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Looking For The Two-Way Street: Indigenous Australians Battle To Keep Their Languages Strong

There were about 300 indigenous languages spoken in Australia before Europeans occupied the continent, with the number of speakers of each language varying between a hundred and a few thousand. As small language groups died out, others shifted to English, creole, or other indigenous languages. Speakers of traditional languages declined.

In 2001, perhaps 100 traditional languages are still spoken fluently, many by only a handful of elders. Within the next century, that number could drop to 10 or 20, or perhaps all could be lost.

Two-way school

The struggle for land rights in Australia which took off in the 1960s was also linked, for many indigenous people, with the struggle for cultural and linguistic rights. The Gurindji, for instance, were leaders of the strike movement in which Aboriginal people walked off multinational-owned cattle stations (ranches) in 1966. They had missed out on education in the cattle station regime but looked for more than just "one-way" schooling in the era of land rights.

Schooling in Australia has historically been "one-way," an expression that characterizes the long-standing relationship between the kartiya (whites) and ngumpit (Aborigines), as the Gurindji call the two groups. The kartiya way emphasized English only and white culture. Like many Aboriginal groups in northern Australia, the Gurindji underwent language shift, and although younger Gurindji have some understanding of their indigenous language, most fluent speakers are over forty.

Hoping to avoid the linguistic process that decimated southern Australian languages during the last century, one Gurindji leader, Pincher Nyurrmiyarri, planned a "two-way school" to raise the status of the language, instigate exchange of cultural information between black and white, and give the Aboriginal community some educational powersharing. His proposal dovetailed with similar two-way proposals established in northern and central Australia. Since the mid-1970s, bilingual curricula had been in place in a dozen selected schools in the Northern Territory; there, the long suppression of Aboriginal languages seemed to be in reversal, at least for the schools chosen to be part of the bilingual education program.

When the Gurindji requested such a program for their school at Daguragu, however, it was rejected. The Education Department felt that bilingual education could be offered only to people whose languages were strong, or to fluent speakers of indigenous languages. Arguing against this view, the Gurindji and other groups maintained that it was equally important to give support to languages under immediate threat.

Language Centers

By the 1980s, this grass-roots language maintenance movement had established indigenously-controlled Regional Aboriginal Language Centers to protect most-endangered languages. In the Kimberleys of North-Western Australia, for example, people wanted to take urgent action to reverse the trend toward loss of traditional languages. In a region as large as California and just as varied, stretching from the tropical sea coast through spectacular rivers and gorges to the desert in the south, the linguistic profile of the 25 languages in the Kimberleys spans a broad spectrum. With just a few speakers left, some languages verge on extinction; a few other languages, spoken by all age-groups, are stronger. Most languages, though, resemble Gurindji's make-or-break situation: if nothing is done now, it will be too late.

In the late 1980s, recognizing the right of indigenous Australians to speak and maintain their languages, the Australian federal government began to spend modest sums to support indigenous language centers and programs. The Kimberley Language Resource Center (KLRC) implemented some plans, such as the recording of elders' stories, the publishing of dictionaries and storybooks, and the assisting of language programs in schools and communities. In 2001, the KLRC is still developing these programs with positive results.

The research in such centers is under communal control, for the benefit of indigenous speakers who wish to maintain their languages as living systems. These two-way programs, in which black and white researchers exchange knowledge and share power, contrast with much of current academic endangered languages research. The latter, although it claims to save languages, tends to focus, not on the preservation of living languages, but on writings and archival materials deemed beneficial to linguists.

Also during the 1980s, strong-language groups in the Northern Territory. having been allowed bilingual programs, were pushing ahead with two-way education. In North-East Arnhem Land, for example, Yolngu elders and teachers articulated their idea of the two-way concept by focusing on the notion of Ganma. An idea with deep ceremonial resonance, it means "the mixing of salt and fresh water in the estuaries." Raymattja Marika, a leading teacher and researcher in this movement, defines Ganma (1999) as:

[an] area within the mangroves where the saltwater (non-Aboriginal knowledge) coming in from the sea meets the stream of fresh water (Yolngu knowledge).

More recently, Yolngu thought on bilingual education has revolved around the concept of Garma, the shared ceremonial space, as a metaphor for black-white relations; pointing toward mutual recognition and negotiated solutions.

The Backlash in Education

In December, 1998 the Northern Territory government dealt a blow to the advance of indigenous languages and two-way programs by announcing the disbanding of bilingual education in Territory schools. After 25 years of operation, a return to English-only programs meant that bilingual Aboriginal teachers would be downgraded. Although no evidence was produced, bilingual education was blamed for declining standards in schools. Protests from Aboriginal communities were long and loud, but no policy change ensued.

