6. 3 Overall levels of Indigenous language speaking in Australia

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6.3 Overall levels of Indigenous language speaking in Australia

Mostly, NILS has been concerned with obtaining data on specific languages. However, it is worth putting this into the context of the situation of Indigenous languages as a whole. According to ABS Census figures over 15 years up to 2001, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of Indigenous people speaking an Indigenous language, as shown in Chart 6.4 below. Most worrying is the fact that the decline is sharper in the younger age groups.

One factor which may partially explain the rapidity of this dropping off is that during this 15-year period, many people newly identified themselves as Indigenous who had not, or whose families had not, previously. Most of these people do not speak an Indigenous language, which would tend to exaggerate any decline.

However, on the other side of the coin, the birth-rate of Indigenous groups has been higher and the level of infant mortality has declined due mainly to better health care. If these new children were speaking an Indigenous language, that would tend to increase the proportions in the younger groups.

One oddity in the ABS Census figures for this period is the quite significant increase in the proportion of older people apparently speaking an Indigenous language in the 2001 census. This needs further investigation.

Another view of language trends is gained by plotting the total figures of Indigenous language speakers, as recorded in ABS Censuses, against the overall Indigenous population, as in Chart 6.6 above, which shows data for language speakers over the age of five years old. In this chart the proportion of speakers in the total Indigenous population is plotted as a percentage.

Many more investigations could be made into language situations and trends, both Australia-wide and regional, using available data. Even, for instance, in readily available 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) data (ABS 2002), for instance, it is possible to look at correlations of Indigenous language speaking with remoteness, education, and other factors related to community and social life as in Table 6.6.

Among connections to be gleaned from this correlation of language spoken and environmental factors are that more than half of the Indigenous people of Australia ‘identify’ with a language group or similar, even though only around 12 per cent of all Indigenous Australians ‘speak’ a language.

While identification with a language group declines in younger age groups, it does not decline fast, and attendance at cultural events is maintained at pretty much the same level by all age groups.

Chart 6.5: Trends in language population and Indigenous language speakers (ABS 1986–2001) by the number of speakers

Chart 6.6: Trends in language population and Indigenous language speakers over 5 years old (ABS 1986–2001)

6.4 Responses to language situations

The material from NILS described in this section provides some evidence in relation to NILS Indicator Eight—Community Members’ Attitudes towards Their Own Language. However the NILS data is not quantified. This discussion also has some bearing on the question of NILS Indicator Ten—Language Programs.

Most NILS respondents made positive comments about the language and expressed an interest in speaking it themselves or in having the children in their community learning it. Of the respondents, only two stated that they spoke no Indigenous language and were not interested in learning any.

Reclamation movements are gathering momentum in various places. In SA, the Kaurna language has been a well known example (Amery 2000). Other projects are following similar patterns, and NILS respondents pointed to the production of materials on and in the languages as an important impetus.

For example, as the following NILS respondent commented in relation to the Buandik language:

This is a sleeping language. Revival through the production of resources by the Education Dept. of S.A. such as Mar the Cockatoo: A Boandik Dreaming Story, 1991.

The role of school programs was also stressed by many NILS respondents. This was what one had to say:

There is a growing number [of speakers] from the courses and teacher training that we have been running. There are now 23 trained teachers of Ganai and they would all use Ganai daily. In general, people know a few words and phrases.

No one [speaks Gamilaraay] fluently. Many people use the language though. There is an increasing number of people who are using and being proud of the language, mainly in towns where there are school programs.

It should be noted in this comment, as in many other submissions, the distinction being made between fluent ‘speaking’ and ‘using’ (which in practice means using a few words and phrases from the old language in Aboriginal English). This practice of ‘using’ seems to be a good basis on which a reclamation program can start.

The introduction of an Indigenous languages syllabus in NSW is clearly having a positive impact, but the following NILS respondent also stresses the importance of community action:

Within the Aboriginal community of Coonabarabran,it would be estimated that no more than 5 per cent on an overall basis of the Coonabarabran shire council have the basic skills, although they have kept their basic knowledge within the language to hand down to their children. As a result of this, there is currently a rejuvenation of the language, not just within the new Aboriginal language syllabus (K–10) but also within the community as well.

Those who have lost their language lament the lack of transmission to children, which would be the prime means of reviving the language, but in some regions there are no programs to cater for this. That is the case in Queensland, for example, where the following respondent came from:

The language is largely unspoken as most of the fluent speakers have passed away. There is now a strong movement to revive and retain language in the region, however, without language being spoken in the home and from childhood it makes it very difficult.

The Language Nests idea provides a way forward here.
Table 6.6: Correlation of language and environmental factors
(Percentages are of the total number of Indigenous people across Australia)


15–24 years

25–34 years

35–44 years

45–54 years

55 years & over


Identifies with clan, tribal or language group







Currently lives in homelands/traditional country


22.5 %





Attended cultural event(s) in last 12 months


68.9 %

72.6 %



68.1 %

Speaks an Indigenous language



21.8 %



21.1 %

Main language spoken at home








Aboriginal language







Torres Strait Islander language













2.0 1%

Chapter 7 Resources for languages

This chapter looks mainly at text and audio-visual resources for languages and how they can be better collected, looked after and made accessible. Other topics of great importance to Indigenous languages are the human resources which make programs possible, the training that is necessary for these people, and the programs themselves. These have not been a main focus of this report, but should be scoped out more fully in future.

