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Sharon Davis is a Bardi Kija woman, with an MSc in Applied Linguistics from the University of Oxford. Sharon has a strong belief in social justice, educational equity and the potential power that education has to strengthen the future for Aboriginal children.
When the theme for this year’s NAIDOC Week was announced, I was over the moon. Having a keen interest in language and linguistics, I feel that the “Our Languages Matter” NAIDOC theme is a perfect avenue to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of our mob.
Language, culture and identity are intertwined, connecting to our spirit and to each other. When a language is stolen, connections to country, lore, and land are often stolen too. That is why it was so important for colonisers to ensure we stopped speaking. Only 230 years ago, there were over 600 nations speaking hundreds and hundreds of different languages, not including the huge variety of dialects that would have also existed. Despite attempts to erase it (and us), language still is very important to Aboriginal people across our country.
The history of racist government policies and their effects on our languages is a sorry tale. It was twenty-six years after Europeans arrived in Australia that the first school for Aboriginal children was established, which kicked off almost two hundred years of educational policy and practice based, in succession, on denial, segregation, and assimilation. It is still within living memory that our Elders were punished for speaking in their language at school. And frighteningly, there are still cases of Aboriginal children being directed to leave their language at the school gate in 2017.
Being a clever bunch, we have figured out some ways around this. Aboriginal English, a separately developing form of English from Standard Australian English, is now spoken by over 80% of Aboriginal people across Australia. Back in the day, Aboriginal English was often used as a sneaky way of talking to each other under the noses of authority that sounded like English, yet held different meanings and codes. Sign language, which developed from hunting-time, when it was imperative to remain silent, was also adapted for life off-Country. Across Australia, Aboriginal English sign language and body language are still used widely. For many Aboriginal people, whose language was stolen from them, Aboriginal English retains a connection to community, culture and identity that lives on.
Education systems and government policies played a leading hand in the decimation of our languages, with some estimating that only 20 languages are still actively spoken. Experts warn that Aboriginal languages could be gone by 2050 if things keep going the way they are.
Australian education systems are now coming to recognise the role they have played in the loss of our languages, and many have taken steps to turn things around. Curriculum authorities are widely promoting the learning of Aboriginal languages in schools and there are programs in development to upskill Aboriginal people to become language teachers.
Western Australia’s School Curriculum and Standards Authority have released an Aboriginal Language Syllabus. Despite this great leap forward, studying an Aboriginal language in year 12 will not contribute to an ATAR score, unlike German, Italian or French. Also, Aboriginal language assessments are based on written or reading skills. This poses a huge problem for learning, as our languages are spoken, rather than written. If this is not addressed, we risk Aboriginal children with reading and writing difficulties failing in their own languages, further impacting their sense of identity and wellbeing. Fortunately, there are a growing number of Language Centres that are assisting in the revitalisation of our language by helping schools transition our languages learning into curriculums and classrooms.
Before colonisation, and still today, our culture is shared using language through dance, story and song, forming our identity as individuals and as a community. Since colonisation, we have lost so much. Systems have been imposed to disconnect Aboriginal people from our own communities. This denies us our languages and the deep knowledge that come with them. We must always question the rhetoric claiming our jarjums will be better off learning English first, or in place of our own languages. To speak, or to re-learn our First languages, is an act of decolonisation that should not be overlooked.
Aboriginal people have the oldest living cultures in the world, our languages come from a time before time, and despite attempts to erase us, we have prevailed. That is certainly something to celebrate.
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