Maintaining Indigenous languages: revering a distant past or contributing to a better future?

Dr. Bill Fogarty argues that Indigenous language maintenance and education is not about reverence for some distant past for esoteric reasons. Rather it is an important asset that can play a role both in developing a future for Indigenous communities and in benefiting the socio-economic fabric of the Australian Nation.

Teaching language place names in NSW

Crikey 'FULLY (SIC)' 01 November 2012

Unlike some of my esteemed colleagues here, I am not a linguist. Please don't hold that against me. I am an educational anthropologist or perhaps I'm an over-anthropologising educationalist. To tell you the truth I don't really know. What I do know is that I have learned over the last fifteen years so, working as both an educator and a researcher in remote Indigenous communities, that the role of Indigenous language is critical in engaging students and their families in the educational process. I have also learned that Indigenous language maintenance and education is not about revering some distant past for esoteric reasons. Rather it is an important asset that can play a role both in developing a future for Indigenous communities and in benefiting the socio-economic fabric of the Australian Nation.

In the short time I have I want to discuss two points. The first is a quick review of the research findings about Indigenous language education, and in particular bilingual education. The second is the role of Indigenous language in remote development.

Throughout most of the last century, education policy that was aimed at disenfranchising the cultural fabric of Indigenous communities dominated school language policy. Key components of cultural production such as language and cosmology were deliberately subverted through education as a vehicle for indoctrinating and assimilating students. This is best evidenced through practices of ‘training' stolen generation children in skills of domestic servitude and the common practice of banning children from speaking their own languages in school. It is important that any Indigenous language policy discussion acknowledge this fact up front.

Remembering this history, I'd like to now briefly note the broad findings from the research base in relation to bilingual education and the teaching of Indigenous languages in schools as it stands today:

  1. The international research base is clear in determining that conceptual development in children is enhanced when students are taught in their first language.
  2. The research base is clear in showing that education of Indigenous students in their first language is a critical component of students well-being , self esteem and personal development at school.
  3. Indigenous communities, parents and teachers overwhelmingly support the teaching in Indigenous schools. This is a crucial factor in the engagement of Indigenous parents and communities in education generally.
  4. There is no evidence that learning in an Indigenous first language has a negative effect on English language acquisition.
  5. There is no credible evidence that ‘English only' remote schools perform better than bilingual schools.
  6. The evidence of the benefits of Indigenous language programs for Indigenous students overwhelmingly supports their continuation and development.

Indeed, it seems surprising to me that there is still such resistance in some education policy circles to providing bilingual programs to Indigenous students.

Much of the more recent debate and discussion around the role of Indigenous languages in education has focused either on the role of education in the maintenance of Indigenous languages, or on the role of Indigenous languages in English literacy and learning. While both of these issues are critical to any policy formulation on Indigenous languages, there has been a paucity of discussion and understanding in public policy about the potential and importance of Indigenous languages in the connection between school and local development activity, particularly in remote Australia.

In Australia, there is a belated interest in the role that Indigenous Knowledge (IK), and especially, Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) can play in the in the generation of economic and social development activity in remote regions. What is often not explicitly recognised is that Indigenous languages are the repositories of IK, and as such are the bedrock upon which IK (and IEK) are built. Indigenous systems of knowledge and practice are embedded within language and institutionalised by language. What is known, how knowledge is gained, and even how knowledge is defined and expressed is to a large extent determined by language and its use in context. In other words, language is knowledge. The use of IK or IEK in development, therefore, depends upon the continued intergenerational availability of Indigenous languages to support such knowledge.

The ‘value' of IK and the Indigenous languages that underpin it, has long been recognised in the fields of agriculture and medicine, as well as in bio-prospecting and in conservation, wildlife management, tourism and art. Internationally, The World Bank, The UN and the IMF have all formally recognised the economic value of Indigenous knowledge in the alleviation of poverty, the creation of sustainable development and in the provision of localised employment pathways.

A good example of emergent development that relies on Indigenous knowledge and language is Indigenous Land and Sea Management (ILSM) in remote Australia. If you would like to read more about this, I recommend books such as People on Country.

Finally, the importance of Indigenous languages and knowledge to ILSM is just one example of the role languages can play in localised development and employment activity. Unless education in local Indigenous languages is supported, IK and IEK can be lost over a relatively short time period, as exhibited by language extinguishment in many parts of Australia. With the loss of language, pathways to potentially viable Indigenous livelihood options and related education and career opportunities for remote Indigenous youth will also be lost. This is something we should all work together to avoid in the future.

This post is a reproduction of a speech given at a public forum on Australia's Indigenous Languages at ANU, Canberra on October 30, 2012. Bill's speech draws on a research paper, Indigenous Language Education in Remote Communities, that he co-authored with Dr Inge Kral.

Dr Bill Fogarty is a Research Associate at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University. Bill has lived and worked in remote communities for over a decade and has extensive experience in research on Indigenous education, employment policy and service provision. He has worked on projects with a diverse range of organisations concerned with Indigenous Australia such as the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, the Northern Land Council and the Northern Territory Government.