Campaign underway to preserve Indigenous languages

Globalisation has put Indigenous languages in a precarious position.




Studies indicate that by the end of the 21st century, 90 per cent of the world’s 7000 languages could be lost.


But academics and educators across the Pacific, where a third of the world’s living languages are from, are trying to halt the trend.


Will Mumford reports.


Actor Richard Green says he wants bring his native tongue Dharug, or Eyora, back to life.


Mr Green, who speaks eight Aboriginal languages, has joined academics, educators and linguists in calling for more effort to be put toward preserving the vast and diverse range of Indigenous languages in the Pacific.


The Pacific region is home to more than 2000 languages, however many are critically endangered and face the prospect of dying out in the coming decades.


A symposium at Sydney University has brought together experts in the field to discuss the status of indigenous languages in the French Pacific and Australia, and how we might better protect their future.


Professor Jaky Troy is the director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the university and says when a language ceases to exist, it also has a broader cultural effect.


“It means that there is a lesser world. So when a language disappears in many ways the people associated with that language disappear, part of them disappears. All their knowledge, everything they know about themselves in their language goes with the language.”


There are around 250 languages spoken by Australia’s Indigenous communities, however many experts say there is a lack of engagement with and recognition of these languages.


Professor Troy says there needs to be a greater focus on language education in policy and the curriculum, as well as the arts and new media.


According to Professor Troy, Australia is behind other parts of the world when it comes to recognising and actively supporting the existence of native tongues.


“None of our Indigenous languages are national languages. We should have our languages alongside English, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Australia was the country in the world with 251 national languages – English, plus the other 250. It’s a sad thing that a lot of the countries where the English invaded English becomes the dominant language and is the only national language. But for other countries in the world, in spite of European invasion, the languages are recognised – so the French recognise the languages across French Polynesia, they are national languages as well in their constitutions.”


Actor Richard Green says better public knowledge of local languages would help us explain the world around us and its history.


“The whole city is covered in this very language we’re speaking about, when we’re concerning ourselves with the Sydney language – the Dharug, Eyora – in that it’s written on all the street signs, it’s written in all the suburbs… I mean Bondi does not mean waves crashing on rocks, it’s a five letter word that’s mispronounced. It’s Boondee and it means beach – so when are we going to be allowed to deal with our own language, instead of everyone else deciding what my Grandmother’s tongue was. “


Aboriginal actor and television presenter Ernie Dingo spoke at a public forum held as part of the symposium.


He says native languages represent a self-contained form of history.


And through the quirks and idiosyncracies of languages, Dingo says we can understand something about the culture and geography of the people who speak them.


“Language is very important for people’s identity. Before we had too much influences…you can tell where people come from by the sounds of the language because it reflects their environment.”


Professor Troy says the preservation of languages has been proven to result in positive health outcomes and gives people a sense of cultural awareness and identity.


“There are studies now that demonstrate that where people speak their languages their health is better. Chronic disease is reduced, youth suicide is dramatically reduced. If you, as an Aboriginal person know that you and your language are recognised nationally, you’re one of the people of the country. You’re no longer somebody who sits sideways while English and imported culture dominates. “






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