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

MARMION, Dr Doug, Manager, Language Unit and Language Programs Research Fellow, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

OBATO, Dr Kazuko, Language Access Research Fellow, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Committee met at 12 .33

CHAIR ( Mr Neumann ): Thank you very much for coming. We will give you an opportunity to tell us about your observations. We will ask you some questions. It will be a pretty free-ranging discussion. We have your CV so we know who you are and what you do. We are very impressed. Off you go.

Dr Marmion : We are ready to respond to any questions you have but we have a number of things we can talk about. Firstly we can tell you about AIATSIS, just across the water there. We are in the AIATSIS language unit, of which I am the manager and Kazuko is my colleague in the unit. We are funded through the Office for the Arts , which is within PM&C. They have a program called the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program—or MILR, for a convenient abbreviation.

We have funding to carry out a number of activities across Australia over three years; there are 2½ years remaining. The first of the key activities is NILS. This is the National Indigenous Languages Survey. AIATSIS in 2004 carried out the first National Indigenous Languages Survey and, as a result of that, produced this report. That survey was carried out in a very short time. It was kind of hurried and, while it produced a substantial report with a lot of valuable recommendations, we are now revisiting that and carrying out a second national Indigenous languages survey which we have cleverly called NILS2. That is going to be quite different in style. We have more time and are able to put more thought into how to reach out more effectively to survey a greater number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia to get their views, to learn about basic figures, about the status of their languages and speaker numbers, what languages are spoken and what languages people are familiar with. We will also collect information about people’s attitudes towards their language and what they desire, what their ambitions are and what they would hope to see achieved with their languages in terms of language programs, maintenance, revival and so on.

CHAIR: Just to let you know, this is being recorded by Hansard and we have actually adopted an inquiry into language in Indigenous communities, loss of local Indigenous languages as well as competency and proficiency in English and how that impacts in educational and vocational outcomes as well.

Dr Marmion : Excellent. There are a huge number of things we can talk about. I can see you have the terms of reference. Excellent. There is a lot we can discuss and a lot we could say. Linguists are kind of notorious for speaking a lot; we will try and keep to the point. If you want us to talk about your terms of reference or address them in any way we can do that off the cuff.

I will just give you a more background on what the language unit is doing. Another major aspect of our work with the language unit, funded through MILR is access activities. Kazuko might like to talk about the activities in the unit with regard to improving access to AIATSIS’s collections.

Dr Obato : We have a huge collection of materials on Australian Indigenous languages collected over the last 50 years. Most of them are very rare materials collected by researchers who were at that time employed by AIATSIS. Our language collection is very strong. In particular, there are many hours of recordings and also manuscripts. A lot of them may actually not have been studied. At the same time, there are many Indigenous people whose languages are no longer spoken or are, as people like to say, ‘asleep’. That is a term often used; no-one likes to be told that their language is dead.

These people are of course trying to get access to these materials, but there are a lot of obstacles. For example, we only look after the materials. Access to the materials was determined by the researchers. At the time when they placed them they set the access conditions. At the same time, as we now deal with access to the materials, we are digitising them. This process, of course, takes a long time. To digitise one cuts of tape. If it is 60 minutes it takes longer than 60 minutes to digitise the cut of tape. The process is very slow for us to actually create the conditions to access the material and also to digitise the material. Something we are looking at is how we could improve these kinds of obstacles. One problem is the lack of funding. Our digitisation project is no longer funded by the federal government. The funding stopped at the end of the last financial year, which means that we cannot continue digitising materials. That also means that eventually these materials may not be in a format that can be used.

Dr Marmion : I would like to expand on that. AIATSIS has a very large, the world’s premier, collection of materials of the audio visual and textual variety of the kind in numerous formats, going back to the wax cylinders and in fact even foil cylinders, which can only be used once; that destroys them. Through all the different kinds of reel-to-reel tape, the dozens of formats and machines et cetera—I do not want to bore you with a huge list of this—there are so many materials and so many formats that AIATSIS has had for some several years; I think it is six years now. It is a major project to digitise all of these into standard formats which will ensure their long-term preservation and usefulness. The funding is, as we speak, coming to an end and the digitisation project, as a result, is having to be wound down. Only a small part has been done because, as you would appreciate, it is a very major activity. That is a point we wanted to make about the need for funding the valuable digitisation project.

