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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8714

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (10:42): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, I wish to make a statement concerning the committee's inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. I am pleased to take this opportunity to update the House on the work of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which is inquiring into language learning in Indigenous communities. During the committee's previous inquiry into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system, the report of which was called Doing time—time for doing, language was identified as an important component of cultural connection and community building. Many people referred to language as playing a significant role in the wellbeing of Indigenous people. Aboriginal elders reiterated time and time again that their Indigenous languages keep culture alive.

The main aspects of the current inquiry will investigate the links between Indigenous languages and improved educational and community wellbeing; interpreting and translating services; and strategies to close the gap in Indigenous communities and end disadvantage. The committee will look into how the use of Indigenous languages, particularly in early education, can assist in improving educational and vocational outcomes where English is a second language. The Indigenous languages policies of Australian governments and the effectiveness of Indigenous language maintenance and revival will be investigated.

As part of the inquiry the committee invites submissions from interested organisations and individuals relating to the terms of reference. The committee has noted the positive response that this inquiry has generated, receiving many inquiries and submissions from all around Australia about the importance of this inquiry into language learning. In the early stages of this inquiry we were experiencing a groundswell of interest by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in protecting, maintaining and revitalising their diverse languages. In addition to submissions, the committee has developed a questionnaire that aims to find out about specific language projects in communities across Australia. It is hoped that smaller grassroots organisations will fill in the questionnaire in order to provide information to the committee. Of the 259 Indigenous languages in Australia, only 20 are now considered strong and even some of those are at risk of being lost. We have a poor track record in this country of recording, conserving and maintaining languages as part of the living heritage of Australia. Let me emphasise once again that languages contribute to culturally strong, efficient and resilient Indigenous communities. We must strive to improve the conservation and resilience of Indigenous languages.

The Commonwealth government is maintaining support for Indigenous languages through the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program, which is administered through the Office for the Arts within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The government has committed over $9 million to the program over the next year with the aim of protecting Indigenous languages. The MILR program is providing financial assistance to 67 projects in 2010-11 for the maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages. The MILR program provides support for a range of projects, including documentation and recording of Indigenous languages and the development of language resources and language databases to assist with the development and delivery of programs through language centres. It also supports greater coordination between language organisation activities that promote Indigenous languages in wider communities and innovative projects, including multimedia and new technologies.

As part of this inquiry, we will investigate the effectiveness of the Commonwealth government's Indigenous languages policy in developing and delivering its objectives, at the same time looking at the relevant policies of other state and territory governments. There seems to be a belief in Australia that we are a monolingual nation and only standard Australian English can benefit a person both educationally and vocationally. That is not correct. The evidence is overwhelming to the contrary. There is evidence that highlights many benefits for people being able to speak multiple languages. This is something that Australia really needs to open itself up to in the 21st century.

As part of the inquiry, the committee aims to look at what is working in Indigenous language learning as well as innovative measures to improve English competency in communities where English is a second language. We know that English is extremely important for educational outcomes and vocational attainment, as well as financial security across the country. This is an important second aspect of the inquiry. It is significant that for many Indigenous people in remote areas English is not their first language. Recently, we had the pleasure of meeting a group from the Utopia homelands, including Velda Morton whose children speak four languages. We need to be open to change the way we view languages. The committee expects to report to the House in the first half of 2012. We look forward to hearing responses. (Time expired)