Bringing Back Language

Native languages are threatened to the point of extinction all over the world, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the Australian continent. Of the 500 to 600 dialects and 250 to 300 different language groups spoken within the past 100 years, only 20 have more then 1,000 speakers today, and local dialects are being lost at an even quicker rate. This, combined with the prevalence of “Aboriginal English,” a creole hybrid of Native languages and English, has resulted in a situation where the only strong Australian Aboriginal languages left are found in the most remote and least urbanized areas of the continent, such as Kimberley, Arnhem Land, and central Australia. To help combat this loss, linguists have partnered with Aboriginal communities to help revitalize and perpetuate their Native languages. At the forefront of that effort is Jeanie Bell, a senior lecturer at the Batchelor Center for Australian Languages and Linguistics.

Native languages have helped shape Bell’s own Aboriginal identity, and their preservation has become a lifelong goal, despite her being taught only English in school as a child. Her father, she thinks, came from the Kamilaroi people, and her mother from the Dulingbara, whose language, Gabi-Gabi, has become Bell’s specialty. “Language is part of us,” she says. “Language is our spiritual connection to the earth and to our ancestors, and it’s an important part of who we are. It’s the spiritual connection though our ancestors that determines our identity as Aboriginal people of the land.” Bell feels a “huge sense of urgency” about preserving Aboriginal languages, and she works in the unique position as a bridge between her Native culture and the academic world, which far too often is detached from the communities that they document. She highlights the partnership between Aboriginal communities and Australians as one of mutual respect and understanding, but cites the 50,000 years of her ancestors in Australia as something vital to her character and to all others who identify as Aboriginal Australians. It something that she feels she must “constantly fight for within the bigger Australian context.”

“People say, ‘We’re very connected to the land, too; our families have been here for hundreds of years,’ and sure, I understand that. I’m not saying that other people can’t have that connection, but ours is a deeper one.” She says that for Aboriginal Australians like herself, “It’s about our feeling of several generations, [that] we have that long connection through our ancestors and through our families.” She says that language is a huge part of this connection, and its marginalization has a tremendous impact on Aboriginal identity.  

Growing up during the post-World War II “integration phase” of the government’s efforts to incorporate Aboriginal communities into mainstream Australian society, Bell’s parents were moved off their mission into Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland. (Missions, an Australian equivalent to North American Indian reservations, were administered primarily by religious groups that offered a Eurocentric education with little to no emphasis on perpetuating Aboriginal languages.)  Her grandfather was able to speak five languages, and watching him work closely with English-speaking anthropologists inspired Bell to pursue an undergraduate and master’s degree in linguistics. “I felt very influenced by some of the older people who spoke language,” she says. “I loved to listen to them speak. I didn’t understand a lot of what they said, but we knew lots of words. So we could listen and hear words that we were familiar with and that we used all the time in our English. We mixed the words on a regular basis. That was probably the beginnings of what’s known today as Aboriginal English. That happened all over the country; it didn’t just happen in southeast Queensland.”

She says there is now great debate about bilingual language programs in Australian schools. Some areas steadfastly support an English-only program, and others, specifically in the Northern Territory where Bell works, have a “first-hours policy,” where Native languages are used only in the afternoon hours. So, Bell says, after four hours of English, exhausted students “won’t come back to school, or they’ll be quite lethargic if they are in school” when Native languages are being used and taught, obviously diminishing the transference of these languages.

 “I see a lot of similarities in the language situation here and in North America,” Bell says. “Language preservation isn’t always a priority because there are so many other issues to deal with that are much more urgent and life threatening, and it’s really quite often down low on the priority list.” Publicity around Aboriginal issues is often cast in a negative light, and Bell has to contend with limited federal funding, public apathy, and divides within the Aboriginal community itself. “One of the biggest issues we have is that when [Native] languages are being taught in schools it’s always a little bit of a tricky issue of what language it should be, because Aboriginal people in Australia are very conscious about how the language being taught should be the language of the territory that the school is located on.”

Oftentimes the decision on what language will be taught simply comes down to a matter of resources, Bell says. “Most times it will be the language that originally belonged to that area, but sometimes it may be a language from just down the road or another region. If there aren’t any materials available for that particular language, a language from a different place may be taught, but it’s usually resolved in some way.”

She says the movement for language revitalization has accelerated across the Australian continent as “people realize that we’re running against the tide in terms of saving languages and bringing them back,” and now is the time to judge if language programs are working. “I’ve supported the language program for 13 or 14 years [in the Northern Territory], but I think it’s time to assess the progress and to think about what are we achieving, what are the levels of competency of the children who are learning the language on a weekly basis. Are they making progress? It’s not an easy thing to measure. You can measure it in a controlled situation in the classroom, but once the kids are outside in the playground, you can’t really follow kids around and measure those kind of things.”

In many part of Australia, particularly the more remote areas and the Northern Territory where Bell works, Indigenous languages and words are used on a daily basis, but it’s the transferral of these languages to the children, who are being taught English as a first language, that Bell says needs to be emphasized. 
Dissimilar experiences with preserving Native languages across the vast continent also makes uniform language programs difficult, with some areas receiving more funding and academic support while others have only a few speakers left alive with no documentation of their language. Most importantly, Bell says that linguists like herself must not only “work with language speakers and record material and publish it, so that the community has access to all that material, [but also that] they have access to some training so when the linguist is gone there’s something left behind and it’s not just a dictionary on a shelf in the language center.”

Happily, her work seems to be paying off, at least in terms of interest. She says that the drive for revitalization and preservation of local dialects has been increasing over the past few years. “People locally started saying, ‘No this isn’t good enough; we want our own language. It’s great to hear those other languages, but we want our own languages.’”

Derek Smallwood is an intern at Cultural Survival.

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