The report submitted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to the United Nations in August, 2000, commented:

The decision by the Northern Territory Government to remove bilingual education programs fails to recognize the right of Aboriginal people to full enjoyment of their culture and languages (Article 15). The lack of Indigenous participation in the Northern Territory decision breaches the obligation of self-determination and is a further example of undermining the control of Indigenous people over their own lives by denying the choice of mode of education for their children, and by not supporting the viability of remaining languages.

Although Aboriginal people make up 30 percent of the population of the Northern Territory and nearly half are Aboriginal-language speakers, they have no influence on the 30-year-old conservative government.

The grass-roots struggle for language maintenance must go on, because the loss of languages will not take a break while people find ways to make governments pay attention. The elders of the Gurindji people were clear that the language belonged to the Gurindji country and was put there by the Dreamings, the founding creators. They told the young people what they had to do:

Ngantipa nyamu-rnalu kurnka karru, wayi-nta karrwawu nyawama jaruma ngaliwanyma?

Jaru nyurruluny ngu-nta karrwawu mikilyi-yirri.

When we old people die, will you keep this language that belongs to us [inclusive us, including you]?

You should keep your own language in your brains.

The young Gurindji teachers knew why they had to keep the language: to preserve the Aboriginal Law they call Yumi (called Rom by the Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land). When they talk to the ancestor spirits or when they visit important places, they must talk in their own language; when they join in ceremonies, they must use the right words; when they hunt and gather, they need the knowledge of the animals and plants; when they talk about their social relationships, they must name their kin and use their "skin" names, not in English, but in their own tongue.

The Gurindji teachers also believed that the school had a key role to play in keeping the language strong among children. They had great difficulties in achieving acceptance, let alone implementation, by the white people who ran the schools, and the difficulties are nearly insurmountable today in the climate of backlash against bilingual education. One of the indigenous teachers working in the local school is still hopeful of getting a Gurindji program running this year, using a curriculum developed with the help of the Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre, Diwurruwurru-Jaru.

What happens in the school is only part of the picture. Usually, indigenous language programs (other than full bilingual education) tend to be allocated to a couple of hours a week and cannot hope, by themselves, to reverse language shift. The situation in the community must also be addressed. Government and even Aboriginal organizations insist on the use of English in all public situations, and changing this view may influence younger people to use their own language in a wider variety of ways.

Language Reclamation

For innumerable indigenous people in Australia, especially in the south of the continent, personal and social identity is still closely bound up with the heritage language. Many of the groups that have experienced a loss of heritage languages are now making determined efforts to collect and relearn them. This process can involve learning from older people who remember more, but often means delving into written sources and audio-recordings where they exist, extracting information about the languages and recycling it in a more accurate and usable form for use by new generations.

Systematic linguistic fieldwork was not carried out until the 1970s in Australia. Earlier observers recorded languages in scraps and jottings without any system of spelling adapted to the sound systems of the languages. The task of building up even a fragmentary picture from these sources is difficult.

There are some notable exceptions to this. Some German missionaries in South Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, believed that the local people would be better educated (and become better Christians) by learning in their own language at school. They produced grammar books and dictionaries of a much higher quality than the language records usually found at that period. Although the efforts of these missionaries were opposed by most of the white settlers and other missionaries at the time and ultimately crushed, their work is now being dusted off and re-used as part of efforts by indigenous groups to revive their languages. As a result of these efforts, in Adelaide, the Kaurna language is now being spoken in a new form by a number of families at home and in public; other groups are following their lead.

The Future

Funds available for language programs are relatively meagre, and, unless guaranteed by some system of language rights -something Australia has never considered -- always vulnerable to the whims of governments. The different types of programs representing strong and endangered languages and language reclamation inevitably compete for limited available funds. But indigenous voices join together as one when it comes to the basic issue: language is the link that binds groups to their land and their ancestors and gives them their identity.

Language is not just a link to the past, though, to be preserved as it was. The richness of ancient tongues is a living resource that people are using to fashion new ideas and metaphors to deal with life today and in the future.

References & further reading

Amery, R. (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian language. Lisse: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Dalton, L., Edwards, S., Farquharson, R., Oscar, S. & McConvell, P. (1995). Gurindji Children's Language and Language Maintenance. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 113, pp 83-96.

Dixon, R. (1980). The languages of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson, J. & McConvell, P. (1984). Keeping Language Strong. Broome: Kimberley Language Resource Center.

Marika, R. (1999). Milthun Latju Waanga Romgu Yolngu: Valuing Yolngu Knowledge in the education system. Ngoonjook 16, pp 107-120.

McConvell, P. & Thieberger, N. (2001). The State of Indigenous Languages. Environment Australia Technical Paper.

Schmidt, A. (1990). The Loss of Australia's Aboriginal Language Heritage. Canberra: Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

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