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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Language learning in Indigenous communities

INJIE, Ms Lorraine, Vice-Chairperson, Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome, Lorraine. Thank you for making yourself available. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Injie : Yes, thank you. The Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre is located in Port Hedland, Western Australia. On behalf of the board, I have been asked to talk to the committee today.

CHAIR: Are you happy for us to proceed with questions?

Ms Injie : Yes.

CHAIR: I understand there are a number of languages in the Pilbara area—about 31.

Ms Injie : Yes. Prior to non-Indigenous occupation in the Pilbara there were 31 traditional languages spoken throughout the region.

CHAIR: Can you give us a run-down on the state and extent of language speaking and understanding in each of those languages or in the majority of those languages?

Ms Injie : The number of languages spoken today varies within the region. At least seven Aboriginal languages are totally extinct. Another 10 of those languages are fairly close to extinction, with fewer than 300 people speaking them. The other languages have a fairly reasonable number of people speaking them. At least 3 to 5 of those languages have speaker populations which vary from maybe 500 speakers or more.

CHAIR: You mentioned about 300 people concerning 10 languages. Is that 300 people who speak cumulatively the 10 languages or individually so that it might be 3,000 speakers? What do you mean?

Ms Injie : For each of those 10 languages there are probably less than 50 individual speakers of a language.

CHAIR: I understand. So across 10 languages about 300 speakers entirely.

Ms Injie : That is a really rough estimate. I think it would be higher than that. With the seven to 10 languages that I first spoke about, and I said that they were fairly well into the advanced stages of facing extinction, the 10 that I was talking about are still living languages. They have people that speak those languages.

CHAIR: Can you tell us about how you allocate your resources? Do you allocate them to the ones that are sustainable and viable, or do you allocate them to the ones that are dormant and need to be resuscitated, or do you allocate to give priority to the ones that are struggling?

Ms Injie : We actually work from an inventory of the languages that we have developed. Depending on the amount of work and the number of speakers of a particular language group we then look at them on a scale of how severely threatened with extinction these languages are. Because all of them are, the focus then becomes on some of the languages that have not had any or much work done on the languages, but with the balance of trying to increase the number of people that are speaking the languages that have not had work done on them.

CHAIR: We have had people give evidence about the fact that they have given priority to those languages where there are, say, for example, some Indigenous elders who might be capable of speaking those languages. Is that an important consideration as far as you are concerned?

Ms Injie : Very much so. A lot of our projects have involved and continue to involve the last remaining speakers of a language. It is really difficult because everything is such a priority, and it has been for the last 20 years. But we are trying to look at new and innovative ways of doing the work that we do in terms of recording and increasing the access of the materials that we have recorded to the remaining speakers of the language.

Dr STONE: In your evidence that was submitted you say that some local languages are taught in some of your schools and others run no Indigenous language programs. I am just wondering what is the difference. Is it a principal of a school who decides, 'Yes, those languages can run'? Is it the access to the elders who have those languages? What is the difference? Why do some schools teach the Indigenous languages and some not?

Ms Injie : I would have to say that the defining factor in the recent years that I have worked on Aboriginal languages has been the commitment by the principals to Aboriginal languages. In situations where there has been quite a commitment by the principal, language being taught in the school has remained fairly steady over a number of years. Where there has been a change of principal and where the focus has shifted—maybe to Indonesian or Japanese language—the Aboriginal languages have been stopped.

Dr STONE: So what you are saying is that it is the luck of the draw, in a sense, which personnel end up in which school. Can I ask you then: given the difference between those schools which have some Indigenous language programs and those which have none, can you see a difference in the retention rates of Indigenous children in those schools? Can you see a difference in their achievements academically or in parent engagement in the school? Can you notice a difference, even if it is just your observations, between schools that run Indigenous language programs and those that do not?

Ms Injie : Yes. I have been personally involved in the language programs in the Port Hedland area over the last 20 years. Where children have been involved in the language program in the school, there has been a growth of retention, I think, in Indigenous kids staying at school longer. Recently I have worked with the curriculum council to have the Aboriginal language programs accredited at a higher level, at the years 11 and 12 level.

Dr STONE: To take it as a formal year 12 subject?

Ms Injie : Yes.

Dr STONE: We heard a little about that this morning. Does your Aboriginal language centre support the teaching of Kriol or supporting children who speak Kriol with the use of the language of their early learning?

Ms Injie : There is no Kriol in the Pilbara. Where Kriol is spoken it is spoken by a very small population of Kimberley people who have migrated into the Pilbara. It is not such a dominant language as it is in the Kimberley and in the Northern Territory.

Ms GRIERSON: You say you have documented languages where the elders have since passed away and no speakers are left. Has that been central to your activities? And have you developed any resources for spreading or reclaiming original languages?

Ms Injie : Yes. We have identified many of the last remaining speakers of a language over the last few years and have recorded as much of the language as we have been able to. Where they have agreed to the publication of their materials we have gone ahead and published dictionaries of the language. In recent years the dictionaries have become available electronically.

Ms GRIERSON: That is good.

Ms Injie : It has allowed for an increase in the number of linguists who have been able to share the workload.

Ms GRIERSON: And you have also produced books, storybooks and things like that?

Ms Injie : Yes, we have completed a dictionary for almost every language that was spoken in the Pilbara.

Ms GRIERSON: That is quite an achievement. Well done. We have talked to lots of people based here in Broome. Is there common dialogue between you all about Indigenous languages? Is there a big network or are you working separately?

Ms Injie : There is a fairly extensive network of people working on different projects and different languages across the region. Quite often we share resources and anything that we might be able to identify that can be shared between the groups.

Ms GRIERSON: So you all know each other and each other's work, do you?

Ms Injie : Yes.

CHAIR: Lorraine, thank you very much for taking the time to make yourself available this afternoon. A copy of your evidence will be available on the internet. Please make any changes you wish to that.

Ms Injie : Thank you very much.

Resolved (on motion by Dr Stone )

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 15:55