Native tongues imperilled

Opinion Article

2007 March, 10

In 1973, a linguist doing field work on Aboriginal Australian languages realised he had met the last  speaker of Yaygir, a language once spoken in present-day northeast New South Wales. The custodian  of this invaluable piece of Australian culture, Sandy Cameron, was living in obscurity and had naturally not spoken Yaygir for several years. He was, however, eager to work with his university educated guest to record and preserve his ancestral language. The linguist decided to return to  Cameron’s home in a couple of months to finish the recording of this national treasure. 

But then Sandy Cameron died before the linguist returned. A region of Australia lost a large part of its  heritage. 

Such tragedies happened in many parts of Australia in our lifetime, and are still happening. Our  nation’s culture and history is needlessly impoverished.  

A few years ago my old friend, Urwunjin, died as the last speaker of his people’s language from  Barrow Point on the southeastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. 

Urwunjin’s knowledge was at least recorded to a large extent. In the late 1960s and into the ’70s an  organised effort was made by many young anthropologists and linguists, urged by an indefatigable  sponsor, Dr Peter Ucko, then director of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra to describe the country's cultures and languages before it was  too late. Their salvage operation was dubbed Before It Is Too Late or BIITL. Many of today’s senior  ethnographers of Australia were involved in this push.

The original BIITL preserved a large amount of information, now archived in Canberra. Much of this  record is however inaccessible to laymen. When I was a boy starting primary school in my hometown  of Hope Vale, an American linguist, John Haviland, came to live with a local family two doors away  from us, and in the following years he compiled a grammar and dictionary of Guugu Yimithirr – the  language that Captain Cook encountered in 1770 and which gave the world the name kangaroo, after  the Guugu Yimithirr word for a species of wallaby called gangurru.  

Haviland accomplished an astonishing feat in his mastery of classical Guugu Yimithirr. His grammar is  a great work of scholarship, that is a necessary but by itself insufficient, foundation for the maintenance  of our language long into the future.  

It is hard enough for privileged people to learn languages. It is near impossible for dysfunctional  people. Few of my people can learn anything from Haviland’s published grammar, though it is an  invaluable foundational resource.  

The social inaccessibility of the scientific work compiled through the BIITL period has not been  answered with effective language transmission efforts such as has occurred in New Zealand through  indigenous language nests. The multitude of Australian languages compared to New Zealand means  that our challenge is so much more vast and complex, but we should learn from the strategies adopted  across the Tasman.

A new BIITL is urgently needed in Australia, because we risk losing our country’s languages as spoken  tongues. Intergenerational transmission of a large number of Australia’s languages is declining or has  ceased. This is not the result of Aboriginal Australian’s choice to abandon our culture. As almost everything else in our communities, it is a result of our desperate disadvantage. Social dysfunction  disables cultural and linguistic transmission.  

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

The SIL website ( provides an estimation of the vitality of each of Australia’s  remaining indigenous languages, and the number of languages that are on the brink of extinction  should be the cause of national consternation and urgent response. 

But, notwithstanding the richness of this country’s linguistic heritage, there is almost no public  recognition of this national priority. To find an eloquent expression of the preciousness of this heritage  you would need to go back to the late W.E.H. Stanner’s Boyer Lectures of 1967. Since Stanner there  have been no prominent voices, the last being that of the American ethnographer and author, Jared  Diamond, in his 2001 Centenary of Federation address. Reading Diamond’s lecture I was struck by  how it is that the only prominent advocate on behalf of Australia’s original languages, is an American.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native tongues imperilled