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

CURNOW, Ms Venessa, Director, National Congress of Australia's First People

Committee met at 12:31

CHAIR ( Mr Neumann ): I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. We start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and by paying our respects to the elders past, present and future. The committee also acknowledges the Aboriginal people who reside now this area.

Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest. It can be considered a serious matter to attempt mislead the committee. This hearing is open to the public and the transcript will be placed on the committee's website.

Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Curnow : I would like to acknowledge country as well.

The witness then spoke in language.

I will now translate that passage from Kale Lagaw Ya language from the top western islands of Torres Strait islands into English. Good afternoon, committee members. Firstly I would like to acknowledge traditional owners and custodians of where we are meeting today, Ngunnawal, especially their past, present and future leaders and elders. My heritage is Ait Kodal and Sumu with ancestry from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. At this time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are functioning within developing economies. A key challenge is making decisions about where to invest and allocate resources and funds for development, especially when there are large amounts of poor outcomes and disadvantage.

Development is about valuing local knowledge, diversity of experience and prioritising basic human needs of individuals. Congress recommends substantial systemic consistent investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and for the Australian government to make Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages a national priority for resource allocation, effective coordination and planning across jurisdictions as an overarching element across the Closing the Gap pillars. Language and communication are a foundation for improving life expectancy and improving other outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Language is a strong protective factor for self-development. Language and communication are part of proper brain development. As your brain grows, it develops and uses neural pathways. Over time, the more that pathways are used, the more organised and faster they become. They are formed from what we experience. Our experiences are from our sensory input, which is converted into the neural pathways. Language and communication are part of our sensory input. We hear words and we interpret their meanings, and we see body language or hear tone to give further emphasis to meaning within our communication with each other.

Even more importantly, during the early development years, attachment and bonding with those closest to us lays the foundation for relationships with others when we are older. Relationships are how we engage with others, not watching void of connection and emotion, which is the absolute opposite of good brain development—sociopathy. We form bonds of attachment and emotion. We feel for each other empathy, respect, love, grieving and loss. We are connected. We understand we need each other.

Language also helps us to interpret and understand our environment. This develops other neural pathways, logic, thinking, perception and creativity. At the same time, we develop our sense of self, our self-expression, conveying our feelings and thoughts, our interpretations. When we engage in meaningful ways with each other, or have a sense of achievement, this contributes to improving our self-esteem and our resilience. We take for granted these highly developed neural pathways and how the brain works because it happens automatically and is built and strengthened as we grow.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages have evolved over time—we have already made substantial investments in language for over 40,000 years—to strengthen our sense of self and identity, which in turn strengthens our relationships. We have ways of talking with each other—protocols for who we to talk to and when we talk to them, and certain tones, certain body language and differing meanings for words in different contexts. We would not have survived without this—we would not have got food if we had not worked together—and we appreciate this.

The language and relationships through connection and communication organise our sophisticated, functional interdependence—in other words, our culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is built upon oral transmission and language—relationships, stories, systems and knowledge transferred through generations. Culture is how we establish values and learnt behaviours. As an Aboriginal women, Patsy Bedford from Halls Creek describes Aboriginal language this way: 'Language is the core of land and culture; the land holds the language and law.'

I gave this brief explanation of self-development, brain development and establishing relationships with each other and our environment as a rationale for why language is clearly articulated within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and is defined as a human right. To have optimal functioning as human beings, and in our case Indigenous human beings, our rights have been clearly written to help our relationship with the state.

There are protections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to grow and develop as humans in the context of our systems and knowledge transfer that have been developed and trialled over a long period of time, through learnt experience, and our survival shows this.

I needed to preference the specific declaration articles which relate to language to give a more profound understanding and to inspire your appreciation for the value that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples place upon Australia's signing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how implementation of the declaration could drastically improve our living standards within the state.

I also hope that you appreciate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have similar experiences to Indigenous peoples all around the world and that these articles have been well researched as a standard of practice for relations between different cultures so Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not break their continuum of knowledge transfer.

