Aboriginal languages matter – but to who?

By July 3, 2017Education

NAIDOC Week 2017 Logo

Every year, the first week of July marks NAIDOC Week – a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and recognise the achievements of first Australians. The 2017 NAIDOC theme is “Our Languages Matter”, a reference to the importance of languages to Aboriginal culture and identity.

The fact that Aboriginal languages matter barely needs explaining. All Aboriginal languages have been threatened by the European colonization of Australia and discriminatory government policies. Despite this, Aboriginal communities have worked hard to maintain and revive their languages. Today around one third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak an Indigenous language, with even higher rates in remote areas. Yet, speakers of Aboriginal languages are often forgotten or ignored by policy makers, educational institutions and other services.

Take the Northern Territory (NT) for example, which has some of the largest groups of Aboriginal language speakers in Australia. Over the last 40 years, the NT Government has swayed to the differing (and often ill-informed) opinions on bilingual education. Devlin, Disbray and Devlin (2017) give a thorough chronology of these events which I will summarise here to demonstrate the issue. Throughout I have also sought out the views of Aboriginal authors, as the research on Aboriginal issues is too often dominated by ‘white’ colonial voices.

Bilingual education for Aboriginal students in the NT was first introduced in 1973, influenced by emerging international theories about bilingual education, and with the aim of “recognising and supporting the culture and language of the children and communities who speak those languages” (Devlin, Disbray & Devlin, 2017, p.49). Aboriginal teachers worked alongside non-Aboriginal teachers to develop teaching materials and resources, and this approach was soon producing results, with many schools reporting that bilingually educated Aboriginal students were outperforming Aboriginal students who were taught in English only.

In the 1980s and 90s, however, political opinions against bilingual education and in favour of English-only teaching gained greater attention, under the guise of it being better for children’s futures, yet clearly coming from a monolingual ideology that ignored the positive results of bilingual schools. The NT education department responded by, at first, rewriting the goals of bilingual education to have a focus on learning English, and then later, in 1998, under the pressure of funding cuts, phasing out bilingual education altogether. While it is true that servicing the needs of the many Aboriginal language groups in the NT is more costly than a ‘one size fits all’ English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program, it fails to take into account the savings associated with higher student engagement, better educational outcomes and, as a result, greater employment opportunities.

NT Intervention area (Source: http://everydayracism-au.tumblr.com/)

As funding cuts rolled out across the territory, the NT government was heavily criticised for failing to properly consult with schools, parents and communities, with protests and petitions happening around the nation. Unfortunately, the influence of the monolingual Anglophone mainstream proved to be stronger, and with it the belief that teaching in English was the best way to improve the students’ English skills.

Towards the late 2000s, two major events caused the NT government to tighten the reins on bilingual education even further. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (better known as the NT Intervention) legislated a series of changes to government services which ultimately took decision-making and control of out of the hands of Aboriginal communities and into those of government. Thomas (2017) links this shifting of power to subsequent policies that then took community control away from education. After all, bilingual education was based on a model of self-determination for Aboriginal communities, so, as the NT government took steps to remove self-determination, the suppression of Aboriginal languages in education followed.

The second event was the beginning of a new national literacy and numeracy test known as NAPLAN, which, despite many early concerns that it was biased against students in remote settings (Piller, 2016), was rolled out to schools all over Australia. As educational experts predicted, the first round of results found that students in remote parts of the NT could not compete on these tests, which was quickly labelled as ‘underperformance’. The NT government responded with further attacks on bilingual education in 2009, this time implementing the rule that the first four hours of every school day must be conducted in English.

Source: treatyrepublic.net

These forms of schooling, which Piller refers to as ‘submersion education’, often have long term detrimental effects on the children who are not only trying to learn the language, but also the content of the lessons. It can be a stressful and demotivating experience for children, with lowered attendance being one of the first indicators that schooling is not meeting their needs. By 2011, a number of NT schools were reporting large drops in attendance following the implementation of the new policy.

Submersion education can also have lasting effects on children’s linguistic identities and the status of their home languages. Most Aboriginal languages are highly endangered (of the 250+ languages that once existed in Australia, only 120 are still spoken in some way, and only 13 are considered strong), and compulsory education in English is partly to blame for this. If children are led to believe that their home languages hold no value, they may forfeit the use of their languages for English. Yalmay Yunupingu, a teacher in the NT who teaches in both Yolngu Matha (a group of languages of the Yolngu people) and English, speaks of the importance of children receiving an education that balances English with their home language:

“The decision to make English the only important language in our schools will only make the situation for our young people worse as they struggle to be proud Yolngu in a world that is making them feel that their culture is bad, unimportant and irrelevant” (Yunupingu, 2010, p. 25)

Yunupingu goes on to say that, if forced to teach in English, her students will not understand what she is saying, potentially becoming bored and misbehaving, and ultimately missing out on learning.

