Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Jane Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates Pty Ltd, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06752 3
Old people have the stories in their heads;
they want young people to learn them.
How are we to work and teach the Tjukurpa?
Source: Mary Kalu Kalu, in Uluru-Kata Tjuta Plan of Management (2000, p. 23)
Note: Tjukurpa is 'the Law' governing that Indigenous community's actions and culture, and relevant aspects have been incorporated into the plan of management.
|NCH IL.1||Number of people who identify as knowing each Indigenous language|
|NCH IL.2||Number of people in age group who identify as knowing each Indigenous language; proportion of total identifying as Indigenous|
|NCH IL.3||Number of traditional languages at each recognised stage of inter-generational dislocation|
|NCH IL.4||The number of Indigenous languages for which
(a) documentation is:
(b) documentation is close to complete (given the state of the language)
|NCH IL.8||The number of projects which document knowledge of traditional languages, by type of project|
|NCH IL.9 | a | b |||The number and type of Indigenous language programs undertaken in language centres, schools, and other institutions|
Language is the primary tool for connection to country for Indigenous people who have no written tradition. Language is often overlooked because it is an intangible part of culture and something which is used constantly by people, without them reflecting on it or being conscious of it. Nevertheless, language is one of the most significant aspects of the cultural heritage of any group. It is both part of culture and the most important means of expressing culture and communicating culture to others and transmitting it to the next generation. However, oral culture changes and literacy in Indigenous languages is used for heritage recording.
The Australian nation has begun in recent years to recognise the value of the Indigenous cultures and languages, and to support Indigenous Australians in their efforts to maintain them. The level of commitment and resources made available by governments remains low, and there are no guarantees that even this level will be maintained in the future; indeed, there are some ominous signs of major gains being wound back in the period since 1995 (McConvell and Thieberger 2001, p.5).
The role of language in Indigenous knowledge systems, and in particular environmental and ecological knowledge, is rarely recognised by non-Indigenous people. The knowledge which a people possess, which enables them to live fruitfully in a particular ecological niche in the physical and biological environment, is encoded in the language that they use to describe and work with the land, animals and plants.
The Indigenous languages of Australia represent a great storehouse of knowledge and tradition about the environment and ancient culture of Australia, both for the Indigenous people themselves and for all Australians. The Indigenous people of Australia are the owners and custodians of the languages, but in the spirit of 'two-ways' exchange and reconciliation many groups are prepared to share access to this heritage, to preserve a unique national body of knowledge and tradition. Indigenous names dot maps of Australia, giving a unique sense of identity with the landscape. How healthy is the state of Indigenous language in Australia?
Indigenous Australians are struggling to maintain and revive their languages and associated traditions against great odds, as there has been a decrease of 90% in the number of Indigenous languages spoken fluently and regularly by all age groups in Australia since 1800, and a decrease in the percentage of Indigenous people speaking Indigenous languages from 100% in 1800 to 13% in 1996. Positive steps have been taken in the last decade to recognise Indigenous languages and give them a place in our society instead of destroying them as has happened all too often in our history. Yet the pressures working against the languages at the beginning of the 21st century remain as strong as ever, presenting a bleak picture of language endangerment, which could all too easily lead to the loss of all Indigenous languages in this century.
The greatest concentrations of populations speaking Indigenous languages today are in northern and central Australia, mainly in areas remote from towns (see Figure 10). There are some exceptions to this generalisation, however. Remoteness in itself does not guarantee maintenance of an Indigenous language: for example, the northern Kimberleys are extremely remote and have not been occupied by white settlers to any extent, yet the languages are in a weak condition. In contrast, Alice Springs is a centre of early white settlement yet the Arrernte language is still strongly spoken there (McConvell and Thieberger 2001, p.52).
Figure 10: Proportion of Indigenous people who spoke an Indigenous language or creole, 1996.
