduit for teaching about language
and culture from remote locations. The expert knowledge of remote Indigenous
people is transmitted to urban classrooms through Skype medium. Indigenous
teachers conduct their classes and tutorials from their ancestral lands and the
students can be anywhere in the world as long as they have access to Skype. The
e-classroom sessions are recorded and transcribed and downloaded onto the
University’s website as reference materials.

Case Study 3.7: Teaching from Country [65]

The Teaching from Country project is an initiative of the Charles
Darwin University that began in September 2008 and will be ongoing. It was
developed with National Fellowship funding from the Australian Learning and
Teaching Council. The project uses digital technologies to facilitate the input
of Aboriginal knowledges into academic teaching in Australian universities.

This program sets up and evaluates distance education in reverse: the
Yolŋu (northeast Arnhemland Aboriginal) lecturers are in remote places and
the students of Yolŋu languages, culture and fine arts, are (mostly) on

It brings together Aboriginal elders who are experts in ancestral
knowledge, international experts in the use of information and communication
technologies for knowledge work, and university teachers and students of
Indigenous studies. The Aboriginal elders are the knowledge experts and the
teachers, and the Indigenous studies students are the learners located in cities
in Australia and overseas. So far the project has connected with students at
universities in Darwin, California and Tokyo.

What makes this program unique is the use of digital technology to bring
Indigenous philosophies, languages and cultural information from remote
locations into the urban classrooms in real time. Hand held cameras allow the
Aboriginal teachers and elders to show the students their communities and the
natural environment that surrounds them. The technology allows direct
interaction between the Aboriginal elders and students using the Skype
technology. Students and Aboriginal elders can see each other and ask and answer
questions as they might in a classroom.

The project achieves many outcomes. It employs Aboriginal teachers on their
ancestral lands, on their own terms in their own ways, thereby contributing to
the economic and cultural sustainability of these communities. It provides a
relatively cost effective mode of enriched learning for students because it
relies on free media. It allows universities to reconsider questions of
Indigenous knowledge and its role in the academy in both research and teaching.
These questions include epistemological issues – the nature of knowledge
as conceived by Indigenous knowledge authorities, the protection of intellectual
property, and issues to do with appropriate payments to Indigenous knowledge
authorities participating in the work of universities.

The Website of Teaching from Country describes the development of
the project below:

After we had been delivering the Yolŋu studies program for a few
years, we were invited to apply for a grant from the Australian Research Council
to explore Indigenous Knowledge and Research Management in Northern Australia
(IKRMNA). The research focussed on the use of digital technologies (cameras,
computers) in the intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge. We
found that Aboriginal people we worked with (using emerging digital
technologies) preferred to keep their own digital collections rather than
storing them in larger databases at the community level or on the internet. We
also found that different digital solutions were needed in different places for
the different knowledge requirements which people on country prioritised.

nstead of trying to develop a solution which suited everyone, we worked
towards a range of emerging solutions for different people. To make the ways we
worked and the outcomes clear, we developed an extensive website ( ) which has a record of
the process, some digital objects we prepared, academic papers, and much

Full reporting of the Teaching from Country program can be found at

Bilingual education

A 2005 study by the World Bank found that 50 percent of the world’s
most educationally disadvantaged young people do not speak the language spoken
in the schools of their region. In other words, 50 percent of the most
educationally disadvantaged children are minority language speakers, including
Indigenous language speakers. According to the World Bank, the biggest
challenge to achieve universal education is to develop appropriate learning
practices so that young people who do not speak dominant languages are able to
participate in school education.

Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in
communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home.
This underscores the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All (EFA): a
legacy of non-productive practices that lead to low levels of learning and high
levels of dropout and

There is a growing body of international evidence which demonstrates that
bilingual education approaches are more effective than English-only approaches
in assisting students to transfer from mother tongue literacies to second
language literacies. The evidence shows that bilingual approaches work in any
language environment where Indigenous students or minority language students are
attempting to transfer their first literacies to the dominant language.

