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
State of Indigenous languages related to cultural heritage (continued)
Census data in Australia at the moment will give only a 'yes' or 'no' answer on whether someone speaks an Indigenous language at home, without any gradations of ability, any distinctions between understanding and speaking, or even a more general category of semi-speaker. Information from regional sources, ethnographic and regional surveys can supplement this information and add considerably more to the picture, at least for some areas, especially if this involves local Indigenous researchers (Dalton et al. 1995). Previous surveys have referred to levels of ability or proficiency in age groups, but used vague criteria like 'speaks well' or 'speaks fluently' which are hard to compare reliably across different surveys (McConvell 1994, p.302).
Language shift is said to be occurring when a group moves from speaking their old language to speaking a new language. It is a symptom of language endangerment. A further complication is how radical changes in languages are to be assessed in a proficiency framework. A children's language may be so different from the old peoples' as to be hard for each generation to understand the other, and is often condemned by the old people as 'baby talk' or 'rubbish language'. These situations seem common in Australia but can be analysed as language change rather than language shift or even symptoms of language endangerment or impending language shift.
In the regions in which speakers are a majority of Indigenous people, the spread of speakers across the population is fairly even. However for those regions with few speakers, such as Mt. Isa, Kalgoorlie or Geraldton, there are proportionally more older speakers.
With regard to the condition of languages, it appears that there are five patterns displayed in five groupings: three are characteristic age profiles in the data, and two are aberrant patterns:
- Group 1: In regions with many speakers and strong languages (Nhulunbuy, Apatula, Jabiru, Warburton) there is relatively little variation in the ability of speakers in various age groups, and language shift to a non-Indigenous language is either absent or just beginning.
- Group 2: This is a common pattern of steep and uninterrupted decline from old to young (Kalgoorlie, Broome, Port Augusta, Alice Springs, Torres Strait, Cooktown, Katherine) associated with language shift having taken hold in many groups 20-50 years ago.
- Group 3: In these regions (all others except Groups 4 and 5) associated with old white settlement and early language loss over 50 years ago, there is a very low level of speakers in all age groups, usually continuing to decline slightly.
- Group 4: In this aberrant group of languages there is a dip in language ability in one or more of the middle age groups and a slight recovery in the younger age groups. Kununurra, has a pronounced dip in the 30-39 group, and Cooktown and South Hedland have much less of a dip. Ceduna and Geraldton show aberrant patterns of swings back and forth in numbers between successive age groups, in the context of overall decline. This may be due to patterns like those of Group 2, but with two or more language groups which experienced drops at different periods interfering with each. This may be due to distinct waves of migration from more outlying areas into areas where language shift sets in, but it requires further research.
- Group 5: Adelaide is significant in that it is the only region which shows an increase in the number of younger speakers (from an already low level), most likely attributable to the high level of activity and interest in language and language revival in Adelaide recently (including the revival of Kaurna). Otherwise Adelaide fits into the pattern described for Group 3.
Apart from the early signs of some success in language revival activities in Adelaide, Group 4 in particular appears to show a slightly more positive trend than other declining situations. Generally the patterns can be associated with a dominant type of endangerment category in each region, as follows:
Group 1 - Strong
Group 2 - Endangered
Group 3 - Severely endangered or extinct.
Of the 90 languages described by Schmidt (1990) as 'surviving', 70 were said to be 'threatened' or 'severely endangered' and 20 'strong' i.e. spoken by all age groups regularly. These are the figures that were included in the 1996 State of the Environment Report (see Purdie et al. 1996, p. 9-23). McConvell and Thieberger (2001) conclude that by 1996, seventeen of these strong languages were still strong and three had become endangered.
There was an unprecedented recognition in Australia of the rights of Indigenous people to maintain languages and the need for support for them in the 1980s and 1990s, in a number of reports, by the Commonwealth Government and also by international bodies. But this has not been reflected in any legislation guaranteeing rights or funding either nationally or in the States and Territories.
There has been an increase in the amount of recording and documentation of Indigenous languages in the past 10 years, and 141 of the 764 named Indigenous Languages have wordlists or dictionaries.
The amount of literature produced in a language each year should also be considered. This could be on the impressionistic basis that several books in one year from a literacy production centre is a 'substantial' amount. This could also extend to audio-visual material, based on the number of video or audio recordings produced in a given time period. Assessing material available on each language is a time-consuming process.
Documentation of Indigenous languages is undertaken in a number of institutions. Language Centres, mainly funded by the ATSILIP program in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, operate around the country, and each generate variable amounts of documentation. This may be because their focus is not on documenting extant languages, but rather is on retrieving documents and making them available for speakers today, as is the case for work with the Kaurna language. Language centres and other funded activities may also be under-resourced, or simply not have the necessary skills to engage in language documentation.
Carrington and Triffitt (1999) provide a fairly comprehensive bibliography of work relevant to Australian Indigenous languages conducted up to 1999 (see Figure 12). The average number of publications per year during this time period was 144.
Figure 12: Number of references dealing with Indigenous languages per year.
Source: Carrington and Triffitt (1999)