• Pama Language Centre has published children's picture books to help kids engage with traditional languages in Cape York. (Xavier Barker, Pama Language Centre)Source: Xavier Barker, Pama Language Centre
The head of Australia's leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander information hub has urged the federal government to consider introducing legislation to help protect and preserve the country's First Nations languages.
Ella Archibald-Binge

23 Feb 2018 - 4:44 PM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2018 - 4:44 PM

Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), suggests Australia could follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced the Māori Language Act in 1987, thereby giving Māori official language status. 

"Under that, every government agency has an obligation to make sure that the work that they do preserves and perpetuates the Māori language," Mr Ritchie says.

"That might be something to think about in the legislative space."

The Dunghutti and Biripi man was the keynote speaker at Australia's first National Indigenous Languages Convention on the Gold Coast. Part of the federal government's $10 million commitment to protect First Nations languages, the convention brought experts together to discuss the role of digital technology in language preservation.

Australia has been identified as one of the top five endangered language hot spots in the world. Of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, about 120 are still spoken, but most are severely or critically endangered.

Mr Ritchie told the crowd that Australia needed to follow New Zealand's lead by bringing language into the public domain, making culture more visible in public spaces such as airports, and weaving simple greetings or words into news broadcasts or television programs.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded when they’re using Aboriginal language on Home and Away," he laughed. 

'You don't revive language with an app, you revive language with people'

The role of technology was a major focus throughout the convention. 

The crowd heard of various initiatives making progress through digital projects, including central Queensland's virtual classroom program and Pama Language Centre's songwriting and recording workshops. 

But it was clear that when it comes to teaching language, technology has its limits.

Callum Clayton-Dixon, a founding member of the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, labelled himself a "cynic" when it comes to technology.

The 23-year-old said while technology had proven useful to document language and raise awareness for programs, it shouldn't be relied upon as a teaching tool. He cited an example at a school in Armidale where he encouraged students learning Gamilaraay to download the language app: "they used it for a day, didn't touch it again".

"You don’t revive a language with an app, you revive language with people," he said to applause from the crowd.

Clayton-Dixon says if it's a choice between online versus on land, the focus should be learning on land, on country, "embedding language through cultural activities".

Federal Arts Minister Mitch Fifield says while technology wasn't the answer, it is an “important part of the toolkit that we have”.

"As a government, we clearly recognise the erosion of language that needs to be addressed," he told the crowd.

"Digital technology does have an incredible capacity to support the preservation and the teaching and the transmission of language.

"We do want to find out more about community-driven digital solutions that are already being used to record and maintain language."

Mr Fifield said the government's immediate priorities were to: 

  • Develop career pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language workers and linguists;
  • Improve digital literacy in communities, and;
  • Identify projects that will best support and maintain language. 

The minister said funding for language projects would be administered through the Indigenous Languages and Arts program.  

A spokesperson for the Department of Communications and the Arts said the department will be working in partnership with AIATSIS to produce a National Indigenous Languages Report in 2019, which will contribute to future policy discussions. 

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