The potential of benefits for wider Australia is yet to be truly realised, until we have genuine shared understanding between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the state. Proper investment in languages and knowledge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is crucial and part of Australia's national development in light of the challenge of balancing a sustainable future. We have unique knowledge of the biodiversity of Australia, and it would be like starting again to do scientific research without incorporating some of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge that has been established over 40,000 years.

I hope that wider Australia, and you as our elected representatives and leaders, understand and, more importantly, value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and at least see the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective of language investment, which is an investment in our knowledge systems. Investment in languages will lead to real job creation because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are better engaged, communicating with and have improved relationships with institutions. Better engagement leads to more job participation across many areas such as, within education, development of text books in language concepts with literacy and numeracy; paid positions within schools, such as teachers and teachers aides; and greater workforce participation across other sectors as well, such as health and social enterprise. Flexible learning tools and more motivation for workforce participation are part of language development. This applies not only to schooling but also to vocational training and tertiary level qualifications.

With more numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working comes greater confidence within industry and more workers within management and research, as well as providing local role modelling. This is why relationships with institutions is a key indicator for community development. Throughout the hearing, you have read the submissions and heard the statements about shining examples of successful projects. In education, the significance of language to improving educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students has been recognised in numerous recent initiatives, all of which have been combined under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010, but we need to invest today for the future. Fund language on a more substantial, long-term scale and more benefits will come. This investment or reinvestment of funds will reduce future costs by improving outcomes across most, if not all, areas such as health, education, employment and functional interdependence.

Given the uniqueness of developing oral and symbolic traditions while evolving with contemporary influences, a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander institute is necessary to build capacity, strengthen evidence, support better practice, drive aspirations and help effectively target resources. You have the opportunity now to give this a real fighting chance so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schooling or, should I say, enabling children may look different in the future. I hope that it does, because we are in real trouble if it does not.

You know yourselves school is different today to what it was when you went to school, with the changes in technology and teaching styles. Summit 2020, which brought together some of the brightest minds in teaching, recommended Idea 8.61, under the theme 'Education and the national curriculum':

Pre- and in-service teachers need access to quality creative learning strategies as teaching tools across the curriculum.

It also said the development of critical and creative thinking encouraged children's natural curiosity and imagination. Look at where some of the remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children live—in some of the most biodiverse places in the world. Why wouldn't they learn through visuo-spatial sensory emersion yet still write words on a piece of paper. They will have an appreciation for lifelong learning through bilingual education combining Western and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges.

Congress also recommends a commitment from government to implement the expert panel's recommendation for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages to be included within the Australian Constitution. To restate the recommendation I mentioned before, after giving the rationale, Congress recommends that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are made a national priority, are recognised as a fundamental protective factor to improving outcomes across all areas and are given priority resourcing and consideration by COAG for adequate coordination of resources across jurisdictions and portfolios such as education, health and justice, by implementing the National Indigenous Languages Policy 2009. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Venessa. We met Patsy in the Kimberley language learning centre recently. One of the things that struck me in your submission was where, on page 3, you talk about the benefits to the wider Australian community. When we were in Adelaide, where the local language has virtually died out, we saw that they have made real steps to revitalise the language through the naming of parks, pathways, suburbs and streets and have including that in schools as part of the everyday language of kids who learn in Adelaide and surrounding areas. I wonder if you can comment on the benefit for the greater, wider Australian community of maintaining or revitalising Indigenous languages.

Ms Curnow : I will just tell a story about one young guy—he was not old, he was in his 40s. He held knowledge of medicines and how to prepare them. Some plants look very similar and you need to know the differences between plants and the different ways of preparing them to get different pharmaceutical benefits from them. He had this knowledge and he was crying because he was dying and did not get an opportunity to pass that knowledge on to his son. He was not crying for himself because he was dying. He was crying because that knowledge is so important and had been built up over 40,000. It is like how we have the poisons regulations. We have legal regulations within the Australian government to regulate how you make medication, who you give it to, when you give it. We had systems like that—knowledge systems and ways of talking to each other. It was kept within a family, so there is accuracy within the knowledge. That is why we need to invest, because that could have potential benefits for wider Australia, those pharmaceutical benefits.

CHAIR: Yes. That is a good example.