Despite insistence from governments that they are working to ‘close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage’, policies like the ‘first four hours in English’ only serve the interests of those who want to further suppress Aboriginal cultures and promote a monolingual society. Yingiya Mark Guyula, a NT politician (quoted in Thomas, 2017), states “that gap grows when Yolngu children are forced into English-only schools, taught in a language they do not speak or hear in their community”. Williams (2011) goes even further to say that forced teaching and learning in English not only contradicts the federal government’s promises to Aboriginal people but “it strikes at the very heart of all that we Indigenous peoples claim in the name of reconciliation, and what the international and national literature clearly asserts regarding the dreadful risks of Indigenous language and culture loss” (p. 120).

While discussing the topic of this paper with a colleague of mine who is a Gomeroi Aboriginal woman, I made reference to the NAIDOC theme “Our Languages Matter” but straight away realised how strange it was for me, a non-Aboriginal person, to say ‘our languages’ in reference to Aboriginal languages. My colleague was quick to point out: Aboriginal languages are the first languages of this country, so as Australians, they should matter to all of us. All Australians have a role to play in making sure that Aboriginal languages are appropriately respected and that they can be used by the communities who have a connection to them.


Devlin, B. C., Disbray, S. & Devlin, N. R. F. (2017). History of bilingual education in the northern territory: People, programs and policies. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yunupingu, Y. (2010). Bilingual works. Australian Educator, 66, Winter 2010, 24-25.

Author Britt Jacobsen

Britt Jacobsen is a Master of Applied Linguistics student at the University of Sydney. She also holds a Master of Commerce from Swinburne University of Technology and a Bachelor of Business from Griffith University. Her professional experience includes corporate, not-for-profit and government roles in Aboriginal affairs and Diversity and Inclusion. Her research interests include Australian Aboriginal languages, language revival and language and identity.

More posts by Britt Jacobsen

    This article highlights the monolingual ambitions of the Australian governments and their failure to bridge the ‘gap’ between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Aboriginal languages should matter to all Australians. They are, i would believe, the longest-surviving languages in the world and the cultural link to the forefathers of this land. Over half have become extinct which poses a real threat to the languages which have survived. It is our duty to promote and facilitate the learning of Aboriginal languages throughout Australia particularly for maintaining indigenous Australians’ cultural identity.

  • Thi Dung DOAN (Julie)

    Thank you for the article, Britt. Your article makes me think a lot about the situation in my home country. In Vietnam, we do have more than 50 ethnic groups with different languages and cultural heritages. The official Vietnamese language is of the majority group while other languages are mostly spoken within their own communities. There have been increasing efforts in preserving all the languages and their cultural characteristics and it becomes more popular that children of such communities are able to speak both languages. It is hard to generalize the situation, but I think many of them are willing to maintain their own languages and cultural heritages or even attempting to make them more public. What we are expecting from our government is their greater support to the preservation of our multiethnic culture as the question of “to whom aboriginal languages matter” you have made in this article.

  • Brendan Kavanagh

    I have been teaching Indigenous adults in remote Central Australian communities for seven years now, and I agree with this article. Many educators, employers and politicians conveniently take the position that only English matters, and that learning local languages is a waste of time.

    This is a convenient position to take as a monolingual English speaker who has never been required to learn a foreign language to operate in their environment. Not only does learning the local language show respect, but it empowers the learner by demonstrating that they already hold valuable skills that can be taught to you as an educator. Knowing the learners’ languages helps you to understand how they think, break down communication barriers and bridge the learning process.

    Recently, I have been working with local Aboriginal Health Workers to develop health messages in their local language. It is much more cost effective to treat health problems at the cause by teaching the dangers of eating sugary foods, than to focus on the symptoms by flying in doctors and nurses to treat diabetes patients.

  • 44285736

    The Australian Federal Government should really fund the NT. For so long Non-indigenous Australians have tried to destroy the Aboriginal culture and have done it through the so many ways. History tell us about the killings, stolen generation, work of missionaries to indoctrinate the aboriginals. So much as been done to them. For once let the children learn their ancestors languages. Australians should be proud of maintain this native languages that makes what Australia is. The principal of TESOL is to respect other second language speakers. So if English is to be taught the let be with the native languages. Diversity is something that the second or third Australians should be proud of the first Australians. The NT government is still acting like Australian is still a British Territory and imposing English forcefully on the NT Aboriginals. Being an Australian means respecting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders their culture and their lives. Language is an integral part of their identity. Why don’t we just let the children be taught with their language as well as English. Former PM, Kevin Rudd made the historic apologetic statement, and NT Government should remember that and consider the rights of the indigenous people of Australia. Give more funding and improve the Education Systems of the Indigenous Australians.

  • EM

    It is quite heartbreaking to note the accuracy of this post in all ways: that the native Indigenous Australian languages are very endangered, that the NT government is being forced to encourage monolingual education due to budget cuts, and that the identities of many Indigenous Australians is tied to their native languages which should matter to all Australians. I reside in NSW and have never really seen any type of Aboriginal culture or language involvement in the school’s curriculums apart from studying the Aboriginal religion very broadly in secondary school and the acknowledgment of the Aboriginal people during Welcome to Country. While the Northern Territory does have some of the largest groups of Aboriginal language speakers in Australia, it should matter to all of us – we should see more of the Aboriginal culture and language in all of Australia.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    I think the monolingual education policy is also common in different parts of the world. Of course, it might be challenging for the implementation of bilingual/multilingual education due to educational ideologies or inadequate various contextual parameters such as qualified teachers, teaching material affordance. However, it is apparent that minority ethnic groups may confront a range of hurdles when they have to acquire the target language and the content knowledge simultaneously. Piller (2016) pointed out cognitive, academic, linguistic, behavioural and economic disadvantages that policy makers should take into consideration. Take Vietnamese minority ethnic education as an example. Every year, after Tet holiday ( Lunar New Year festival), teachers at mountainous regions have to go to students families to encourage them to get back to school because there is a dramatic fall in the numbers of students. Various reasons have been identified. Submersion education might be one of the explanatory factors.

    Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Dee

    During NAIDOC celebrations at my school, aboriginal students enthusiastically demonstrated pride in their culture. The theme this year was ‘our languages matter’; however, the students were not able to demonstrate their ancestral language due to it no longer existing. At another NAIDOC celebration that I attended it was brought to light that the word ‘digeridoo’ is not in fact a word from an aboriginal language; it is a word that white people ascribed to the instrument. Both these recent experiences highlight that we need to go a long way to show respect to our history, additionally to preserve the historical sources that are available to us. I personally think that our policy makers ought to be working towards preservation of aboriginal languages throughout Australia and thinking of ways to introduce languages into the school curriculum; this could be possible in the early years of schooling through subjects such as CAPA or HSIE.

  • rajni jaishi

    The language we speak establishes our identity- political, social and cultural. The NT government must adopt a balanced policy to keep these aboriginal languages alive. The current state of affairs is quite ironical as the government seems to be promising to support and protect the identities of aboriginal communities but on the other hand, it has failed to do anything substantial in the past two decades to uplift their culture and language. The languages spoken by the aboriginal groups and communities must have a fair share in the mainstream education they receive. English is undoubtedly important but a monolingual approach is not doing any good either as the students are not being able to perform well and dropping out of school early. Their culture must be preserved and to do so, their languages need to be given recognition.

  • Long leg

    Language could bring more meaning than serving the communicative purpose of human. A language presents a particular culture, attitude, history, and identity of citizens of that language community. That’s the reason why Aboriginal communities have worked hard to maintain and revive their languages. The recognizable benefit of bilingual education for Aboriginal students in the NT in 1973 could be worth changing respective of policy makers, educational institutions and other services in Australia. Australian Federal Government should put more effort into Aboriginal language preservation.

  • JZzzz

    Thanks for this insightful article! Languages do matter since I believe behind every language there is the history, the identities, the culture and the way of living, which deserves respect and protection. Before I came to Australia, I didn’t know much about the relationship between English and aboriginal languages. However, I gradually find that in terms of multi-culture, China and Australia actually shares many in common. China also promotes bilingual education in ethnic minority areas, along with a series of policy benefits to minority speakers. Recently I read about a case of bilingual education in one minority group in China, in which children are taught in their mother tongue before learning the official language. The results turn out to be quite successful in that students perform better than other who only taught in one single language. This coincides with your finding that “bilingually educated Aboriginal students were outperforming Aboriginal students who were taught in English only”. I think bilingual education is more appropriate instead of monolingual or submersion education because variety is what makes a multi-culture society.

  • Ka Ho Lawrence HO

    Dear Professor Piller and fellow classmates,

    I do appreciate how Australians preserve the culture of Aboriginal languages. After reading this post, I did a mini online research on how Australians work to achieve this aim. I found a journal article which include some interesting findings. Mamtora, Godfrey & Bow. (2016) illustrate a joint participation between university academics, project staff and staff from Charles Darwin University (CDU) Library to develop an innovative online resource to sustain and preserve Aboriginal languages and cultures in Australia. To achieve this, Aboriginal residents in the Northern Territory have to receive education in their own language before they start their English learning. However, as some of the teaching materials have been lost or damaged. There is an urgent need to protect those valuable resources and therefore, CDU Library collaborates with other parties and with the financial support from the Australian Research Council, they establish an online repository in 2012 called the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (cdu.edu.au/laal). It presently includes about 3,000 items in 50 various Aboriginal languages, which are in the form of scanned PDFs and searchable text files.
    In contrast, the local government Hong Kong is trying to demolish the icons of its colonial history, such as removing posting boxes established during the colonial era, especially those with the British crown emblem. The government also tries to not maintain the statues of Queen Victoria and King George VI.

    Just some thoughts,



    Mamtora, J., Godfrey, N. & Bow, C. (2016). LAAL: The living archive of aboriginal languages. Incite, 37 (5/6), 18-19.

  • Kaniz Rahman

    It is really sad that monolingualism is being obligatory for the Northern Territory. It reminds me about my presentation and I can really connect to the situation how they might feel! I feel sorry about the whole thing. Their language is their birth right and taking that away is frustrating. I had a house mate who told me the story how their kids used to be stolen away and I thought he was just making things up, but after doing some research I found out that it’s true and it makes me feel disgusted. Their story are so alarming. Their language should matter to everyone. I mean our world is not about one language its about a lots of language and culture. But the behavior we see now it’s so barbaric.