7.1 Human resources

7.1.1 Speakers and elders

Obviously the speakers of the languages and the elders who retain knowledge of the language and culture, even in the cases where the languages are no longer spoken, are the most important resource. They should be valued and respected by their communities and by the mainstream authorities and rewarded for work they do in projects and programs. Some may not wish to undertake technical training themselves but may guide and teach in such programs. They are also people who tend to be sought out for many different tasks, and extreme care must be taken not to ‘burn out’ such people, especially if they are old and frail.

7.1.2 Learners and helpers

Learners, too, should be valued because they are making the effort to learn the language for the sake of their people and the coming generations. Employers should make it easier for people to engage in this activity and training and should recognise its value alongside other training courses. With the emphasis on indicators and showing the value of programs, it is possible to demonstrate progress both on a community and individual level.

Those who help in the Community Language Teams, and in activities such as Language Nests, should have their roles and contributions recognised and should be paid as legitimate workers, rather than just receiving ‘work for the dole’. Some of these people could be employed as full-time Indigenous language workers, either at community level or attached to a regional centre.

7.1.3 Linguists

Trained linguists are important people for language programs too, providing key advice and assistance. Some linguists are employed by universities and some by Regional Indigenous Language Centres. We are recommending that all such centres employ at least one linguist who can look after several local community programs and teams in the region.

There has been some opposition in some quarters to the work of linguists, because they tend to be non-Indigenous and some people feel they will wield too much power over language programs. These ideas often come from people who have not worked with linguists themselves or understood very well what they do. While there are good and bad people in every walk of life, there are very few linguists who try to take over community programs from the language custodians or pretend to be ‘the expert’ on the language and push people around. In the context of language centres especially, they work in ‘two-way’ relationships with Indigenous people.

Of course, it would be a good thing if there were more Indigenous linguists. There are only a handful who have been through full university training, but there are several more who have gone part of the way and are trying to find ways of completing their degree, often struggling with family and other responsibilities. There are quite a number more who have undertaken basic training, through some colleges which have specialised in Indigenous language work, and are working either in that field or in another field for example as community leaders or teachers. A recommendation is made under the heading ‘Training and support’ below.

7.1.4 Teachers

Several times in this report we have referred to the potentially crucial role of schools in the language maintenance arena. The potential contribution of schools has not been realised because of the division between education and community programs, and a lack of sympathy on the part of some principals and departmental officials. Typically, though, there are teachers in schools who are happy to work with Indigenous people on language and cultural programs in schools, even though these are marginalised.

Where there are numbers of trained Indigenous teachers working in schools, they readily take up the task of promoting language and culture in schools and try to develop curriculum for their local situations. Unfortunately, there is usually very little in teacher training to prepare them for doing this, and very little central development of curriculum and teaching aids which can be adapted to local languages and situations. Sometimes, though, as in the case of the South Australian education department, a small dedicated unit can achieve great things—but even more could be achieved with more funds and more recognition.

7.1.5 Translators and interpreters

The provision of interpreting services for Indigenous people has been relatively neglected over the years compared with that for migrant ethnic groups. This lack of equality can have life threatening consequences in health care, can result in miscarriages of justice and many other disadvantages for Indigenous people. A paper commissioned by DCITA from the Kimberley Interpreting Service refers to this point and can be found at: www.dcita.gov.au/indig/maintenance_indigenous_languages/publications.

The NILS Report recommends that a translation and interpreting unit be attached to all those Regional Indigenous Language Centres which have large numbers of Indigenous people who do not speak English well in their zone [Recommendation 22], and that training for Indigenous interpreters to National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) standards be provided by at least one institution [Recommendation 50]

7.1.6 Indigenous language workers

There are already numbers of skilled language workers in community and school programs, and regional centres, and more will be expected to join as new programs such as Language Nests and Community Language Teams/Master-Apprentice Schemes develop. They bring some skills to the programs, but also need training and support to become fully fledged practitioners (see below).

7.1.7 Training and support

Training for Indigenous personnel in the languages area is an essential part of all the NILS Report recommendations and should be provided from certificate level through to degrees and postgraduate work [Recommendation 51].

It should be emphasised again that such training is not for an obscure skill that has no other application. In such training, people acquire high-level multiple skills, including: community liaison, organisational, research and computer skills, all of which are readily transferable to other jobs. We have identified that Regional Indigenous Language Centres should be the main facilitators of the provision of training, together with the proposed National Indigenous Languages Centre. They should coordinate with the current training providers in this area, such as the Batchelor Institute, to improve the system and outcomes.

