While gathering information on the status of Australian Indigenous languages is very difficult, the results of the 3rd National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS3) are consistent with previous surveys. NILS3 shows a steady, ongoing decline in both the number of Australian languages with speakers, and the number that rate as ‘strong’ (meaning that they are being passed on to children as a matter of course). Given the demonstrated importance of Indigenous languages to Indigenous Australians, as demonstrated in the findings in the 2nd NILS (2014) and in the analysis in NILR of the link between language and wellbeing, this finding is extremely concerning. A positive finding however is the finding in NILS3 that there are over 30 languages currently being reawakened: these are languages that have not had speakers for some time but their communities are now working to bring them back into use. There is evidence that the number of communities working to reawaken their language is growing. A newly investigated element in NILS3 is the two ‘new’ languages, Kriol and Yumplatok, which are both strong languages and have the largest speaker numbers of any Australian language, important factors to recognise in education and service delivery across northern Australia.
Key Findings from the 3rd National Indigenous Languages Survey
- Of the more than 250 traditional Indigenous Australian languages:
- At least 123 still have speakers
- 12 are ‘strong’ in that they are being passed on to children
Denise Angelo, Carmel O’Shannessy, Jane Simpson, Inge Kral, Hilary Smith & Emma Browne
Neither the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s language repertoires nor the language ecologies they live in have been consistently acknowledged in well-being research, or in policy, service delivery, data collection and evaluation more generally. To recognise this diversity in practice, the 2020 National Indigenous Languages Report (NILR) provides a framework of language ecology types: what is the dominant type of Indigenous language spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: traditional language, new language or Aboriginal English(es). Research by ANU for the NILR provides evidence of strong connections of different kinds between speaking or learning Indigenous languages and Indigenous peoples’ well-being. The Well-being and Indigenous Language Ecologies (WILE) Framework shows how the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples relates to all uses of Indigenous languages in identity-based language functions, and in communication-based functions, to speaking Indigenous languages, traditional and new. By recognising and responding to the diversity of language experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the continent, WILE provides a differentiated model of well-being and Indigenous languages. This marks a significant advance for work in this area. It is a tool for effectively differentiating policies and programs, and suggests useful data points for future development.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s use of languages in everyday life is diverse.
- There are 3 main types of Indigenous languages: traditional language, new language or Aboriginal English(es).
- The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are in situations where they are reawakening, reviving, revitalising or learning their traditional languages.
- Speakers of new Indigenous languages are less visible in data and discourses about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
- Data on varieties of Aboriginal English is also scarce.
- The effect of using traditional languages has positive effects linked to identity and recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, regardless of the extent to which they are spoken.
- Around 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples speak a traditional or new language as their first and main everyday language. This factor requires explicit recognition for purposeful communication across all policy areas.
- The well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has several dimensions that intersect with the constellation of languages used (the language ecology), the contexts that the languages are used in, and an individual’s language repertoire (the languages they speak and the extent/level they speak them).
The well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who speak a traditional or a new Indigenous language is badly affected when there is little acknowledgement that English is not their first language.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have repeatedly asserted that individuals, families and communities can achieve better life outcomes if they maintain or develop knowledge and use of Indigenous languages. However, evidence that rigorously quantifies the relationship between the use of Indigenous languages and wellbeing is limited. Analysing data from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), this study examines the link between the use of Indigenous languages and a range of wellbeing indicators. Since Indigenous languages are spoken to different extents in different places, and living in an area where one’s own language is widely spoken may have different effects on wellbeing from residing in a place where only a few people speak the language, the NATSISS sample is disaggregated into two language ecologies. The first comprise areas where new and/or traditional Indigenous languages are frequently spoken as a first language, and the second consists of areas where Indigenous languages are spoken as a second or subsequent language. The study finds that speaking Indigenous languages is strongly associated with indicators of wellbeing relating to actions over which Indigenous individuals, families and communities can exert agency and self-determination (for example, indicators relating to culture, identity, emotional feelings and connection to Country). In contrast, Indigenous language use is less consistently correlated with those wellbeing outcomes which are most strongly determined by external structural forces (for example, indicator related to physical health, employment and education). While Indigenous language maintenance and revival are important in their own right, the findings of this study suggest that implementation of certain non-language policies may be improved by addressing the needs and aspirations of Indigenous people to speak their own languages.
- Indigenous language use has a strong connection with cultural and spiritual wellbeing. Indigenous language users are more likely than English-only speakers to identify themselves with a clan or tribal group, participate or be involved in cultural events, live on their traditional Country, regularly visit homelands when they live away from them, and engage in activities such as hunting and fishing.
- Indigenous language use is a moderately correlated with social and emotional wellbeing. Indigenous language users report higher social connectedness, as measured by: having frequent contact with friends and relatives; receiving support from people outside the household, and; having a say in the community on important matters. Indigenous language users also report a higher level of emotional wellbeing (such as being full of life and energy).
- Indigenous language use is less consistently correlated with aspects of well-being (such as employment, education and health) most strongly determined by external structural factors (for example, employment outcomes are shaped by labour market conditions including discrimination; educational attainment reflects in large part the quality, accessibility and cultural competency of the education system; and health outcomes are highly dependent on the operation of the healthcare system).
- indigenous language users are more likely than English-only speakers to earn income from arts and cultural activities. The association is stronger for people who live in areas where Indigenous languages are frequently spoken as a first language.
- In areas where Indigenous languages are frequently spoken as a first language, Indigenous language use is significantly associated with difficulty in accessing a range of services, including but not limited to health services
The Office for the Arts will provide an overview of the Commonwealth Government’s ongoing commitment to maintain, revive and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The Office for the Arts will talk to the current policy context for Commonwealth government support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and culture, including: the National Indigenous Languages Report, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and other work across the Commonwealth Government to embed consideration of languages and culture in the establishment and practice of policies, programs, and services. The Office for the Arts will reflect on the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages in Australia, and describe how the increase in work taking place at both an international and domestic level to celebrate and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages provides an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate best practice engagement and to build the right foundation for future work on Indigenous languages.
First Languages Australia welcomes the commitment by the Commonwealth Government to see an increase in the strength of and support for first languages through the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. The network of language communities has provided clear direction on the best ways for the Government to achieve these goals. Many decades of tireless work by our Elders has seen the establishment of language centres and community programs that produce incredible outcomes while struggling in the face of financial and social pressures. The passion and commitment of our Elders must now be supported by strong national policy as the future of first languages passes to the hands of our young language champions.
The Aboriginal Interpreter Service is the only government provider of Aboriginal interpreting services (AIS) in Australia. The AIS provides face-to-face interpreting, phone interpreting, recorded messages in NT Aboriginal languages and radio news broadcasts in Aboriginal languages. The AIS also deliver working with interpreter training to service providers.
The AIS have approximately 60 fulltime staff and approximately 190 casual interpreters. The AIS has offices located in Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Wadeye, Nhulunbuy, Gove and the Tiwi Islands. Aboriginal people comprise approximately 30% of the NT Aboriginal population. Because of this the AIS plays an important role in the delivery of important services to Aboriginal people, including in areas such as health and justice.
This presentation will discuss the work that the AIS does and the challenges that it has in ensuring there is an understanding of the difference between trained interpreters and language speakers and the challenges that it has with managing a remote, casual workforce and a workforce with strong cultural obligations.