CHAIR: You have made the point to us well.

Dr Obato : It will take at least another 10 years to digitise the whole collection.

Dr STONE: It will be another 10 years?

Dr Obato : Ten years, and of course we also keep receiving material in old formats and we need to digitise those materials. It is ongoing. We thought the digitisation was actually going to be a long-term project but now it is actually more of a core activity. We have to keep doing it forever until all of the material gets digitised. This makes it very difficult, of course, for Indigenous people to get material and then start their language programs. At the moment there are still elders who have knowledge, even partial, so if they have access to materials now they can refresh their memories. It is quite striking how people can start remembering just by hearing a few words, so those kinds of things are possible at this stage while elders are still living. But, if we miss this opportunity now, when they all pass away it will become much more difficult for people to revive their language because basically they have a generation gap. So it is very urgent work but we are struggling to meet the demand. While I have been here for the last four to six years there has been much more interest from Indigenous people in doing something about their languages. We have received many more requests for material from our collection but our funding has been the same. We would like to be able to respond to the Indigenous communities but in this environment it is just not possible.

Dr Marmion : That leads onto our third key activity, which is a series of workshops MILR have asked us to conduct across Australia. There will be eight or more in various parts to assist people with learning about AIATSIS and how to access the collections there and also to assist people with getting started on their own language programs. This brings us to talking about the point that across Australia, over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a building wave of interest amongst Australia’s Indigenous people in preserving, enhancing and recovering their knowledge of their own languages.

At the moment in New South Wales there is a tremendous amount of activity. It is very grassroots, with people obtaining materials relevant to their language across the state from various centres and looking at and trying to learn from them. Often they are fairly technical materials used by people such as us, linguists, so they then might employ other linguists to kind of unpack that and convert it into useful forms. If you think of technical grammar as being a kind of condensed version of a language, you can unpack it and produce materials.

This, I think, is having a profound influence on people’s sense of themselves and understanding of their own place and their own history, and is a part of the whole link-up style process, where people are discovering their families and connecting to their own past and traditions. I think it is having a very powerful effect on people’s lives. It is sweeping New South Wales and Victoria.

People are setting up language classes and doing introductory courses in language work and linguistics at places like Batchelor College. The TAFE system in Australia has courses available. They are also doing the master’s degree in Indigenous language education at the University of Sydney to train to have the skills to use linguistic materials to prepare lessons to teach it in schools. So this is very widespread and is not just being driven—

Dr Obato : Not large scale.

Dr Marmion : It is not large scale, no, and it is not being driven from the top. There have certainly been organisations such as AIATSIS and individual linguists working on these activities, but it is very much happening as a grassroots thing, where people are thriving to do it themselves. As a result, there are lots of ways in which it is manifesting, and some of these are not ongoing or are, in some ways, poorly informed, but in many ways there are terrific things happening that people are creating themselves. So I think that is something to take note of.

Ms GRIERSON: Can I ask a general question, and excuse my ignorance. The collection sounds amazing. Are there areas of richness in terms of having collected language, or is it a sort of scattergun—

Dr Marmion : There is material from all over Australia, even Tasmania, for example, but there are particular areas of strength. Those areas that have seen most research and most collecting would be in the Top End. There are a number of languages up there: the Yolngu languages and the Western Desert languages. We have a map to give you, which you have probably seen. It is the AIATSIS map of Aboriginal languages. It is an imperfect map, but no map will ever be perfect. But, yes, there are areas of strength: parts of WA, in particular; the Northern Territory; and South Australia.

In New South Wales, I guess there are Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi—the very large languages that have had lots of people and lots of speakers have seen some work. There is not a lot from Victoria. In fact, it is one of the areas of lack, but it is one of the areas where the research was done late in the sixties, and by then it was difficult to actually record a lot of language. In Queensland, I guess the most recorded material is from the various areas of the Cape. There are still language speakers across Queensland, fewer in some areas, but in many areas relatively brief linguistic surveys have been done. So we know about what languages are around, and there is some information, but it is not in depth.

Dr STONE: What about the Torres Strait?

