Indigenous language instruction for school

Supporting Mother Languages - Motion

I have spoken on this matter previously, but today I thank Mr Coe for bringing forward this important motion. I want to talk today about the importance of the recognition of their language to the indigenous community. Why it is important to work towards the revitalisation and maintenance of their languages. And why we need to include it for second language instruction in our schools.  

I want to begin by acknowledging that this year is in fact the year for indigenous language recognition. The 2017 national NAIDOC week theme was that “our languages matter”. Throughout Australia, during July, we were reminded of the importance, resilience and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  

Why are languages so important to the indigenous peoples? They matter as they are a primary way to safeguard and preserve their cultural identity. Language links indigenous people to their land and water, which is an expression of their cultural identity. And assists with the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites, through their stories and songs. 

So, it is vital that we consider again the significance of preserving that language. That we work towards its preservation, revitalisation and maintenance. There are several local languages and dialects in Canberra. One of which is the Ngunnawal language. In a visit to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, I was interested to learn of the work being carried out to preserve this language.  

The revitalisation of the Ngunnawal language forms a major project for the Institute, since 2014. The institute has been working closely with several indigenous family and corporations to not only revitalise the language, but also to develop a language program for primary school children. But, I am told, the work has stalled. I call on the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, to move beyond the tokenism that is so often associated with the actions of this government in this space, and to promote and support the revitalisation project both financially and through active facilitation. 

Why is it that supporting their language is so important? Indigenous communities maintain their cultural heritage by passing on their knowledge from one generation to the next through speaking and teaching their languages. They identify themselves through their connection to their country, their relationship to each other, and through their language and stories. Language then becomes an important part of maintaining those connections to their culture.  

Yet, recent statistics from the NATSIS survey showed that only 26 percent of children in areas such as Canberra spoke an indigenous language, and sometimes this was only a few words. The same survey states that to make a difference in the educational, employment and training outcomes, and to lower engagement with high risk and antisocial behaviours, indigenous children need to be connected to their community, culture and so, most importantly, their local language.  

Particularly in the early years of a child’s life, the investment in culture is critically important. It provides the children with social and emotional benefits, and for their families and communities. There was evidence that this investment strengthened communities, bridged cultural divides, fostered resilience, and contributed to reconciliation – all the attributes needed, that lead to closing the gap, and improving outcomes for indigenous communities. 

In 2015, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies worked with indigenous leaders and the primary school in Fraser to run a pilot of teaching the Ngunnawal language to preschool children. It would be great to see this project continue; for the government to sponsor the creation of local language dictionaries in Ngunnawal, Walgalu and Ngarigo. It would be great to see the development of children’s books in all the ACT local indigenous languages.  

The work here in the ACT is only in its infancy. But seeing the large collection of artefacts – books, stories and songs in the Pitjantjatjara language at the National Museum. Knowing that there are summer schools that anyone can attend to learn this language. It would be great to see that here in the ACT. It would be terrific if the revitalisation of the local languages, the mother languages of the local indigenous peoples, could lead to the teaching of them in the ACT as a second language – alongside the more traditional European and Asian languages.  

I therefore call on the government to support the active participation, revitalization and maintenance of local indigenous languages for future inclusion as a second language option for school children.