Source: ABS (1998c)
Every five years the ABS Census asks about language use. The number of speakers of Australian Indigenous languages according to these Censuses is given in Table 39, with the percentage increase in the Indigenous population for comparison. In 1986 the Census asked if an Aboriginal language was spoken at home, but in 1991 it asked if a language other than English was spoken at home, and then lumped all Aboriginal languages together. The 1996 Census was the first to ask about named Indigenous languages. From these figures it is clear that there is an increase in the number of speakers of Indigenous languages in absolute terms, but not in proportion to the general increase in Indigenous population.
|Census||Indigenous language speakers||% increase||Total Indigenous people||% increase|
|1986||36 078||-||195 796||-|
|1991||42 716||18||265 458||15|
|1996||42 922||0||352 970||34|
Source: ABS (1998c)
The ABS Census of 1996 showed an increase in the population of Indigenous Australians from 1991 of 33%, which is twice what can be explained by demographic reasons. Ross (1999) says the increase is due to fluidity in identity, with a mixed population having the possibility of drawing on its ancestry to identify as Indigenous and choosing to do so more in the last Census than in the preceding one. This has implications for the reporting of the use of Indigenous languages.
While an increase in numbers of speakers of Indigenous languages in proportion to this general increase would be expected, it is more likely that the population increase will not be reflected in an increase in numbers of people identifying as speakers of Indigenous languages, as the increase is in areas in which Indigenous languages are no longer spoken. This could account for some of the decrease apparent in the proportion of speakers of Indigenous languages from the 1986 and 1996 Census, as a larger number of people are identifying as Indigenous, and so the proportion of speakers of Indigenous languages decreased even though the number of speakers increased.
However, the decline in numbers of speakers of Indigenous languages is also spread across the urban-rural divide, probably due to the migration to country towns, as shown in Table 40.
A Urban = cities and towns of 1000 people or more
Sources: ABS (1991, p.42), ABS (1998, p.82)
Ross (1999) discussed issues that need to be taken into account when using Census data related to Indigenous people. She notes the problem of naming one language only, when we know that Aboriginal people are multi-lingual, especially when we consider varieties of English and creole as well as Indigenous languages. The extent to which Indigenous people speak pidgin and/or creole languages has not been adequately surveyed. Apparently the Pitjantjatjara lands did not participate fully in the 1996 Census so there is a gap in the data for that geographic region as well as for the Yam Island(s), Wyndham-Ekimb, Oombulgurri, and Warlpiri/Redgum/Wallaby camps Rockhole (Ross 1999, p.63).
Comparison of data over time can give an indication of the speed of language loss. Figure 11 shows a clear decline in the national number of people who claim to speak an Indigenous language at home, for all age groups. It also shows the trend for fewer younger people to be Indigenous language speakers.
Figure 11: Comparison of 1986-1996 ABS Census data on Indigenous language use in the home.
Note: The data available for this analysis from the 1986 Census only listed speakers of five years and older, so the comparison of 0-14 year olds from the 1996 data is with 5-14 year olds in the 1986 data. As both are given as percentages of the relevant age group, it is felt that the comparison is valid.
Source: ABS (1996a) data, in McConvell and Thieberger (2001)
Figure 11 also shows the tendency for Indigenous languages to be spoken by older people in both time periods. This is consistent with a shift from Indigenous languages to English. However, any interpretation of Figure 11 should bear in mind the unexpectedly high Indigenous population figures in the 1996 census, especially as the number of speakers rose 30% in absolute terms from 36 078 in 1986 (ABS 1991, p.42), to 46 811 in 1996 (ABS 1998, p.85). There may be a component of the increase in apparent Indigenous language speaker numbers which is related to pride in cultural heritage rather than actual increase in everyday or thorough use of a language. As loss of older language speakers and attrition eats into the speaker numbers as the present generation grows up, and this is magnified as the languages are not transmitted, it is doubtful if the increase in Indigenous language speaker population will keep pace in future with that recorded in 1986-1996.
Although an Indigenous language may be classified by linguists as 'dead' or 'dying' on the basis of linguistic criteria, that language still has meaning to the people of that language, which should be eligible for support, maintenance and sustained management procedures. It still remains of heritage value in some if not all cases.