Dr Marmion : Yes, there has been a fair bit of work in the Torres Strait on the two languages there—the eastern language, which is a Papuan language, and the western language, which is related to the Australian languages. There has been quite a bit of work done there. There is still work happening. There has been a lot of material recorded and there are some very skilled people indigenous to that area who are doing their own work on their languages. You may have heard of that.

I am not sure where we should go from here. If you have more questions—

CHAIR: Could you comment on current government policies—nationally or in the states and territories—in relation to the preservation of Indigenous language.

Dr Marmion : Sure. What we know of the current policy is that there is this thing—we have printed it out—which is Indigenous languages —a national approach . We have asked people about the status of this and whether it is a policy. So I would be very interested to have any clarification on what it is. It has some interesting points and we can certainly talk about that. I do not know whether you have copies or whether we can refer to them by number.

CHAIR: No, just keep going.

Dr Marmion : You have some notes there. We could talk about No. 3, to deal with that first. It is about working with languages to close the gap in areas where Indigenous languages are being spoken fully and passed on, making sure that the government recognises and works with these.

Ms GRIERSON: Could you comment broadly on why the work you do is important.

Dr Marmion : Good; I am glad you asked. People often do not want to. There are a number of reasons why it is important. There are different situations, as you will appreciate. There are parts of Australia where people still speak their language. Kids acquire their own Indigenous language as their first language. The fact is that, on the ground in those cases, kids come to school and start off with those languages. I think everyone acknowledges that all Indigenous people should have command of standard Australian English in order to achieve. There is no-one that disputes that, that I am aware of. There is virtually no-one that disputes that.

So how do we achieve that? In the case of communities where kids are learning their own language as their first language it is important to support that because that is the language of the kids’ early years. They come to school and they should then be educated in that language. It is well understood around the world that it is best educational practice. For a child to achieve the cognitive development that is involved in literacy and numeracy they have to acquire that in their first language. If you try to teach that in a language they do not speak, or do not speak well, you will get a flawed acquisition and you will prevent them from ever attaining much education. There will be some exceptions to that. Brilliant people occur anywhere who can educate themselves but by and large those kids will not be able to—

Mr PERRETT: Joseph C onrad.

Dr Marmion : Joseph C onrad; yes , the Pole. And there are others. There are people—

Mr PERRETT: Is that a problem, in terms of finding the teachers? I think Barry has commented on finding the teachers proficient in the local, home language.

Dr Marmion : Yes, there is a whole other set of issues. The research that has been done in other parts of the world—in India and Africa, particularly, indicates that if you have a choice between a speaker of the language who is not a teacher, and a teacher who is not a speaker of the language, the speaker of the language will get better educational results.

But ideally, of course, you train people who speak the language as teachers and you have—

Mr PERRETT: That would not be the Australian Education Union’s position—

Ms GRIERSON: And the teachers’ aides—

Mr PERRETT: Just kidding—

Dr Marmion : They want to complement each other. So you can see that in some ways I am in agreement with the AEU and in other ways I am not. I am basing my view on what I understand to be the facts as shown by research.

Dr STONE: In terms of these kids we want kids who are perfectly formed with their community languages and also absolutely at home and comfortable with the English language so they are not discriminated against for the rest of their lives.

Dr Marmion : Yes, exactly.

Dr STONE: How do we have those two things happen? How can we marry community language retention and English language learning?

CHAIR: Which is good for vocational outcomes.

Dr STONE: And gets them out of prison, gets them drivers licences and allows them to go beyond the little tiny camp outside wherever because they can function outside the camp.

Dr Marmion : That is right. It is crucial that they be able to function in wider society fully and successfully—exactly. This is achieved. Throughout the world it is pretty well understood how it is achieved.

Dr STONE: So why aren’t we achieving it in Australia?

Dr Marmion : We are an extremely monolingual nation with much mythology that comes out of that—what we call the monolingual mindset. I do not know whether there are many countries that are more monolingual than Australia. I think that does damage the wider public’s understanding of these issues. People do not know much about language. If you do not have a chance to learn something you cannot know much about it.

Children should have the first six to eight years of their education presented to them in their own language. The ideal situation in Australia, if we choose any language, would be that kids come to school speaking it, they are taught all subjects in that language for six to eight years—except one subject which is called English as a second language, which they would have from their very earliest years. So they are being taught English using ESL best practice, which does not involve reading and writing—which is not language but a way of encoding it. They develop their English speaking and understanding skills and after six to eight years they have fully acquired all the cognitive skills that support literacy and numeracy. You only learn literacy once in your life. You learn it once and then you transfer it to other languages.