In 1998, a meta-analysis of bi-literacy approaches was sponsored by Harvard
University, the University of Texas and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. The
study assessed 75 studies and selected 11 for analysis because they meet minimal
standards for research design quality. The meta-analysis assessed the progress
of 2,719 students in total. The study found that:

...children with limited English proficiency who are taught using at least
some of their native language perform significantly better on standardized tests
than similar children who are taught only in English. In other words, an
unbiased reading of the scholarly research suggests that bilingual education
helps children who are learning

In 2005 another meta-analysis published data from 17 separate studies. The 17
studies all assessed different models of English language teaching. The
meta-analysis found that bilingual education is ‘consistently superior to
all-English approaches’. The Report concluded that:

...bilingual education programs are effective in promoting academic
achievement, and ... sound educational policy [and] should permit and even
encourage the development and implementation of bilingual education

In light of increasing evidence, countries across the globe are instituting
bilingual education approaches. For example, Ecuador established the National
Board of Intercultural and Bilingual Education
to assist in its efforts to
provide universal basic education. The stated aims of the Board are to:

Strengthen and expand civil society’s advocacy efforts to improve basic
education in the country, through establishing close links with successful
models of rural Hispanic, Bilingual and Intercultural Education (BIE) that
promote not only quality education but which also promote equity and

As part of its 10 year education plan, Ecuador has initiated a school
textbook program which includes the publication of bilingual textbooks in
indigenous languages.

North Siberia and the USSR have been providing bilingual education programs
to minority language speakers for some
time.[72] Since 2005, a number of
counties in the Asia region are participating in regional initiatives to develop
bi-literacies using bilingual approaches. Eight countries are part of
UNESCO’s bilingual initiative entitled Mother Tongue / Bilingual
Literacy Program for Ethnic Minorities
. The general objectives of this
project are:

1) to increase literacy rates among ethnic minority communities (related to
EFA Goal 41) through the provision of opportunities to access basic education
(EFA Goal 22), and;

2) to improve the quality of life and preserve traditional culture through
the provision of relevant and comprehensive literacy

China is one of the counties participating in the Mother Tongue/Bilingual
Literacy Program for Ethnic Minorities
. The Lahu-Chinese bilingual literacy
project is developed through an action research model. The project has made the
following findings:

  • It is difficult for illiterate Lahu learners who are not proficient in
    Chinese to use Chinese literacy materials because the Lahu and Chinese languages
    are quite different.
  • Lahu learners have made rapid progress in learning to read and write in
    their mother tongue, Lahu, a language that they already speak. Many are becoming
    functionally literate.
  • The rapid progress has improved many learners’ self-confidence.
  • The bilingual literacy project has helped many Lahu to better communicate
    with the Han Chinese.
  • The project has helped many Lahu to boost their Lahu identity. Many respect
    their own culture and language more now and have overcome their earlier feelings
    of inferiority.
  • The project has helped many Lahu learners gain a deeper understanding of
    their traditional culture. Many are gradually realizing that their own language
    is an essential part of their unique
Case Study 3.8: Bilingual education in the Northern Territory

UNESCO promotes mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in
education – as an important factor that enhances inclusion and quality in
learning. Research shows that bilingual and multilingual approaches have a
positive impact on learning progress and learning

Data from bilingual research in Australia replicates the data from overseas
studies. In all cases, students of bilingual approaches have better learning
outcomes than control group students. In 2005 the Northern Territory Department
of Employment, Education and Training undertook a study of the English literacy
outcomes of bilingual students and students learning in English-only schools. As
Figure 3.2 shows, the students in bilingual schools do better in English reading
test results in Years 5 and 7 than Indigenous students in English-only schools
of a similar demographic. At Year 3, students in bilingual schools are behind
the English-only schools. This is consistent with the bilingual model of
transitioning to English. It is not until Year 4 that bilingual students build a
bridge to English literacies from their mother tongue literacies.

Figure 3.2: National Benchmark English Reading Test Results of Northern
Territory School Students. Compares student test results from 10 Bilingual
Schools with student test results from 10 English-only schools with Indigenous
students from similar demographic, language grouping and contact history. Data
combined from 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004

Figure 3.2: National Benchmark English Reading Test Results of Northern Territory School Students. Compares student test results from 10 Bilingual Schools with student test results from 10 English-only schools with Indigenous students from similar demographic, language grouping and contact history. Data combined from 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004


In the Northern Territory, two types of bilingual practices have been
operating since the early 1970s when the programs were introduced; the staircase
model and the 50/50 model.