Dr STONE: You talk about the national Indigenous languages centre. What would your view be on its function? What would its day-to-day work be? What would its clear objectives be?

Ms Curnow : I think we did outline some of that in our submission. You would help to target resources and build capacity—

Dr STONE: But other than fundraising, which in itself is a full-time occupation—I do agree.

Ms Curnow : It is. And even the allocation of those resources as well. The feedback that we have got from different people working with interpreter services and other language programs is that, when there is a competitive tender program, they are fighting against each other for a really small pool of funds. They could actually do some proper planning around demographics and targeting and prioritising revitalisation versus day-to-day use and across different program areas. It is that real coordination and planning, which takes a lot of effort.

Dr STONE: So you do not envisage it as an actual repository of languages or a place where you would develop linguistically ways to teach children in schools who only had a little bit of their traditional language?

Ms Curnow : Definitely there will be scope for it to work across and collaborate with research in universities as well to develop resources and things like that. But I think AIATSIS's role is more for archiving and—

CHAIR: This has been a controversial issue in our inquiry. We have had a lot of evidence given in this inquiry against what you are recommending because the thinking is that they do not want another layer of bureaucracy and more regulation; there are limited funds and if you can get it to the grassroots it can work better. So you are recommending we do this, but it has been pretty close to even as to being in favour or against.

Ms Curnow : You cannot do it without increasing the funding because that is what the argument is—it will take funding away from the grassroots level. But it is inefficient funding to grassroots level without building their capacity and having a body to help them to come together and network and build the industry and share resources and actually do the research.

Dr STONE: Venessa, you are a Torres Strait Islander. One of the most commonly used languages of communication there is creole. Through Northern Australia and Western Australia, different creoles are the most commonly spoken languages. Sometimes they are called contact languages. Do you have an official position at the national congress at this stage? You clearly have positions about the retention of traditional language; you wish to have more of that traditional language used across all of Australian society. But what is your view about the language most often spoken by certainly Northern Australian Indigenous, which is Kriol? Do you have a view about the significance or that status of Kriol? Do you think it should be encouraged as well for non-Indigenous Australians to learn Kriol or use Kriol words for place names and so on?

Ms Curnow : I do not really know what you mean by 'encourage'. Does that mean writing learning resources in Kriol and actually formalising it?

CHAIR: Same status.

Ms Curnow : Same status?

Dr STONE: Yes.

Ms Curnow : It is a form of communication. I would not deny any human that communication if that is an urban language of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, with different words and different meanings for context of English words, or Kriol as well.

Dr STONE: Okay. Finally, you made a comment about language helping with life expectancy. Can you expand a bit more on what you were thinking along those lines? Obviously you were relating it to mental health, perhaps even physical health. Have you got evidence of where children who have learned traditional languages or maybe have been encouraged in their Kriol have better health?

Ms Curnow : I do not have that evidence with me now, but I could look for some resources to get to you in regard to that.

Mr HAASE: It is a big issue for us. For this whole inquiry to have meaning it has got to have an outcome and we as members of this inquiry have to have the endpoint that we view with some positive expectation. When it comes to the multitude of Aboriginal languages in Australia and the costs of teaching that multitude of languages, creation of language centres et cetera, in view of the great gap that exists in education, in housing, in life expectancy, where would you place the priority? Should a very large amount of taxpayer funds go to reinstate language to be spoken by a very small group with, according to the stats, increasingly less use and presumably therefore more English being spoken as a first language? How would you prioritise the taxpayer dollar in limited supply?

Ms Curnow : I have to say that there should be investment in the protective factors and language is a component of culture and knowledge systems. Even for urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reconnect with their language and culture has huge impacts on self-esteem, social and emotional wellbeing, physical health and motivation and even engagement in other cultures with job participation and stuff like that. For me the investment should not be in punitive measures, in jails, and in welfare. I know there is a necessary element of that now for basic safety unless we invest in the protective factors now the punitive measures are only going to increase because we are not addressing the causative factors and protective factors. That is why I think it is necessary to have that investment now. I understand the limited funds but it does not make economic sense to continue to invest here.