In fact there are cases in India where they have different systems of numeracy in different languages. It is immensely complex. This system is successful there and it can be successful here.

Dr STONE: Isn’t that the case in Australia, as well, because in traditional community languages they do not have the same concepts of numeracy as the English-Arabic heritage?

Dr Marmion : That is right for some but not all. The Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt I think have a complete decimal system that goes up very high. And there might be other languages that do that. But by and large people had no need for named numbers beyond three. That does not mean that people cannot deal with numbers. Language does not determine the cognition in that sense so people can learn to deal with numbers quite satisfactorily, I think. I have seen that happen in remote communities in the Northern Territory. I lived and worked there for seven years as a teacher and adult educator.

In the NT we have the unfortunately named ‘bilingual education’. That is an ambiguous term. In America it means ESL; in Australia it means schools like Telopea Park school—kids learning French through immersion. I prefer to call it mother-tongue education. In Australia the system in the Northern Territory, where I was a head teacher at a school for some years—so I have some experience of it—was that kids would have the first couple of years being addressed and taught in their own language, and then they would be transitioned quite rapidly to English.

And that had results that were slightly better than not having any mother-tongue education, but only marginally better. To get the full benefit the research is showing that you need to have the first six to eight years.

Mr PERRETT: The first six to eight years of their lives?

Dr Marmion : The first six to eight years of their education.

Mr HAASE: So until the first year of high school?

Dr Marmion : Roughly.

Mr HAASE: Primary school education you would promote as being in the mother tongue.

Dr Marmion : That is right, but with good ESL teaching throughout. That could even start earlier. You could have that at kindergarten, preschool or whatever. And kids will pick up some from their very early days through TV and so on.

Mr HAASE: How many languages is there a name for in Australia?

Dr Marmion : Name calling is a problem because our language, the language we are speaking now, only has a language that derives from—well, who knows?—presumably the country it comes from.

Mr HAASE: Is it about 600?

Dr Marmion : We could say 260 distinct languages—meaning speech varieties that are not mutually intelligible. I do not want to lecture you on linguistics.

Mr HAASE: No, I have got that. Of those approximately 260 languages, how many are spoken by more than 100 people?

Dr Marmion : That would be in the twenties, I suppose.

Mr PERRETT: So most are asleep.

Dr Marmion : There are probably around 120 or so that have still have speakers. For most of those—say 90 of them—the speakers are all older people, over 60. The transmission that is happening is of individual words so even there the kids will grow up knowing some words for kin terms, bush foods and that kind of thing, and maybe some phrases. Maybe some individual kids will have hung around with a grandparent a lot and will know more.

Mr HAASE: But, taking it back to where I am going, they would not have an understanding. There are a lot of those 260 languages where there would not be sufficient understanding or vocabulary to go through the learning process for those first eight years.

Dr Marmion : That is correct.

Mr HAASE: I am going to ask you a question that is built on this. Where children would attend their first year of school with a vocabulary range such that literacy and numeracy could be taught up to the end of primary school, how many languages would that be?

Dr Obato : Let us say 30 as a rough estimate. It is hard to know.

Mr HAASE: Might we refer to those as 30 functional languages?

Dr Obato : In languages spoken by all generations, probably.

Dr Marmion : Yes.

Dr Obato : Or maybe 20.

Mr HAASE: Vibrant languages?

Dr Marmion : Vibrant’ is a good term. There are 30 vibrant languages that are being transmitted to kids and which kids have as their first language.

CHAIR: The others would be semi-dormant.

Mr HAASE: The problem for us—‘as members of the government’ I was going to say; I am always optimistic—

Mr PERRETT: Aspirational!

Mr HAASE: If we are going to have 30 language sets taught by teachers in primary schools across the nation, how are we going to get on top of the necessity to have the stock of those language speakers to do the teaching? How do we address the practical aspect of having enough teachers skilled to address the issue as you would aspire to having it addressed?

Dr Marmion : That is a problem. In the case of—

Mr HAASE: It is a big problem.

Dr Marmion : It is a big problem.