The staircase or step bilingual model aims to develop literacies in a
child’s first language before building a bridge to literacies in English.
The transition to English literacies usually happens by Year 4 where instruction
in English and development of English literacies become predominant in the
classroom. In the first years of schooling, instruction in all subjects is in
Indigenous languages. The students learn how to learn in their mother tongue. In
some cases English oracy may be introduced and English reading and writing
withheld until Year 4 when it is assessed that students will have reached
literacy competency in the first language. However, the introduction of English
literacy, and the ratio of instruction in first language and English can vary
according to local decision-making as well as the resources available at the

The 50/50 model has also been implemented in Northern Territory schools.
During the late 1980s to late 1990s a number of bilingual schools operated
variations of the 50/50 model focussing on the broad aim of giving equal space
to English and first language literacies and cultural content. Both the
staircase / step and 50/50 models seek to maintain and strengthen the status of
learning oracy and literacy in the local language while introducing students to

There are many reasons why bilingual models of education provide sound
methodologies for assisting students to develop literacies in their first and
second languages. The House of Representatives Select Committee on Aboriginal
Education describes bilingual pedagogy in the following terms:

There are sound educational reasons for establishing literacy in the
child's first language before developing literacy in English. It breaks the
pupil's initial learning tasks into two: first they learn to read and write [in
their first language], then they begin to cope with English. The child only has
to tackle one major task at a time, that of learning to read without the added
burden of learning a new language at the same time. The child understands his
mother tongue and therefore what he reads makes sense. Once the child knows how
to read he can apply basic reading skills to learn to read in English. The child
will also gain a sense of satisfaction, rather than frustration, at being able
to read and express himself orally and in writing initially in his first
language and later in

In 2006 Australia had 9,500
schools.[78] Of this number, nine
government schools and three Catholic schools were bilingual schools instructing
students in Indigenous languages. All of the schools were in the Northern
Territory. The nine schools were in some of the remotest regions of this
country. They were located in areas where Indigenous language is often the only
language heard in the community. English is heard through television if it is
available and through interactions with non-Indigenous people who are living and
working on Indigenous land.

However the future of the bilingual approaches in Australia is now
uncertain. On the 14th October 2008 the Northern Territory Minister for
Employment, Education and Training made an announcement which has effectively
dismantled the bilingual education approach in the handful of schools where it
operated. She announced that she was implementing a policy which would mandate
the following:

....the first four hours of education in all Northern Territory schools
will be conducted in English.[79]

Four hours of mandatory English makes it impossible to operate the
step/staircase and 50/50 models of bilingual education. The policy means
language and culture activity is relegated to the last hour and a half of the
school day. In the Northern Territory this is often the hottest time of the day
and a time when quality learning is challenging. The four hours of English
policy does not claim to abolish bilingual education, though there is no doubt
that it will have that effect.

This is not the first time that a Northern Territory government has tried
to dismantle bilingual education. In 1998 the Northern Territory government
announced the Schools our Focus policy which outlined an intention to
progressively withdraw bilingual
education.[80] In 2000 the decision
was reversed after considerable protest from Indigenous communities and human
rights organisations nationally and internationally.

At the peak of the bilingual education movement in the 1970s and 1980s
there were more than 20 schools in the Northern Territory with bilingual
education approaches. That number has steadily decreased over the years due to
hostile policies and a lack of available resources. An essential resource for
bilingual education is skilled Indigenous language teachers. However, during the
1990s there was a reduction in the number of training places for Indigenous
trainee teachers in the Northern Territory. In addition, the Department of
Education withdrew funding from mentoring programs that provided essential
support for some Indigenous teachers in bilingual schools. the late 1990s there was a decline in the number of trained
Indigenous teachers in [Northern Territory] schools generally, let alone in the
number of teachers proficient in their traditional languages. There are many
reasons for this, but a major reason was a reduction in training opportunities
at Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE), the main
institution training Indigenous teachers. BIITE had run in-community remote area
teacher training courses, and pre-training courses. Speakers of Indigenous
languages had actively been encouraged to train as teaching assistants and
teachers and were given support in their communities while training. But when
BIITE moved its focus towards becoming a university, its efforts shifted away
from helping students in remote areas increase their literacy and numeracy
towards recruiting Indigenous students with tertiary-level entry standards of
literacy and numeracy. BIITE attracted many students from interstate who did not
speak traditional

The recent policy that mandates four hours of English in Northern Territory
schools may be the final axe for Indigenous bilingual approaches in Australia.
While some schools have vowed to continue delivering the bilingual approach,
they will be fighting against the tide.