CHAIR: In terms of that issue, protective factors, is there any evidence we have in Australia or elsewhere about how increased investments in indigenous language can result in stronger communities, better families, more social as opposed to antisocial behaviour, less criminality? Do you have any evidence in relation to that that we can turn to internationally?

Ms Curnow : I looked at the example of a Maori national language institute. It was presented at the recent United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the beginning of this month. There are examples of the Maori Language Commission in New Zealand giving those sorts of outcomes of improving community development. I will send you the information.

CHAIR: It would be good to get that information. Can you talk to us about our national Indigenous language policy. Barry talked about limited funds, but where are we going right and where are we going wrong, and how can we do it better?

Ms Curnow : My understanding is that the national language policy was developed but it has not progressed, and actual implementation of the policy would be the starting point. That is the feedback I have got.

CHAIR: Just get on with it.

Ms Curnow : Yes.

CHAIR: This question is a bit of a digression in terms of where we draw the line. Some languages are almost too far gone and only 20 or 30 are viable. Where do we prioritise? How can we do this?

Do we say, 'This is too far gone, there are a few words,' but in some communities, 'This is still viable and we should be directing our money there'? We have seen, as I said before, in Adelaide there has been a real revival of interest, but in places like mine there are no Indigenous languages speakers, if I can put it that way. It has virtually gone in South-East Queensland.

Ms Curnow : I would not say that lightly, though.

CHAIR: No. It is hard to do. We have seen the benefit of revitalisation of Hebrew, for example, in Israel and that has been a tremendous success. How do we prioritise? Do we prioritise? Do we say, 'Let's protect as much as we can, let's revitalise as much as we can and let's revive as much as we can'? Is that what you are saying to us?

Ms Curnow : When there is a substantial allocation, that is up to the language institute to engage with community and to work out where the priority sits and what outcomes they will get for their dollar. It is not something that cannot be done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, because they know what will work and what won't work.

CHAIR: Are you saying to us that we should do all three: reclaim what has been lost, preserve what is going and protect what is still there?

Ms Curnow : Yes, but it would be up to that e language institute, whichever direction you decide to take, as to where the priority lies when you are weighing up between revitalising a language or the everyday use of the language. That is really complex because, as you said, there are so many benefits from revitalising as well.

CHAIR: We have had criticism about the methodology by which funding is handed out. For example, on our MILR program there was about $9 million, with 65 projects funded, but there was some criticism about how it is done up in the Torres Strait. We have had criticisms as well that it is just one-off funding, that it is too bureaucratic, that it is hard to get the money, that there are too many obstacles and performance indicators. There has also been criticism that it is made difficult because it is not even for three-year programs, sometimes it is only for one year, and we have had evidence that every three months you need to report back. Frankly, three months is ridiculous. Can you explain to us how you think we need to improve those methodologies?

Ms Curnow : Like a standard part within the allocated funding, within education, within health?


Ms Curnow : I describe it as an overarching element within the Closing the Gap principles or pillars, as we are calling them now. There will actually be an allotted amount of money for language within health, within justice, so it is not something that is seen as outside of core business. That is what it is at the moment, like a stand-alone sector of translation, when it should actually be incorporated within core business of service provision.

CHAIR: Should we transfer it into, say, FaHCSIA?

Ms Curnow : Education.

CHAIR: Education?

Ms Curnow : Yes, because it is vocational education. It is that core protective factor for children from when they are young—early childhood development. Let's look at language as part of education, definitely.

CHAIR: Should we have separate pools of funding—this is the funding for this, this is the funding for that, this is the funding for the other? At the moment you would not know, you wouldn't have a clue.

Ms Curnow : I could not go into more detail about that.

CHAIR: Would you agree with me that we need to separate the funding pools for these purposes?

Ms Curnow : I feel that the core funding pool should lie within education for the substantial amount of language funding, but there would be some language funding available within other programs in health and justice at least as an outcome, whether it is an additional allotment to operating funds within justice and health or other areas.

Mr HAASE: We mentioned the New Zealand evidence. You in fact introduced some New Zealand evidence. My understanding of New Zealand is that a decision has been taken at an administrative level that a Maori language is now universal across both islands.

Dr STONE: Just one language.

