Speaking one's mother tongue is vital

Opinion Article

2011 May, 21

And this is why you've got people like Noel Pearson saying that Aboriginal people, Aboriginal kids,  need the very best general Australian academic education, but they also need a decent education in  their own high culture. Now, I think this is a very lofty goal that Noel has put forward, but if you look  at people like Alison Anderson and Bess Price, they are fluent in many Aboriginal languages. They are  people of law and culture and language, but they are also extremely capable of operating at the very  top of the general Australian community. Now, that's got to be the aspiration that we have for  Aboriginal people. - Tony Abbott to Chris Uhlmann, ABC1's 7.30, April 28

People wonder about my relationship with Tony Abbott.  

His work on the practical side of reconciliation in Cape York Peninsula goes back 10 years. But it is  not just that he understands the developmental issues. He grasps the deep cultural and spiritual dimension.  

There is a missing bridge between the country's original culture and the transplanted culture of the European Enlightenment and the institutions of Britain that are the institutional foundations of the  sovereign state of Australia.  

The bridge needs to be designed and built from two sides. Abbott is showing insight into what this  bridge involves in a way few Australians understand.  

I wrote in 2009 that our hope depends on education: "Radical hope for the future of Aboriginal Australia … will require the bringing together of the Enlightenment and Aboriginal Australian culture … The education of our children in both traditions is fundamental to this hope."  

On Cape York Peninsula we have shown that our vision is feasible: that all Aboriginal Australian children, even those in remote areas, can have a primary education that enables them to proceed to  quality secondary and tertiary education, and take their place in the national and global communities. 

So our hope is being fulfilled, then? I suspect my buoyant assessment of the achievements of educators,  students and parents on Cape York Peninsula since 2009 will be partly misunderstood by those who support me and my colleagues.  

To explain this, I need to revisit the first point I made in my 2009 essay Radical Hope. Quoting Jonathan Lear, I said what made the hope of a people who lost their old world radical was that "it is  directed towards a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical  hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with  which to understand it".  

Closing the gap in education, and Aboriginal Australians' internalisation of the Enlightenment, are necessary for my people to take their rightful place in the national and global communities. But those things don't transcend our present understanding.  

To see what a radical hope would be, we need to consider the existential situation of the Aboriginal Australians. Our peoples have lost sovereignty over our lands, and the most numerous Aboriginal Australian peoples constitute less than 0.1 per cent of the population of the sovereign state where we are citizens.  

The continued existence of the Aboriginal Australian ethnicities is threatened by our status as unrecognised minorities in our own land, our apparent inability to maintain our Australian languages in  the face of such adversity and the extremity, numerically speaking, of our minority status.  

Anglophones, such as non-indigenous Australians, have difficulty understanding the existential angst  of small ethnicities. It is easy to see why. The English language and the Anglophone culture are the  most powerful forces in history. Anglophone culture is in a remarkable way intertwined with the growth of liberty, democracy and the rule of law, and its perpetual flourishing is therefore guaranteed.  To become fluent in English is indeed an indispensable part of any child's education, anywhere in the  world.  

This blessing that Anglophones have, that their culture will live because of its own momentum and its  globally recognised value, is the opposite of the existential torment suffered by members of peoples  such as the Guugu Yimidhirr, to whom I belong historically and linguistically, and through descent.  

The Guugu Yimidhirr know that we have a language, a culture, a literature and a history, but the heritage of our part of the world is in danger of disappearing. Disappearing not only from the lives of  people but also by being incompletely recorded, and we Aboriginal Australians don't know how to stop  it.  

Where are the Livonians today? Where is the Barrow Point language?  

I wrote that this existential angst is hard for Anglophones to understand, but that is probably not correct. It may not be their own first thought when they consider the situation of Aboriginal Australians, but they understand when we explain it.

One of Australia's most eminent businesspeople wrote to me: "What is also relevant here, Noel, is the  idea you mentioned that in a democratic liberal tradition, the cultures which come out of Europe do not  carry the burden of existential angst about heritage and culture. In other words, they have no fear of loss, even though their culture continues to evolve. On the other hand, indigenous [Australian] people have a fear of loss of identity and culture - a fear well supported by 200 years of evidence. Understanding this fear is an expression of our common humanity."  

The radical hope for Australia - for indigenous Australians as well as non-indigenous Australians - is that the sovereign state of Australia becomes the recognised home of all native Australian ethnicities:  the Guugu Yimidhirr, the Yolngu and the other indigenous Australian people, and of non-indigenous  Australians. The forms this recognition should take must be a debate for the whole country; a long  journey that I can't even begin to discuss here. The only thing that must be said to make a discussion of  radical hope meaningful is that language is absolutely critical and increasingly so.  

