Goldsworthy, Anna: Voices of the land

Goldsworthy, Anna

Voices of the land‘, The Monthly, September 2014 updated

Update 18 November 2016: Jane Simpson on some practical issues with teaching Indigenous language. Links to other material also.

About the efforts of University of Adelaide, Israel-born linguist, Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, to preserve Indigenous languages by teaching them to Indigenous children.

According to Zuckermann’s most recent figures, only 13 of the 330 Aboriginal languages spoken when Australia was colonised remain “alive and kicking”, by which he means spoken by children. In a recent paper for the journal Australian Aboriginal Studies, Zuckermann and his co-authors, Shiori Shakuto Neoh from the Australian National University and Giovanni Matteo Quer from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, make the case for Native Tongue Title, a statute-based ex gratia compensation scheme. Aboriginal languages were lost due to what Zuckermann calls “the white fellow”; it is up to the white fellow to provide redress. Controversially, he believes that the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land, because “the land is still there, the language is not”.

Zuckermann notes the loss of language has been driven by official policies and uses the term ‘linguicide’ to refer to ‘a deliberate process of colonisation’. He quotes a 19th century politician, Anthony Forster:

The natives would be sooner civilised if their language was extinct. The children taught would afterwards mix only with whites, where their own language would be of no use – the use of their language would preserve their prejudices and debasement, and their language was not sufficient to express the ideas of civilized life.

Since then, further language loss has occurred due to assimilation policies and the results of the Stolen Generations. In 1961 at a ministerial conference it was agreed that ‘All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs as other Australians’.

There have recently been Commonwealth budget cuts affecting Indigenous language teaching although community-based language retention programs have shown some improved retention.

 

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