Ms Curnow : Which is a little bit different to here.

Dr STONE: Totally different.

Mr HAASE: It is a little bit different, like chalk is different to cheese! Even though I was very appreciative of the opportunity to experience the New Zealand cultural situation some months ago with this committee, it strikes me that it would be problematic to use as a foundation when referring to Indigenous language the New Zealand solution because we have a multiplicity of languages in a whole range of conditions. So the experience in New Zealand is perhaps not particularly helpful. And we do not have a whole body of research information that explains the efficacy of teaching Indigenous language even in remote schools, for instance. We have some anecdotal stuff about how children are more engaged and are happier in class and so forth, but we do not have any long-term analysis of the social interaction or incarceration figures of those same children as part of a group.

Ms Curnow : There is always the challenge of where you are going to invest in developing the economy or in developing communities. Where are you going to invest the money to, like I said in my opening statement, address basic human needs? You can talk about evidence, but when you talk to the local people and you see over time that our culture and our language have got us here today you cannot say that that is not evidence that that worked. We did not have jails back then either and we did not have the level of dysfunction that we have today in relationships. We actually had systems for communicating with each other to maintain functional interdependence and to make sure we got—

Mr HAASE: But you are surely not suggesting, Venessa, that we go back to that pre-European condition?

Ms Curnow : No. I am just saying that you cannot discount it either.

Mr HAASE: It worked then, but now we have—

Ms Curnow : But you cannot discount it as evidence.

Mr HAASE: But we do not have the opportunity to compare. This is the problem, I believe.

Ms Curnow : No, you do have that opportunity. It is clear that we did not all kill each other before, so we actually survived. That is evidence enough in itself to say that there must have been something going okay back then. It is not like we are going to go back to that either. We have to have the opportunity to evolve our own languages and our own culture in the way that we want to. The Maoris are a good example because they are self determining their own language. It is one language, but that same thing will happen here for all of our different languages as well. But we just do not have any capacity at all to come together and talk about our commonalities between different languages and how we can sit down and interpret different words for kids in class and give teaching resources to teachers for a couple of years or one year straight out of uni. There is no capacity for the teacher aides to come together and talk about how they are going to influence teaching curricula and talk to the new teachers who come in. There is no capacity there at the moment. That is where we need to invest.

CHAIR: During the course of the inquiry we have had a number of centres who have talked to us about the difficulties in terms of a deductible gift recipient status. Where are you up to? Obviously the congress would have a role to play in a variety of different areas related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One issue I am sure would be of interest to the congress is language learning in Indigenous communities, so where are you up to in terms of your DGR status?

Ms Curnow : We have put it in and we are waiting to hear advice from FaHCSIA that is going to help us progress our DGR status and see if there are ways that we can be eligible to get our DGR status.

CHAIR: That would be one way in which to get more funding from individuals, organisations or bodies interested in language learning.

Ms Curnow : You need a national organisation for protection as well. We are putting in a submission around Indigenous learning protection under the Intellectual Property Australia funding as well to make sure that our Indigenous knowledge is protected. It might not necessarily fall within the laws. It might actually be a totally new framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, because we have collective rights and they do not necessarily fall within the legislation as it stands. That is important when we are looking at funding from corporates as well, because there are conflicting interests.

CHAIR: In terms of conflicting interests, as I mentioned before, we have had a lot of evidence one way or the other on a national Indigenous language centre. You have given us some evidence today about this. It would be good for us if you could expand further on how you would see such a centre and the role it would play. We have enough evidence to say that we probably should not recommend that. I would really like to hear more about that from you.

Dr STONE: Its function, its size, the sort of budget it might need and how it would integrate or dovetail with institutions that are already in place.

CHAIR: Exactly.

Dr STONE: Interpreting services, for example. In Western Australia we had different views about centralising interpreter service management versus leaving the independent interpreter services to do their own thing.

CHAIR: Could you give us some more evidence about that. We have not yet made up our minds. We have not discussed it, but we do have a lot of evidence for and against.

Ms Curnow : Okay.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Venessa, for your submission and your evidence today. We thank you for contributing to the inquiry. I declare this hearing closed.

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 13 : 06