[lg policy] Australia: Maintaining Indigenous languages: revering a distant past or contributing to a better future?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 2 15:40:46 UTC 2012

Maintaining Indigenous languages: revering a distant past or
contributing to a better future?
Fully (sic) | Nov 01, 2012 5:04PM | EMAIL | PRINT

Special guest Dr. Bill Fogarty argues that Indigenous language
maintenance and education is not about reverence for some distant past
for esoteric reasons. Rather it is an important asset that can play a
role both in developing a future for Indigenous communities and in
benefiting the socio-economic fabric of the Australian Nation.

Unlike some of my esteemed colleagues here, I am not a linguist.
Please don’t hold that against me. I am an educational anthropologist
or perhaps I’m an over-anthropologising educationalist. To tell you
the truth I don’t really know. What I do know is that I have learned
over the last fifteen years so, working as both an educator and a
researcher in remote Indigenous communities, that the role of
Indigenous language is critical in engaging students and their
families in the educational process. I have also learned that
Indigenous language maintenance and education is not about revering
some distant past for esoteric reasons. Rather it is an important
asset that can play a role both in developing a future for Indigenous
communities and in benefiting the socio-economic fabric of the
Australian Nation.

In the short time I have I want to discuss two points. The first is a
quick review of the research findings about Indigenous language
education, and in particular bilingual education. The second is the
role of Indigenous language in remote development.

Throughout most of the last century, education policy that was aimed
at disenfranchising the cultural fabric of Indigenous communities
dominated school language policy. Key components of cultural
production such as language and cosmology were deliberately subverted
through education as a vehicle for indoctrinating and assimilating
students. This is best evidenced through practices of ‘training’
stolen generation children in skills of domestic servitude and the
common practice of banning children from speaking their own languages
in school. It is important that any Indigenous language policy
discussion acknowledge this fact up front.

Remembering this history, I’d like to now briefly note the broad
findings from the research base in relation to bilingual education and
the teaching of Indigenous languages in schools as it stands today:

    The international research base is clear in determining that
conceptual development in children is enhanced when students are
taught in their first language.
    The research base is clear in showing that education of Indigenous
students in their first language is a critical component of students
well-being , self esteem and personal development at school.
    Indigenous communities, parents and teachers overwhelmingly
support the teaching in Indigenous schools. This is a crucial factor
in the engagement of Indigenous parents and communities in education
    There is no evidence that learning in an Indigenous first language
has a negative effect on English language acquisition.
    There is no credible evidence that ‘English only’ remote schools
perform better than bilingual schools.
    The evidence of the benefits of Indigenous language programs for
Indigenous students overwhelmingly supports their continuation and

Indeed, it seems surprising to me that there is still such resistance
in some education policy circles to providing bilingual programs to
Indigenous students.

Much of the more recent debate and discussion around the role of
Indigenous languages in education has focused either on the role of
education in the maintenance of Indigenous languages, or on the role
of Indigenous languages in English literacy and learning. While both
of these issues are critical to any policy formulation on Indigenous
languages, there has been a paucity of discussion and understanding in
public policy about the potential and importance of Indigenous
languages in the connection between school and local development
activity, particularly in remote Australia.

In Australia, there is a belated interest in the role that Indigenous
Knowledge (IK), and especially, Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK)
can play in the in the generation of economic and social development
activity in remote regions. What is often not explicitly recognised is
that Indigenous languages are the repositories of IK, and as such are
the bedrock upon which IK (and IEK) are built. Indigenous systems of
knowledge and practice are embedded within language and
institutionalised by language. What is known, how knowledge is gained,
and even how knowledge is defined and expressed is to a large extent
determined by language and its use in context. In other words,
language is knowledge. The use of IK or IEK in development, therefore,
depends upon the continued intergenerational availability of
Indigenous languages to support such knowledge.

The ‘value’ of IK and the Indigenous languages that underpin it, has
long been recognised in the fields of agriculture and medicine, as
well as in bio-prospecting and in conservation, wildlife management,
tourism and art. Internationally, The World Bank, The UN and the IMF
have all formally recognised the economic value of Indigenous
knowledge in the alleviation of poverty, the creation of sustainable
development and in the provision of localised employment pathways.

A good example of emergent development that relies on Indigenous
knowledge and language is Indigenous Land and Sea Management (ILSM) in
remote Australia. If you would like to read more about this, I
recommend books such as People on Country.

Finally, the importance of Indigenous languages and knowledge to ILSM
is just one example of the role languages can play in localised
development and employment activity. Unless education in local
Indigenous languages is supported, IK and IEK can be lost over a
relatively short time period, as exhibited by language extinguishment
in many parts of Australia. With the loss of language, pathways to
potentially viable Indigenous livelihood options and related education
and career opportunities for remote Indigenous youth will also be
lost. This is something we should all work together to avoid in the

This post is a reproduction of a speech given at a public forum on
Australia’s Indigenous Languages at ANU, Canberra on October 30, 2012.
Bill’s speech draws on a research paper, Indigenous Language Education
in Remote Communities, that he co-authored with Dr Inge Kral.

Dr Bill Fogarty is a Research Associate at the National Centre for
Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University. Bill has
lived and worked in remote communities for over a decade and has
extensive experience in research on Indigenous education, employment
policy and service provision. He has worked on projects with a diverse
range of organisations concerned with Indigenous Australia such as the
Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, the Northern Land Council and the
Northern Territory Government.


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