Mr HAASE: It is about that big. It is huge.

Dr Marmion : It is huge. And it is about people’s lives and futures. It would be possible to identify a handful of languages which have substantial numbers of speakers and which all the kids are learning. Those would be a useful first point to start at, to work on finding people who are keen to train as teachers. I am sure there are already people who have some teacher training. In every community of which I am aware that is of that size there are such individuals. And we could build on that. It is not a case of perfection or nothing. It is a case of doing what you can. That is my view. And it could be done with the number—

Mr HAASE: You would need to have those people qualify as teachers competent in that language.

Dr Obato : Yes.

Mr PERRETT: Or teacher aides.

Mr HAASE: Let us not water it down. Let us not lower the bar. We need to have competence.

Dr Marmion : That is right. The ideal would be to have people who are full speakers from the community who are given training to be teachers. As I said, they would probably produce better outcomes than teachers who have no knowledge of the language. I say that having been one of those teachers in a community where I knew nothing of the language and I probably produced relatively bad outcomes, I am sad to say.

Mr HAASE: That takes us to the next stage. How do we, in a practical sense, provide the material for the teaching of the teachers up to teacher-qualification level?

Dr Marmion : For the training of those teachers?

Mr HAASE: Yes.

Dr Marmion : This is a kind of boot-strapping problem. Those adults will have their command of English, which is not as a result of the best possible education, so you need to provide training. This has happened in the past, with Ba t chelor College, for example, providing remote area teacher education. There are various ways it can be done. The problem is in the mechanics of how you do it and the processes you choose. You could have teachers go and work there with people to develop them as teachers and yet they present the lessons. You can have people go from their community or Ba t chelor or somewhere to train as teachers. I cannot say what is the best approach.

Mr HAASE: One of the major problems is how you then limit that qualification to just 30 languages and what do you do about the avalanche from the remaining 230 that say, ‘But, hang on, our language is just asleep. We want you to train teachers in this language so they can come to our community and teach our two children’?

Dr Marmion : That is a different issue. That is more a political issue and I have done my masters on that.

Mr HAASE: Well, it is and politics involves political decisions.

Dr Marmion : Well, I guess in that case you say to people, ‘We’ll go and look at your community. If we see that there are kids who are speaking your language as their first language and if you have adults who also speak that as their first language we can provide teacher training.’

Teacher training would be much the same. It seems to me—and I am talking on behalf of teacher educators here—that you can provide the one set of training and people can then apply it in their language. I do not see a problem with that.

Mr PERRETT: The pedagogy.

Dr Marmion : Yes, the pedagogy is the same. Certainly materials need to be produced in each language but it is very common in schools these days that they will produce their own materials. Certainly in the Northern Territory when I was there schools would produce their own materials. There is a large body of bilingual education material sitting in schools—

Dr STONE: That is very impoverished, though, isn’t it? It is very poor quality.

Dr Marmion : In some cases—

Mr HAASE: Finally, would you like to provide this committee with a list of those 30 languages that you would see as being vibrant.

CHAIR: And others that you can see to be—I used the word ‘semi-dormant’ before.

Ms GRIERSON: I will just show you them on the map so we know where they are. If they are written on the language map, that will be handy.

Mr PERRETT: Further to that, this is happening in places now, isn’t it? The Torres Strait, I think, is one place where there is a program of teacher education, and I am sure there are Northern Territory examples now as well.

Dr Marmion : There are. There is Batchelor College, although, for example, in the Northern Territory, the bilingual education is not actually happening. There is no teaching in the language as far as I know.

Mr PERRETT: I thought James Cook University was doing something along those lines in Cairns in terms of a special program for Torres Strait islanders. I remember hearing that.

Dr Marmion : There might be. I do not know about that, sorry. But I do know that in the Northern Territory, as an example, school attendance figures are dropping and it seems to be associated with the removal of bilingual education.

Mr PERRETT: This is further to the map idea, but how many shows are there on Imperia TV of that 30 which would be a pretty good snapshot?

Dr Marmion : I have not lived up there for some years—

Mr PERRETT: It would perhaps give a bit of a guide to the audiences.

Dr Marmion : It would be interesting. I could not say that I have any idea now. It is an interesting question.

CHAIR: That is a really good question from Graham because people pick up language from what they see on TV and movies.