The Resource Network for Language Diversity (RNLD) is an important initiative to provide support links online, or through on-site training for people working on languages especially in remote regions. However, this important resource has no funding base at the moment. The NILS Report strongly recommends that the RNLD should be considered for funding. Further, AIATSIS may be able to assist with these elements, perhaps in collaboration with RNLD—workshops have been carried out, but the funding allocated so far has been very limited [Recommendation 52].

This report also recommends that training of Indigenous teachers be a priority and that a sizable segment of such training should focus on development of local language and culture programs [Recommendation 49].

This should especially include training for early childhood work to fit in with the establishment of Language Nests. By starting in the early school years, new ideas and curriculum can be introduced slowly through the school if and when the local situation is ready for it [Recommendation 1].

7.2 Language materials and documentation

The following are the key issues when considering strategies to improve language materials and documentation:

• What is the optimal level and types of documentation needed for viable work on a language for which there are still fluent speakers?

• How to locate already existing language materials?

• How to ensure language materials are preserved and accessible for future use?

7.2.1 Written materials

To support language maintenance it is vital that documentation is stored in an effective and easily accessible manner.

The following are important existing collections of written material on Australian Indigenous languages:

Indigenous Languages Database: The AIATSIS Indigenous Languages Database (ILDB) contains a variety of databases with listings of mainly written materials. This database has now been incorporated into the AUSTLANG Database (see below). The ILDB Database includes electronic versions of the Australian Indigenous languages bibliography (OZBIB) (Carrington & Triffitt 1999), the Sourcebook for Central Australian languages, and the WA and Kimberley Handbooks, and an index of documentation level of languages. An index for NILS Indicator Six—Materials for Language Education and Literacy is at Appendix A.

AUSTLANG (formerly called WILD): AUSTLANG (Australian Language Online Database) is an online version of the ILDB and is currently in a non-public beta-testing version. An improved version, which incorporates the ILDB, will be launched publicly in 2006. The new AUSTLANG will include an upgrade of OZBIB, to 2004. It will also include the NILS data, if funding is provided to AIATSIS to carry out this task.

Collections Database: This is a database of collecting institutions which contain Indigenous languages materials. It is a resource that has been created as a result of the NILS survey of collecting institutions. The database is held and maintained at AIATSIS. The Collections Database should be accessible to interested people for comment and feedback. It is recommended that AIATSIS be resourced to continue to maintain and upgrade the database as required in the first instance. Further, it is recommended that investigations occur as to the feasibility of placing the database on the Internet [Recommendation 39].

OZBIB: OZBIB (Carrington & Triffitt 1999) provides information on published linguistics works and theses up until 30 June 1999. Copyright of OZBIB has been purchased by AIATSIS and it is expected the material will be electronically linked into the ILDB/AUSTLANG. An update of OZBIB is to take place in the near future and post-1999 publications and theses will be incorporated into this, along with the ILDB amendments. It is recommended that OZBIB is updated every two years [Recommendation 34, Recommendation 36].

Unpublished manuscripts to 1959: John Greenway prepared a bibliography of Australian anthropology up until 1959 (Greenway 1963). This includes, but is not limited to, material on Australian languages. The manuscript is in four parts: Part 1, refers to books and articles in periodicals other than newspapers, and was published in 1963. This part was referred to during preparation of OZBIB. Parts 2–4 have never been published, but the manuscripts are held at AIATSIS. These consist of, in Part 2, manuscripts, typescripts, letters and other unpublished material. Part 3 includes references to governmental documents, and Part 4 to newspapers. This manuscript was not consulted during preparation of OZBIB (G Triffitt, personal communication). However, a check of the AIATSIS Mura (online) catalogue reveals that information from the Greenway manuscript has been listed in Mura. Where documents are not held at AIATSIS, the holding institution is listed.

Language learning materials: There is no one list or catalogue for materials created for language learning activities. In fact, these materials are often ‘one-offs’ created during a school or community project. Much of this material could be classified as ‘ephemera’. A method needs to be developed to ensure that these materials are kept safely for use over long periods of time. Materials produced by schools in earlier years can provide a record of changes to a language over time.

Central Australian audit of language materials: The Schools Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training has recently conducted an audit of language materials held at schools in its jurisdiction. The audit has identified that much of the material requires attention so that it is not lost/destroyed.

Language learning materials at AIATSIS: Many language learning materials from around Australia, though by no means the majority, have been lodged with the AIATSIS Library (classified under ‘L’). In some instances this been beneficial for a language community, such as when Katherine in the NT experienced severe flooding in 1998 and the local language centre lost the bulk of its material. Much language material had been deposited at AIATSIS over several years and, as a consequence, the centre was able to rebuild their language materials collection quickly. It is recommended that community organisations and language centres be made aware of the benefits of lodging copies of their materials with another organisation for safe-keeping purposes [Recommendation 28].

The University of Adelaide (future resource): The university has recently advised that they are about to compile an audit of the resources of the Indigenous languages of South Australia. This aims to be a user-friendly guide for communities or teachers to access resources easily, such as recordings, grammar descriptions, vocabulary lists, theses and journals on language maintenance among others. Further audits of resources in other states, territories or regions would be valuable.

A discussion of available guides, both web-based and print-version, is at section 5.2.4 of this report.

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