The question for governments to consider at this time is whether they are

  • (a) One of the most effective models of English language transference for
    minority language speakers;
  • (b) One of the most effective methods for keeping Indigenous languages alive
    in this country; and
  • (c) One of the only ways in which successive generations of Indigenous
    people can develop full competence in their own languages.

Language Nest Preschools and the language immersion techniques

The National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005 recommended the
following actions to preserve Indigenous languages:

The types of programs that require the most urgent support are outlined
below. These are listed from local to regional, state and national levels. Each
of these programs requires the existence of the other to operate effectively so
that support and services are coordinated.

  • Language Nests: These are pre-schools/crèches run by local Indigenous
    people where there is immersion in the local language and culture
    [Recommendation 1].
  • Community Language Teams: In order to have Language Nests and other programs
    which function well, it is necessary to have a support team resourcing and
    backing up the effort. These teams would include elders, who typically might
    know more of a language. It is also necessary for younger Indigenous adults to
    be involved to learn from the elders, to take responsibility for administration
    and be part of the teaching, care and production of resources on the languages

Language nests
are about immersing pre-school aged children in language environments where they
have the opportunity to hear and be saturated in their native languages in the
pre-school environment. Children hear the language while engaging in structured
play, recreation and all other activities.

The language nest initiative has been successful in revitalising languages in
New Zealand and the United States; particularly Hawai‘i and mainland North

One of the authors of the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report
Patrick McConvell, had this to say about the potential for language
nests to be established in Australia:

There is an initiative which has been successful in revitalising languages in
this kind of situation overseas, the 'language nests' movement, which began in
New Zealand and scored remarkable successes with turning around the rapid
decline of the Maori language. They are early childhood programs based on
indigenous people using the indigenous language in pre-schools or child-care

For those who like to oppose language and culture to the 'real economy', it
is salutary to talk to Maori people about their experience. Revival of Maori
language and culture has gone hand in hand with economic revival and a new sense
of purpose which is based on their heritage but also engages with the
contemporary world.

Language nests have spread to Hawai‘i and mainland North America and
have been tried in one or two areas in Australia. Given the urgency of the
situation, the NILS report proposed a national pilot of language nests in
Australia. Once again, nothing has been done about this recommendation but, in
the context of a national policy, it could be kick-started

The Report of the International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous
, to the seventh session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous
Issues described the role of language learning in the early years in the
following terms:

It is essential to include indigenous languages and cultures into early
childhood care and education curriculum, and promote multilingualism, as is the
case in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia. The early childhood centres described at the
meeting prepare children to enter government primary schools and also strengthen
their foundation to understand their own languages and practice their own

Language immersion for children and adults of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake
in North America has produced positive results for language revival, where
activities include the training of trainers, language lessons through
television, television series for children and commandeering popular media and
modernization. In addition to the full immersion programmes, other positive
examples include the Onondaga Nation and Tuscarora Nation, which also teach
their languages in their Nation

The following profile of the language nest experiences in Hawai‘i
demonstrates a remarkable shift in the Indigenous language situation.

Case Study 3.9: Pūnana Leo, Language Nest Preschools in

Pūnana Leo means “nest of voices” and depicts the dominant
learning method in these centres. These Pūnana Leo bring three and four
year olds together in an environment where the students are “fed”
solely their native language and culture much like the way young birds are cared
for in their own nests.[85]

‘Aha Pūnana Leo is the leading entity in Hawai‘i and the
United States for indigenous language revitalization. A large part of its work
is focussed on developing and supporting language nest preschools or Pūnana
Leo. Since it began its operation in 1983, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo has
changed the Hawaiian language situation dramatically. In 1983 there were less than forty
Hawaiian children who were able to speak their native language. In 2009 there
are now more than 2,000 children who are speakers of the

‘The Pūnana Leo preschools use the Hawaiian language at all
times. There are 11 Pūnana Leo Language Nests in Hawai‘i where the
preschoolers and the staff speak ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i at all times.
‘Aha Pūnana Leo seeks to develop learning environments where the
Hawaiian language is spoken by all other staff including administrators. The
Hawaiian cultural foundations are nurtured and practiced in all aspects of the
education environment.