Dr STONE: And also their local radio. Can I ask about the hybrid language—pidgin, it is often called. Are you embracing that as a distinct Australian Indigenous language now?

Dr Marmion : Which pidgin, sorry? I am not familiar with this.

Dr STONE: In the Torres Strait there is a language that is a hybrid and it is actually called Creole—

Dr Marmion : Yes, it is called Creole. Creole is a full language that developed from pidgin. Pidgin is not a full language; it is very limited contact—

Dr STONE: It is a colonial thing, I know.

Dr Marmion : Indigenous peoples also develop them for contact between themselves. If you have occasional, say, trade contact with a group and you just need a few words to exchange some items, you have pidgin. It is not a full language. When you then—as, for example, happened at Roper River Mission in the early 20th century—take kids from a variety of language groups, put them together and their parents are not allowed in, what they have in common is the pig English pidgin that developed at that time.

Mr HAASE: Where?

Dr Marmion : At Roper River Mission in the Northern Territory.

Mr HAASE: Thank you. I just didn’t catch where you said.

Dr Marmion : It was near Roper Mission. What happened was quite well documented, because some of the kids from that time were interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s. They were brought together and they did not have a language in common because there were so many different languages. They used the English pidgin that they had heard and that they used with their teachers and developed that and created a whole new language out of it, known as Top End Kriol.

A similar thing happened in the Torres Strait, where you have Torres Strait Creole, also now known as Ailan Tok. These are full languages in every sense of the word. The kids have done this amazing thing, and I hope you appreciate how amazing it is that they have created a whole new language in a few years. It is astounding. People do this; it has been observed and documented in a number of places. They are full languages but they have a somewhat contentious status, even for the speakers, who often look down on it and consider it to be not a real language because it is not English and it is not a traditional language.

Yet we have to be practical and say that these are probably the largest Indigenous languages, certainly the Top End Kriol, which has varieties from the Kimberley across to the edge of the Gulf country. To be practical, we have to say, ‘Okay, it is a different language; it is a very big language. It should be used in schools for the teaching of the kids who have it as their first language.’ Again, the same principle applies. If there is a substantial body of children with it as their first language, to give them their first years of education in anything else is choosing consciously to harm their education and limit their educational attainments in the future.

Mr PERRETT: And those kids are learning that language?

Dr Marmion : Yes, there are many kids doing that as their first language.

Mr PERRETT: So the production line is increasing rather than going to sleep, so to speak.

Dr Marmion : Yes. The Top End Kriol from Kimberley to Katherine is pretty much one language with a number of varieties. It would be the largest Indigenous language in Australia today with the most number of speakers—I think in the order of 20,000 speakers and many, many kids across that area.

Mr PERRETT: I heard a similar thing happened in South Australia with German when the Germans came together. Was a similar thing?

Dr Marmion : Yes, there was something like that happening. I do not know if it got to the stage of being a true creole, which means that kids acquire it as their first language, but it did happen in the early days. That is one of the kinds of success stories we are going to talk about a bit later: Gaurna and the Germans in South Australia.

Mr HAASE: Can you tell us the origin of the term ‘pidgin English’?

Dr Marmion : No-one is really sure but it is thought to come from a Chinese pidgin where people talked about business. It was business language that was used for trade, so they called it a pidgin language. It is thought to be from a Chinese pidgin that it was developed.

Mr PERRETT: It is not the bird pigeon, is it; it is ‘pidgin’.

Dr Marmion : No, it is ‘pidgin’. I must mention that the Tok Pidgin is actually a creole, so these are linguistic differences.

Dr STONE: So a creole from a linguist’s perspective is a fully functional language, but it is a hybrid from a number of different sources.

Dr Marmion : That is right.

Dr STONE: And one of those sources was invariably pidgin or a pidgin from an English derivation of some sort.

Dr Marmion : That is right, yes.

Dr STONE: Are you aware of the NORFORCE—the Indigenous defence corps up in Cape York and the Pilbara—using pidgin? Do you know, or do you know, Barry? Do they use the creole?

Mr HAASE: I believe English is used.

Dr Marmion : I know that NORFORCE people have used it in the north of the Northern Territory. I have heard of that happening, but I do not know whether it was institutionalised or just an ad hoc thing where they had a substantial number of speakers. It is a certainly a good secret language a la Navaho.

