Academics and educators have called on governments and institutions to focus attention on preserving Indigenous languages.
By
SBS

25 May 2015 - 7:34 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2015 - 8:44 PM

Globalisation has put indigenous languages in a precarious position.

Studies indicated that by the end of the century, 90 per cent of the world's 7000 languages could be lost.

In an effort to halt the decline and ultimate disappearance of thousands of native tongues, academics and educators have called on governments and institutions to focus attention on preserving languages through education.

During a symposium at Sydney University, looking at the status of Indigenous languages in Australia and the French Pacific, solutions to the problem of endangered languages was discussed among experts in the field.

Professor Jaky Troy,the director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at Sydney University, said when a language ceased to exist it had a broader cultural effect.

"It means that there is a lesser world," she said.

'So when a language disappears, in many ways the people associated with that language disappear.

"All their knowledge, everything they know about themselves and their language goes with the language."

There are around 250 languages spoken by Australia's Indigenous communities, however many experts said there was a lack of engagement with and recognition of these languages, particularly in policy and the curriculum.

According to Professor Troy, Australia was behind other parts of the world when it came to actively supporting and ensuring the existence of native tongues.

"All their knowledge, everything they know about themselves and their language goes with the language."

"None of our Indigenous languages are national languages," she said.

"We should have our [Aboriginal] 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. The French recognise the languages across French Polynesia, they are national languages in their Constitutions."

Actor Richard Green speaks eight Aboriginal languages and wants more effort to be directed to preserving the vast and diverse range of Indigenous languages in the Pacific.

He said better public knowledge of local languages would help explain the world around us and its history.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if Australia was the country in the world with 251 national languages - English, plus the other 250?"

"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,” he said.

“I mean 'Bondi' does not mean waves crashing on rocks, it's a five-letter word that's mispronounced.

“It's Boondi and it means beach. 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 said native languages represented a self-contained form of history and that through the quirks and idiosyncrasies of languages, we can understand something about the culture and geography of the people who speak them.

“I mean 'Bondi' does not mean waves crashing on rocks, it's a five letter word that's mispronounced."

"Language is very important for people's identity. You can tell where people come from by the sounds of the language because it reflects their environment."

Although the cultural value of language preservation is largely undisputed, there were also health and welfare benefits, according to Professor Troy.

"There are studies now that demonstrate that where people speak their languages their health is better,” she said.

“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.”