I wrote that one of the best gifts for a child is absolute command of English and the Anglophone tradition. However, the greatest gift for a child in Australia - and it must be a gift from parents, community and government because it is too late to acquire it when we are old enough to choose our  lives - is to have another language, a mother tongue, a language of the heart that is not English.  

We all live surrounded by English in work and social life. The right of Australians is to have, from childhood, an inner voice that speaks another language and opens the gates to another world.  

Why is this existentially necessary? For Australians to appreciate and answer that question, we need to  acknowledge that the Anglophone culture may be history's greatest, but that there are some ideas that have been better comprehended by other cultures; the importance of multilingualism, and how  multilingualism is preserved, is one of them.

The Swedes on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, for centuries separated from Sweden and for long  periods under Russian or Soviet domination, said all that needs to be said in the title and in the first  lines of their unofficial anthem, The Song of the Mother Tongue:  

           How sweetly the song resounds  

           In beloved mother tongue,  Consoling grief,  

           Honing the steel of the mind… 

Feeling the threat of their minority culture's extinction, these Swedes picked the mother tongue as the  sole theme of their anthem. They correctly observed that it is in your mother tongue that you have intellectual and spiritual freedom; minority languages must have a strong position for their traditional  speakers to be truly free citizens in the sovereign states they share with majority peoples.

But, significantly, the first thing the anthem says is that the mother tongue consoles grief. All members  of minorities understand why this is said first. There is much sorrow in human life; minorities face the additional grief of not being in charge of their people's destiny and the prospect of their cultural  obliteration from history's page.  

We Aboriginal Australians have lost most of our land, our sovereignty and most that once was ours.  The necessary solace in this grief is to speak with my children in my ancestral and historical tongues.  The necessary solace is to speak my Australian language, to read and sing the old texts from classical times and from the mission days that have been written down, and to build a living literature by writing  more.  

We do need economically and socially sustainable lives; but it is our cultural link with the past - a link  that would break without language - that makes our lives spiritually sustainable as members of a  conquered people. What we need more than anything else is to see that our tongues are not dying  languages spoken only in a few homes but languages with a future: growing, officially recognised  languages of Australia.  

Closing the gap is a necessary part of reconciliation. Land rights are also an essential part of the fulfilment of anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner's hope that indigenous Australians would be able to keep  that which makes us who we are.  

But we will have true reconciliation when millions of Australians speak our Australian languages from  coast to coast. It is then that we will have the keys to our landscape, our history, our art, our stories.  The Australian languages, and the literatures and cultures that live or have lived through them, are the  most important things we have in Australia. Their revival, growth and use in all social, political,  educational, commercial and cultural domains are the most important matter for Australia's future.

We have put so much effort into English-language primary schooling - which we call the "class domain" as opposed to the "culture domain" - in the Cape York Academy's community schools because  without mainstream education, functional communities, strong families and economic integration, you  can't do anything, let alone maintain culture. We have to make class work, otherwise we have nothing  to build on.  

The class domain is, however, largely off-the-shelf, albeit underpinned with a large amount of policy  innovation (such as Queensland's Family Responsibilities Commission) to make sure the Direct  Instruction programs deliver to Cape York Peninsula communities what they have delivered to  disadvantaged children in the US.  

It is with the next step of our school reform, in the culture domain, that we are attempting something truly new: the development of Direct Instruction-style programs in Australian languages. The scripted lessons that are being developed for the Hope Vale School are exclusively in the Guugu Yimdhirr  language.  

Education in Australian languages is not new; but teaching in Australian languages should not be done  primarily because some children know too little English when they start school. It should also be done where children know more English, or predominantly or only English: this is the principle of the  culture domain in Cape York, where languages are dying. Teaching children in Australian languages is  only one instance of speaking to children in Australian languages so that they learn them as their  mother tongues. If children do not learn Australian languages as mother tongues, Australian cultures  cannot live.  

If you don't know an indigenous Australian language, learn one. (People with no indigenous Australian  family may learn the language of the area with which they have the strongest ties.) If you know an  indigenous Australian language, improve your grasp of it; literacy in Australian languages is still rare.  

Then speak it to the children. This is the noblest and worthiest cause for an Australian patriot.

Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. This extract is taken from the afterward to the new edition of his essay Radical Hope, published by Black Inc.

Speaking one's mother tongue is vital