CHAIR: Doug, whilst you are a linguist, and you have said that a couple of times today, you have also had a lot of practical experience as a principal and a teacher in the Northern Territory and elsewhere. Can you comment on the importance of Indigenous languages to Indigenous people in Australia and the consequences of the loss of those languages.

Dr Marmion : Certainly. Although we have a variety of situations, it is often said in the Northern Territory that there are many places where people have their language as their first language, so there are also numerous languages in the Northern Territory that have very few or even no speakers remaining. Of course, that is common across the rest of Australia, but everywhere I have been people have a strong sense of connection to their language and see it as being a part of themselves and their own personality—their culture but also their own personality and their own sense of who they are, where they are from and their connection to their land and relatives and so on.

I think it is one of those things that is hard to put figures on, but we have a project at AITSIS at the moment where we are starting to look at having researchers look at the connection between language, knowledge and a sense of wellbeing and health, as broadly construed. I do not want to prejudge what we will find in that, but my experience is that there is a very strong connection there and that, the more people feel they know about their language and therefore about their past and their own selves as human beings and their family origin, the better they feel about themselves. As I mentioned before, this is driving people to spend a lot of their own time working on their own languages.

In New South Wales and Victoria, for example, as I mentioned before, there is this kind of wave of activity that is sweeping the place. People are in some cases quite obsessed with learning as much as they can about their language, and as a result people are actually revitalising their languages. That brings us to examples such as in South Australia, where there have been some quite amazing things happen. In the 19th century a couple of German missionaries came to Australia who fortunately were quite classically trained, and they worked with speakers of Gaurna, which is the language of the Adelaide plains. They recorded quite a bit of information and created a dictionary and a technical grammar. In the late 20th century, a group of Gaurna people got together with a couple of linguists and started working on using those materials to recover their language. They had not had any speakers since, I think, around 1917, but they have worked very hard at this and they been able to bring the language back to life. There is a small group of people who can actually speak it quite well.

Mr PERRETT: Is this the hybrid German?

Dr Marmion : No, at the time there was a hybrid German developed, but this is actually the traditional language of the Gaurna. Where they have had gaps they have looked at neighbouring languages to fill them, but essentially they have been able to bring that language back to life through having the use of these good-quality materials. As I said, there is a group of people there now who do speak it quite well and can carry out long conversations in it, and that is slowly spreading. This takes a tremendous amount of effort, yet this people have done this.

Another example is Narungga, which is another language from South Australia—from across the bay on one of the peninsulas there.

Dr STONE: Is that Ngarrindjeri?

Dr Marmion : No, west. Narungga is from the west on the York Peninsula.

Dr STONE: The Ngarrindjeri had a mission in a similar situation.

Dr Marmion : That is right. They have carried out work as well, but this is interesting because they have recently produced this book which documents how they have, starting with much poorer materials than the Gaurna had, worked very hard to maximise that language and to use it as much as they can to produce lessons and to start learning it. So, I guess my point is that people are quite driven to do this. They feel a terrible lack in their lives without knowing this kind of thing and they are working hard to recover it. It does seem to play a big role in their lives and in their sense of who they are.

Dr STONE: But those people are functioning in English and are not therefore being disadvantaged. In fact, they are being enhanced by learning those languages.

Dr Marmion : That is right.

Dr STONE: So part of our other concern in this inquiry is how we can have those dual outcomes—people retaining their community languages but also, at the same time, having sufficient ESL or whatever teaching, so that they are not disadvantaged forever and have all sorts of health and incarceration outcomes and so on because they cannot function in modern Australian society.

Dr Marmion : Yes, I could say a couple of things on that. Firstly, I would compare it to being an orphan. People I have met who are orphans are typically obsessed—‘obsessed’ probably sounds pathological; they are strongly driven—to find out who their family is and where they are from.

Dr STONE: Or adopted children.

Dr Marmion : Sorry, adopted children that I have known have been strongly driven to find out where they are from. I compare this to that. Not knowing this sort of thing does have an impact on people. While it may be seen as an extra thing—if I go and learn Finnish I have no connection to it so it would be an extra thing—in this case it is people’s personal backgrounds: perhaps their parents’ or grandparents’ language. Without that they feel a terrible lack.

