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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8716

Dr STONE (Murray) (10:47): As Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, I am very pleased to make some comments about this inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. Language is an essential component of cultural connection, intergenerational communication and cultural transmission. That is irrefutable—it is the same the world over. However, in Australia the some 250 languages that were spoken prior to colonisation are now down to about 20 and a number of those are also in danger of disappearing. They are no longer being actively and comprehensively spoken.

Language is particularly important in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures where the history is orally transmitted and there is no written culture. Unless you have Indigenous speakers from your culture who are competent in relaying the history and the language of their kinship and religion and can effectively communicate these to the next generation in that language the culture itself is under threat. It is very important that we in Australia do all we can to support the communities who still speak Indigenous languages. Some 33 per cent of Indigenous children in remote areas of Australia speak language at home. This is commendable. The problem is for a number of those children when they go to school—unfortunately, mostly intermittently—they are not being taught in a way that also makes them competent in English, the mainstream language that is needed in Australia to be able to get a job, to obtain various licences and to be independent in every sense and not exploited by others because they cannot read, write or speak English effectively. Our challenge is how to help our Indigenous speakers of language retain that language for generations to come while being taught very effectively, in English-as-a-second-language programs probably, to also be competent English language speakers and therefore have less disadvantage in the rest of their lives.

We have another group of Indigenous Australians, mostly from South East Australia, who tragically lost their language during colonisation. They wish to have the vestiges of their languages—perhaps only a number of words—preserved, researched and documented for their wellbeing and cultural understandings. They want those vestiges of language passed on to future generations. That is a very understandable and commendable objective of these Indigenous communities. This government is doing its best to reclaim parts of language that are in danger of being lost or are now confined to only a few very elderly speakers. This is the other important part of our inquiry, how to retain languages which are in danger of being lost to future generations for all time.

We have already taken evidence about the development of a Creole, a hybrid Indigenous English language which is not a disadvantaged language or a language that should be denigrated in any way. It is a language that has evolved through the colonisation of Australia and is widely spoken in northern parts. That language also needs to be understood and have its proper place in communication. It should be learned by those who offer Indigenous services or perhaps work in courts or other sectors that require close interaction with Indigenous communities.

This is a very important inquiry, I believe. It is about maintaining the rich cultural heritage of all Australians, in particular the First Australians, the original owners of the country. It shows an understanding and acknowledgement that language is a critical and essential component of your cultural connection: knowing who you are.

Given that a lot of our Indigenous Australians were separated by the stolen children policies over a number of generations, their language, in particular, becomes especially important to them. Often in the early schools in the colonial days, speaking Indigenous language was forbidden; children were punished and their parents were punished if they interacted in their home language. This is to be regretted, so it is time now to try to make sure Indigenous languages are kept and prosper in cultural connection, and also that these same speakers can speak English so they can fully and comprehensively participate in our communities.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Sidebottom ): Order! The time for this debate has expired.