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

EIRA, Dr Christina, Community Linguist, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages

PATON, Mr Paul, Executive Officer, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. I am Sharman Stone, the Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I have two colleagues with me. Unfortunately our chair, Shayne Neumann, has had to go into the chamber to give a speech. He hopes to be back. I am the federal member for Murray, in Victoria.

Mr HAASE: I am Barry Haase, the federal member for Durack, a Liberal member. Durack is 63 per cent of Western Australia, the northern portion. It is about a quarter of the Australian landmass.

Mr HUSIC: I am Ed Husic, the federal MP for Chifley, in Western Sydney. The electorate I represent is home to 6,000 people who are Aboriginal, from Darug land.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you wish to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions?

Mr Paton : Sure. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages is an Aboriginal organisation which was established in 1994 to address the issue of language loss in Victoria. As an organisation, we support communities across the state in the revival of our languages and provide resources towards doing so. That also includes training for communities and for community language workers, representation for communities to local and state governments and the provision of resources through a centralised library and database of Aboriginal languages of Victoria. Over that time we have seen a very large increase in the interest from communities, the desire to revive their languages and reconnect with their languages. This demand has increased to a point where the organisation is becoming rather stretched in being able to meet that demand from communities. I think that stems back to an increase in Aboriginal people in Victoria, but also more broadly, wanting to reconnect with their language and their culture and really strengthen their own identity and their connection to their country.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks for that, Paul. Christina, do you want to make some opening remarks?

Dr Eira : First, I support everything Paul has been saying there. To add to that, we also see an increased demand or interest coming from the broader community, from major governmental departments such as the department of education and the register of geographic place names—departments like that—and also private individuals, church organisations and so on. I see that interest also as really important for the recognition of Aboriginal peoples, languages and cultures and the recovery from colonisation—those issues. By 'recovery from colonisation' I do mean for all people—not just Aboriginal people but the entire country is going to have to recover from colonisation, and that is a really important shift that is happening.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks for that, Christina. Obviously Victoria, a little like Tasmania, was colonised very early and there was a lot of destruction of Indigenous language very early. Can you tell us: what are your main achievements, do you think, in terms of promotion and revival? Where are you functioning? What could you call your most significant achievements, perhaps, since 1994?

Mr Paton : Most significant achievements?

ACTING CHAIR: Have you been able to produce some significant numbers of young people now who have had part of their language or all of their language revived, or have you produced particular materials? Is it about a sense of wellbeing of individuals or families who are now engaged with revival programs? What exactly would you be able to put up on your slate as a major outcome for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages?

Mr Paton : It is so many things. I guess it is just the status and the attention to languages that is being given by not just the Aboriginal community but the broader community. There are so many things that underpin that—the development of curriculum, the centralisation of resources, the training—that it is hard to pick one. The interest in communities and individuals wanting to reconnect with their languages is something that is such an outcome from all those things. People are interested and enthusiastic about learning Aboriginal languages. The promotion and status of Aboriginal languages has increased over that time, which is an outcome of all the activities that we do.

ACTING CHAIR: Christina, are you, for example, focusing on languages for the Gippsland area, for the Goulburn Valley or for down Warrnambool way? Is that how you function? Do you have different languages being revived in different parts of the state? Or are you like Tasmania, where they have chosen a mixed language, in a sense, for the whole of the state?

Dr Eira : No, certainly not one language for the whole state. There are two levels at which you can look at it. We recognise 38 language communities in Victoria. That number, 38, reflects sociopolitical groupings of people, and their languages are related in a way that forms around 11 large language—linguistic—areas. So you look at 38 or you look at 11, depending on which level you are talking. In our main work, we sort of have concentric circles. Our primary attention goes to ongoing language programs, which, because some of them are working in coalition, cover around a third of those 38 groups. But then we also support others who are engaged with their languages, on a more intermittent basis. We might run workshops in a particular area or we might invite people to an intensive for a week, so we get a lot of interest across the state from those sorts of ventures.

I was going to add to what Paul was saying about achievements that it is an achievement that you can see that sustained engagement now of communities with their languages. I would not like to say what percentage but a high percentage of those 38 groups are engaged with their language now in an ongoing way. That is pretty major by itself, I think.

Mr HUSIC: I want to ask two unrelated questions. The first is to do with the fact that, on your website, you have got recognition by the ATO as a deductable gift recipient, through being characterised as a public benevolent institution. We have had evidence to the inquiry earlier that there are a number of language centres that have not been able to achieve what you have been able to because they did not necessarily meet the conditions under the Register of Cultural Organisations. What lessons do you reckon could be learnt by those centres from your experience in being able to get recognised for DGR?

The second question is more obtuse, if I can put it like that, and it is something that sometimes organisations are not necessarily ready to admit, but it is really useful in being able to get better outcomes, and that is: what would you say were your best mistakes insofar as the way that you have operated? You may have gone, 'Okay, we've tried something; this hasn't worked and it's probably best not to do this again in the future,' or there may be some methods or processes that you reckon others should embrace, based on your experiences. Those are the two things I want to ask.

Mr Paton : On the first question, on the DGR, I was involved in that. I was the individual who put the submission into the tax office, and we were successful in gaining that. I did actually share some of my submission with another organisation you would know of, in Newcastle, the Miromaa language centre. But they were unsuccessful. Our success is based on public benevolence and instilling a sense of pride in individuals and communities. I shared all that information. We could only put that unsuccessful application down to perhaps the individual who was assessing it, because mine was assessed in Melbourne, and Newcastle's was assessed in Perth. It may be an individual interpretation of the act as to whether languages are a contributor towards self-esteem and individual pride. I guess it is a difficult one. We decided not to go through the Register of Cultural Organisations, because it is explicit in the definition there that language centres are not eligible to apply, which to us, as we discuss it between ourselves as language centres, does not make sense to us—that we would not be eligible as cultural organisations. That was put out as not an option, and that is why we went the public benevolent route instead.

The second question, about our greatest mistakes, is an unusual question. The organisation is going through a bit of a rethink, I guess, in how we deliver our services more broadly to the entire state as a state based organisation and one of the only state based Aboriginal language organisations in the country. Our partnerships with communities have been quite focused and ongoing over many years and have restricted our capacity to broaden those partnerships going—

ACTING CHAIR: You probably cannot hear the bells that are ringing. We have just had the bells start for the House of Representatives and we have to go down there for a division. Mr Haase, do you want to ask questions?

Mr HAASE: No. I was going to ask a hypothetical about which language we adopt as a national one for Indigenous people.

ACTING CHAIR: Perhaps you can supply that as a question on notice. Christina and Paul, thank you very much. The hearing is open to the public. A record of what you have said will be in the transcript on the committee's website. You can correct information in the transcript if necessary and give us more information if you need to. I declare the meeting closed.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Haase):

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 13 : 21