But on the other hand, you are right, these people speak English. But there is a kind of subtle issue here that is difficult to deal with. That is the issue of Aboriginal English. There are many different Englishes around the world. When I watch Th e Bill —I don’t watch it any more—I used to sometimes have trouble understanding some of the characters from Scotland if they spoke Scots, which is actually quite different to standard Australian English, that is for sure. In the same way, there are a number of Aboriginal Englishes across Australia. Kids come to school with those and I think here is an issue where teachers need to have a broader cultural competence to understand that kids are bringing a different variety of English.

That does not mean they would change their teaching very much but they would recognise that and work with the kids to understand that there are a variety of Englishes. They have got one and they really need to acquire an adequate command of standard Australian English. Whatever we say and however understanding we are there will be people in situations where not having that command of English puts you in a bad light. So they need to have the best command of that that they can obtain. So in this case it is a matter of teachers being aware of the starting point and the targets and some of the process, rather than having mother-tongue education.

Dr STONE: I will be self-indulgent for a second and tell you a true story. In my part of the world in northern Victoria, one of my Koori friends trained as a teacher. She spoke the Aboriginal English. She lasted about six months in the classroom because of the complaints of fellow teachers and parents about her Aboriginal English. She left the teaching profession never to return. That is a very sad story.

Dr Marmion : That is sad. I have seen that happen in other areas too. In WA—in Geraldton, in fact—I was involved with an Aboriginal person who was training as a teacher. She was told that she had speech defects and was sent to see a speech pathologist, who threw up her hands and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong; she speaks perfectly good Aboriginal English.’ You are right.

At the same time, if people can develop a command of ‘standard Australian English’ as we call it in linguistics—SAE, for short—then they can do their teacher training and use that. If they can be bidialectal that is nice but for me the major thing is that everyone should be aware of this so that there is a certain starting point for the kids, a certain target, and teachers have practice that facilitates the kids understanding and moving on to acquiring that command.

It is very sad when that happens. It must be very disheartening for the person involved.

CHAIR: We have question time soon, where not always the best Queen’s English is spoken. We will have to finish up soon but if you would like to come back at some stage or provide us with a written submission that would be extremely helpful. I do not know about the others but I found this was fascinating.

Mr HAASE: Personally, I think he should come back after we have learnt a bit.

Dr STONE: Yes, that would be good. We could ask you questions then. And, Dr Marmion, you might like to advise us of the best places in Australia to go—or the best institutions or agencies to talk to—so that we can make the best of the time that we have in finding out—

Dr Marmion : We can certainly advise on that if your secretariat wants it. We can think about that and provide some suggestions.

CHAIR: Are there any final comments that you would like to make?

Dr Marmion : I would just like to say that this issue is sweeping the world. Indigenous people and academics are getting together to produce books on how to go about revitalising languages. That is a book from America and here is a recent one from Australia, which points to the interest in this. I can provide details to your secretariat if you like so that they can have copies. You will not want to read—

Ms GRIERSON: And the secretariat can probably get our library to have a few copies available.

Dr Marmion : It is something that people across Australia are being driven to do and are very keen on. Sadly, my experience anecdotally is that often people do not realise the value of their heritage until the last person who knows it dies. And then they say, ‘Actually, we wanted to keep that.’ That seems to be a human thing but, as I said, people are working hard and putting in much of their own effort, time and money to learn about their own languages and to recover them, to reduce the sense of loss that they have. And on the other side, as I said, the whole mother-tongue language issue—

Dr STONE: They are two parallel issues, aren’t they?

Dr Marmion : They are. And there is still a lot of loss happening because there are these many situations where there are just a few older speakers. Maybe younger people in every case know something, but never the full amount. So there is ongoing loss and it is a difficult situation. It is not quite up to the situation of supporting transmission to kids. But linguists are working on whatever can be done to document it.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. It has been not just interesting but fascinating. Thank you for taking the time. I think we all would have studied linguistics at university if we had the opportunity and if you were our lecturer—that’s for sure. Thank you very much for coming.

This will be published in Hansard , and please contact the secretariat if there are any alterations you wish to make to some of those words.

Dr Marmion : Certainly.

Committee adjourned at 13:19