Australia: Native tongues imperilled

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 15 14:28:57 UTC 2007

Noel Pearson: Native tongues imperilled

Noel Pearson 10mar07

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 NSW. The custodian of this invaluable piece of
Australian culture, Sandy Cameron, was living in obscurity and had 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 Cameron died before
the linguist returned. A region of Australia lost a large part of its

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, Peter Ucko, then director of the Australian
Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 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 inaccessible to laymen, however. When
I was a boy starting primary school, 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 James 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 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 with 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

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. 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 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 varies 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 its 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 they often do not), but
because they are inherently valuable as part of the country's rich
heritage. And these languages comprise the identity of their 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

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

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. Noel Pearson is director of the Cape
York Institute for Policy and Leadership,5942,21352767,00.html


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