The first Pūnana Leo preschool was established in Kekaha, Kaua‘i
in August 1984. The following year, schools were established in Hilo,
Hawai‘i and Honolulu, O‘ahu and continued to spread to other islands
thereafter.[87] The preschool
philosophy laid the foundation for the re-emergence of a philosophy of education
for Hawaiian schools and higher education institutions. The philosophy has now
been written and shared throughout Hawai‘i forming educational guidelines
which are now followed by the Native Hawaiian Education Council the College of
Hawaiian Language at the University of

Regional language resource centres

The engine room of many Indigenous
languages programs are Community Language Resource Centres. These organisations
provide support for languages at the regional level. They are situated in the
language region so they are a direct resource for community members and local

Over recent decades, Community Language Resource Centres have been
established in some but not all of Australia’s Indigenous language
regions. The national representative body, the Federation of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Languages (FATSIL) provides a communication network for
these community organisations across Australia. FATSIL also has an advisory role
to government and relevant non-government agencies on issues relating to
Indigenous languages.[89]

Community Language Resource Centres vary in their functions and their sources
of funding. Some are funded from state or territory government grants and others
from the federally funded Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR)
program. For the most part Community Language Resource Centres carry out
research work, advocacy, language development programs, archiving of Indigenous
language materials and technical assistance to schools and other organisations.

The following profile of the Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre
demonstrates the functions and operations of organisations of this kind.

Case Study 3.10: Many Rivers Aboriginal Language

Established in 2004, Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre (MRALC)
provides strategic support for Aboriginal communities of the northern and
central coasts of NSW who want to revitalise their languages. MRALC is a
regional language centre that aims to support the following languages: Awabakal
- Wonnarua, Bundjalung, Darkinyung, Dhanggati, Kattang (Birrbay & Warrmay)
and Yaygirr - Yaegl.

Like other regional language centres, MRALC conducts research on several
Aboriginal languages and supports communities in their efforts to learn and
teach their languages. Regional Aboriginal Language Centres have until recently
only existed in more remote areas of Australia, for example Katherine Regional
Aboriginal Language Centre, and Wangka Maya in Port Headland. There have been
language programs elsewhere including NSW but they have tended to work with one
local language, or closely related dialects, for example the Yuwaalaraay
Language Program based in Walgett supports Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaalayaay and
Gamilaraay. MRALC has an Advisory Group made up of representatives from all
languages, and a Specialist Group of Elders, linguists and teachers who assist
as needed. MRALC employs a coordinator - linguist, language researchers -
teachers and teacher - linguists.

MRALC supports Aboriginal language revitalisation, that is research and
development for the six language groups, through activities that include:

  • Providing access to linguistic expertise, and training for Aboriginal
  • Recording languages wherever possible, and assisting with access to archival
    materials, providing a regional storage base for these materials.
  • Producing language materials such as dictionaries or wordlists, grammars,
    learner's guides, transcriptions and translations.
  • Providing community access to languages by using, and assisting communities
    to use information technology such as: Transcriber, Shoebox, Powerpoint and
    Adobe Audition.
  • Employing linguists, Aboriginal language researchers and specialists in
    Information and Communication Technology.
  • Raising awareness in the wider community about the value of Aboriginal

While the Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre is an example of a very
effective organisation, some Community Language Resource Centres have
encountered difficulties in their operation. Given the limited funds and
resources, the minimal reporting for funding, and the lack of formal evaluation,
there is the potential for Community Language Resource Centres to lack clear
direction in terms of their function and activity. A monitoring and
accountability framework with guidelines and centralised support would greatly
assist Community Language Resource Centres to focus and refine their language
maintenance and revitalisation activity.

Tertiary education programs for future Indigenous language teachers

In order to deliver Indigenous language studies in schools, it is essential
to have trained Indigenous language speakers. In 2004, twenty eight schools in
the Northern Territory responded to a survey asking them to nominate the most
important resources required to deliver Indigenous language and culture subjects
in schools.[92] The survey
respondents identified that professional learning for Indigenous staff was the
number one resource for the successful delivery of these

Indigenous language courses are available at a handful of Australian
universities and vocational training institutions. Some of these tertiary
training institutions provide language studies, some provide culture studies and
others combine both language and culture study components.

