I awoke this morning to find that the old debate about the roles of indigenous language and English in Aboriginal Australia had crept back into the news. Except this time, the debate is getting considerably more polemic.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough has called for aboriginal children to be forced to learn English. He proposes to ‘quarantine’ welfare payments to parents unless their children attend school. That is, similar to the land ownership issue that I wrote about only yesterday, he is using money that is rightfully theirs, and threatening to keep it unless they do as he says.

“Too many still only have a rudimentary understanding of the language spoken throughout our country and can only speak their own language, which perhaps is only known to 200, 300 or 400 other people,” he said.

“That must end.”

This isn’t mere coercion, this is blackmail¹.

While he says that he is “not asking anyone to give up their own language”, the broader implication and the government’s failure to recognise indigenous languages say otherwise.

Of course, it is quite reasonable for someone to speak multiple languages. Aboriginal people traditionally spoke many languages, depending on the geo-political situation in the area. People still know three or more languages each, and claim affiliation with many more again. This is the situation in Wadeye, where, as he claims, there are a handful of distinct languages resulting in groups of people who cannot communicate.

These children, like all Australian children, will benefit from a strong grasp of English which allows them to make choices in their lives which they simply don’t have when they only speak a language that only a handful of people understand. (mp3 here)

Apart from the notion that Aboriginal people will benefit from speaking English in an English-speaking country, with which I agree, this is mostly nonsense. Most people in Wadeye speak Murrinh-Patha as well as another traditional language or two. In addition, just about the entire town speaks Kriol, the lingua franca of most of indigenous Australia. To put it another way, I would bet that there are no two Aboriginal people living in Wadeye who are unable to communicate with any language in their arsenal.

If the government wants aboriginal people to all learn English, then fine, fund programs to do it. But don’t use this nonsensical, flawed argument from unintelligibility to promote the further discouragement of indigenous languages.

NSW MP Linda Burney has countered Brough’s claims this morning, pointing out this government’s track record when it comes to the retention of languages and culture.

Aboriginal kids do need to be bilingual but it’s a bit rich coming from a person who actually is part of a Government that took away funding for bilingual programs in the Northern Territory.

She was also on ABC radio this morning reiterating the woefully shameful statistic that, of around 600² languages originally spoken in Australia, only 60 odd remain. The debate seems to centre on allowing aboriginal people to integrate into the mainstream economy (make of that what you will) but ignores the cultural imperative to do what we can to ensure languages don’t unnaturally cease to be spoken.

Language is the mechanism through which Aboriginal people in Australia relate to their family and other kin, to their ancestry and to their land. Language is not a mere means of communication, it embodies identity and culture.

For most of the world, and certainly for Europe, land is independent from people and language. Languages are embodied by people who inhabit land. When people move to another land, they take the language with them. In traditional Australia, this isn’t quite the case. Language is embodied by land and people are transient; taking on new languages as they take on new land³. For this reason (among others), language is an utmost important aspect of one’s culture and identity. To deny an Aborigine the right to speak their language is to forcibly remove their identity.

This, I believe, is one of the causes of social ills that indigenous people endure.

Burney also pointed out that Brough lacks even a fundamental understanding of aboriginal people, which should be compulsory in his portfolio. He fails to understand the importance placed on language and culture, which is immeasurably more important to them than some abstract, white man’s notion of being integrated into the mainstream (which sounds an awful lot like ‘assimilation’ to me).


¹I might point out that I do think that Aboriginal children, in fact all children, should be attending school, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks otherwise, but threatening to withhold vital funding is not the right way to do it.

²The numbers are difficult to ascertain, since it depends on your definition of language and your definition of dialect. 600 is near the higher end of the spectrum and relies on a liberal definition of language. I usually quote 350 to be conservative.

³See Merlan, Francesca. 1981. Land, language and social identity in Aboriginal Australia. Mankind 13(2):133-148.