Case Study 3.11: Certificate course and higher education degrees in
Indigenous language studies

Tertiary education courses offering qualifications in Indigenous language
and culture studies range from certificates at the vocational level to post
graduate studies at the university level.

In pre-schools and primary schools it is Assistant Teachers who support
language and culture studies. They are fluent Indigenous language speakers and
they team-teach in classrooms; often translating and explaining difficult
concepts in the child’s first language. It is certificate courses at the
vocational education level that provide qualifications for Assistant Teachers.
For example, the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the
Northern Territory offers Certificate III and IV courses in Indigenous Education

The certificate courses at Batchelor commenced in 2000, but Indigenous
Assistant Teachers reported difficulty in enrolling due to competition for
limited places.[94] However since
2008, the Northern Territory Government and DEEWR have funded additional places
and as a consequence, there has been a 200 percent increase in Assistant Teacher

Batchelor also offers the Advanced Diploma of Arts (Language Studies), the
Diploma of Interpreting and the Graduate Certificate in Applied Linguistics.
These courses are for students who are interested in keeping their own languages
strong and are keen to record and document their languages. Many of these
students go on to teaching

In NSW, the University of Sydney offers Graduate Certificate, Diploma and
Master of Indigenous Languages Education courses to Indigenous educators who
wish to develop their skills in Indigenous languages

These subjects are offered in three separate week long blocks each
semester. There is no cost to the student for travel, meals and accommodation.
These costs are covered by the

Other universities provide Indigenous languages studies in Australia. For
the most part, these courses are dependent upon the availability of qualified
staff who are able to teach Indigenous language studies at the tertiary

Governments must form partnerships with vocational education and higher
education institutions to ensure that there are sufficient courses and training
places for language and culture studies students. Without these courses there
will be no trained personnel for schools. The example at Batchelor demonstrates
that there is sometimes demand for language education courses but limited
capacity at the institutional level to deliver. Targeted assistance from
governments is required to ensure that training places at tertiary education
institutions meet the demand of potential students and the supply needs of

Secondary education

Most Australian state and territory education departments have made some
provision for Indigenous language studies in their school curriculum

Case Study 3.12: Embedding Indigenous language studies into state and
territory curriculum frameworks

South Australia’s framework for Australian Indigenous languages
provides several types of programs appropriate for different language
situations. The framework includes first language maintenance, second language
learning, language revival, and language awareness

In other Australian jurisdictions there is still work to be done to
integrate Indigenous languages into the state curriculum frameworks. For
example, several schools in Queensland have Indigenous language programs, but
almost all of these programs are funded by the Department of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Policy and not by the Department of
Education.[100] While in 2006 the
Queensland Studies Authority accepted a recommendation to consider accrediting
Indigenous language studies in schools, no action has occurred to
date.[101] Queensland schools do
offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies at the senior secondary
level, though this subject is focussed on culture and not

Indigenous languages have only recently become a study option for senior
secondary students in some Australian states and territories. For example, 2008
was the first year that Western Australia schools offered Indigenous language
studies at the Year 11 and 12 levels. In 2009, the first examinations will be
held for Year 12 students of Aboriginal Languages as part of the Western
Australia Certificate in

At the senior secondary level, South Australian students can study
Indigenous languages as part of the South Australian Certificate in Education.
The Australian Languages subjects are taught by Indigenous teachers and
Indigenous Language and Culture Specialists with the support of teachers,
linguists and curriculum

It is time for Australian education departments to provide consistency in the
availability of Indigenous language studies across state and territory
jurisdictions. In future, the LOTE section of Australia’s national
curriculum framework will include Indigenous languages as a study option, though
state and territory governments must ensure that there are training places and
courses for future language teachers and schools have resources to deliver
Indigenous languages at all levels of the school syllabus.

(c) Summary

Australian governments will need to take strategic and programmatic action to
preserve Indigenous languages in this country. There is a high level of
interdependence in the actions that are needed to reverse the language decline.
One action will not function well without the other. For example, schools will
not be able to deliver Indigenous languages programs without corresponding
action from tertiary education institutions. Vocational institutions and
universities must provide training places for future language teachers. Regional
Language Resource Centres will not be able to deliver an optimum service without
guidance from a centralised language body with responsibility to distribute
funding and monitor the application of appropriate resources to the different
language situations across the nation.

It is important to reiterate the point that was made at the beginning of this
section: international experience shows that language movements have been shown
to be successful when they become a national responsibility. From this
centralised guidance, other actions can follow.


3.5: Findings

Section 3.1: Introduction

  • Indigenous languages are at a critical stage of endangerment in
  • Australia now has a national Indigenous languages approach, though on its
    own, the national approach will not be enough to stop the language

Section 3.2: Why preserve Indigenous languages?

  • Language is the medium through which culture is transmitted.
  • Strong language and culture are associated with resilience and better health
    outcomes for Indigenous people.
  • Bilingualism enhances cognitive development in infants.
  • Indigenous languages increase employment opportunities for Indigenous
  • Indigenous language and culture is an important component of
    Australia’s tourism industry which consumes more than $70 billion in
    Australian goods and services.
  • Indigenous cultural knowledge has assisted scientists in understanding
    patterns of climate change. Indigenous languages are the medium through which
    this knowledge has been passed down over millennia.
  • The loss or denial of language and culture can have negative impacts on
    Indigenous people.

Section 3.3: Australian policy and Indigenous

  • Indigenous languages have no official status in Australia.
  • Successive Australian governments have developed policies and practices that
    emphasise English monolingualism.
  • The main source of funding for Indigenous languages is the Commonwealth
    Government’s Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR)
    program. It provided $8.8m to 66 grant recipients in 2008-09.
  • MILR grant allocations to organisations range from $10,000 to $450,000 per
    year. The average allocation was in the vicinity of $133,300.
  • The Australian Government announced the Indigenous languages approach in
    August 2009 at a time when it had already allocated funds for Indigenous
    languages. There were no new funds allocated with the August announcement.
  • There are some large contradictions between the Commonwealth Indigenous
    languages policy and the state and territory language policies.
  • There is considerable variation amongst the state and territory Indigenous
    languages policies and levels of commitment.
  • NSW is the only state or territory jurisdiction to have an Indigenous
    language policy which sits across different portfolio areas. Other states and
    territories have policies that are limited to specific areas of government
  • Australia does not have an overarching framework to monitor the application
    of Indigenous language resources and programs to different language situations.
  • The closure of the bilingual resource development units means the removal of
    funding from Indigenous language maintenance materials.

3.4: Australian and international approaches aimed at protecting and promoting
Indigenous languages

(a) Strategies

  • There has been significant language revival in countries where Indigenous
    languages have been given official status. This includes constitutional or
    statutory recognition.
  • Successful national Indigenous language organisations have some common
    features. They are established through statute and they have functions which
    include: advising government through formal structures and relationships;
    participating in the development of policy; maintaining language information
    databases; developing standards for languages; accrediting language workers;
    naming places and things; managing funding and resources; and managing language
    promotions and communications.
  • Australia has some particular language challenges. More than 100 Indigenous
    languages are spoken in Australia. Therefore it is not possible to give official
    status to a single language, though Indigenous languages could be accorded a
    special status as ‘national languages’ while not being official
  • The divide between the functions of the Commonwealth and the functions of
    the states and territories makes it difficult to implement aspects of a national
    policy. Specific solutions are requires to address this

(b) Programs

  • Language teaching can be substantially enhanced through the availability of
    teaching materials in Indigenous languages. Online templates may assist in
    standardising and improving the quality of teaching materials. The involvement
    of community members in language resource development contributes to local
    employment and local language sustainability.
  • Community-based programs involving music and theatre can be designed to
    involve whole communities. This promotes language maintenance and revival across
    all generations. An important component of any program is consistency of contact
    between the program facilitators and the participating communities.
  • Mentoring is a simple and cost effective way to promote language revival on
    a large scale. It requires promotion and guidelines, and otherwise is reliant on
    the freely formed relationships between language mentors and language learners.
  • The internet is a portal through which Indigenous people can teach their
    languages and cultures from their communities. Using Skype, Indigenous teachers
    can conduct tutorials from their ancestral lands in real time, beaming images
    and instruction into university classrooms all over the globe.
  • There is national and international evidence that demonstrates the
    effectiveness of the bilingual education approach. The Northern Territory
    Government has taken direct action to abolish bilingual education at a time when
    many countries across the world are adopting this approach as best practice.
  • Language nests in preschools provide language immersion in a child’s
    traditional language. Saturating children in their first languages before the
    commencement of formal schooling can dramatically increased bilingualism. In
    countries where languages have been declining, the language nests have been
    effective in increasing the numbers of Indigenous language speakers.
  • Regional language resource centres provide language resources to communities
    and organisations. They are able to directly contribute to language maintenance
    and revival activities through recording languages, training local people,
    teaching languages and developing language materials. They would benefit from
    more resources, assistance with archiving materials and the development of an
    accountability framework which can be monitored by a national body.
  • Governments must form partnerships with vocational education and higher
    education institutions to ensure that there are sufficient courses and training
    places for language and culture studies students. Without these courses there
    will be no trained language teaching personnel in schools.
  • Indigenous language studies are part of some, but not all state and
    territory school curriculum frameworks. The national curriculum framework will
    standardise curriculum offerings in future, including the potential for schools
    to offer Indigenous language studies. However, state and territory governments
    will need to establish the preconditions for a trained Indigenous language
    teacher workforce.


3.6: Recommendations

Now that Australia has a national approach to preserve Indigenous languages: Indigenous Languages - A National Approach 2009, there are three major
challenges that will need to be addressed to ensure the successful
implementation of this policy.

  1. The first is how to hold the different levels of governments in Australia to
    a consistent position on Indigenous language policy and action.
  2. The second is how to coordinate intra government activity and ensure quality
    control because language preservation requires interaction between multiple
    portfolio areas including early childhood development services, employment,
    school education, higher education and research services.
  3. The third is how to stretch the limited resources ($9.3 million for the
    financial year 2008-09) to address a critical and complex language situation
    across the nation.

The following recommendations are concerned with
developing appropriate processes, structures, agreements and decision-making
bodies that can maintain, revitalise, protect and promote Australia’s
endangered Indigenous languages.


In order to implement Article 13 of The Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples
and in recognition that the Australian Government has a
strategic role in Indigenous language preservation, that the Australian
Government commit to the following: [105]

3.1 Immediately fund a national working group with the task of
establishing a national Indigenous languages body as per the commitment of Indigenous Languages - A National

3.2 Commit to the development of a national Indigenous languages body with
functions and responsibilities similar to those of the Māori Language

3.3 Utilise the expertise of the national body to assess the required
resources for critically endangered languages and commit these resources

3.4 Agree to resource an ongoing plan of action for the preservation and
promotion of Indigenous languages as recommended by the national Indigenous
languages body.

3.5 Become a signatory to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the
Intangible Cultural Heritage

3.6 Through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), develop
agreements with all governments to ensure consistency and compliance with
Australia’s Indigenous Languages - A National Approach.

3.7 Commence a process to recognise Indigenous languages in the preamble
of Australia’s Constitution with a view to recognising Indigenous
languages in the body of the Constitution in future.


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[3] Lo Bianco
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A TESOL Symposium on Keeping Language Diversity Alive, 2008,
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[4] Australian Institute of
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and Torres Strait Islander Languages, National Indigenous Languages Survey
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[5] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the
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[34] Previous to 2009, the first
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activity in Australia, included policy specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait
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Aboriginal languages, the National Aboriginal Languages Project (NALP). NALP
provided supplementary funding for Aboriginal language education to
State/Territory and non government education authorities or school communities
for projects. This policy had its greatest impact on community-based Indigenous
language programs because this is where the Commonwealth could direct

The National Languages Policy of 1987 was followed by the Australian Language
and Literacy Policy of 1991. Indigenous languages were one component of this
broader languages policy. The section specific to Indigenous languages provided

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages should be maintained and
developed where they are still transmitted. Other languages should be assisted
in an appropriate way, for example through recording. These activities should
only occur where the speakers so desire and in consultation with their
community, for the benefit of the descendants of their speakers and for the
nation's heritage.

The Commonwealth's policy is to preserve, protect and promote the rights and
freedom of indigenous Australians to use and develop indigenous Australian
languages. The use of indigenous languages as accredited vehicles of instruction
is encouraged where possible, in order to develop and support:

  • the survival of indigenous Australian languages;
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  • increased student and community pride.

The Language and Literacy
Policy 1991 provided recurrent funding for Regional Aboriginal Language Centres.
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