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Accelerate Indigenous Language Reclamation in Australia

On the international stage, languages are fundamental to trade negotiations, political debates, and soft-power diplomacy. However, at their very core, languages are a gateway into intercultural understanding and social cohesion. They establish relationships and trust, construct transnational networks, strengthen identities and notions of belonging, and enable us to think more diversely. Across the globe, Indigenous peoples speak over four thousand languages. Many nations, like Taiwan, New Zealand, and Canada, already protect and promote these endangered languages through legislation. However, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were only recognized as citizens in 1967 and are yet to be acknowledged as Australia’s First Peoples in the federal constitution. English continues to dominate, while investment into Indigenous languages has been in steady decline.

Image by Tooley from Flickr © 2007

The 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap commits the Australian government to reforming inequalities and structural racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These sixteen socioeconomic targets are a step in the right direction, but funding allocated to Indigenous languages under this agreement remains “remarkably low” in comparison to other sectors. Of the two hundred and fifty acknowledged Indigenous languages in Australia, only one hundred and forty-five are spoken today and of those, one hundred and ten are critically endangered. As we enter a new decade, Australia can no longer afford to consider protecting its Indigenous languages as a discretionary option.

Kaurna, a language unique to the Adelaide Plains, has debatably been without fluent speakers for almost a century. However, recent reclamation efforts have led to a greater awareness of the language in Adelaide, as well as reaffirming a sense of empowerment, ownership, and confidence in the local community. This is especially so for the Stolen Generations, who were forcibly removed from their families as a result of government assimilation policies, which among other things forbade Kaurna to be spoken. “The colonialists wanted us to distance ourselves from our language and our culture and become like White people. It’s no coincidence that Aboriginal people today feel ashamed to speak their language, or don’t speak it at all,” Jo told me, reclining on the bank of River Karrawirraparri.  Recognition in a formal treaty, acceleration of efforts to reclaim and digitalize endangered Indigenous languages like Kaurna, and greater financial investment into Indigenous languages will allow Australia to gradually mitigate existing inequalities and move closer to reconciliation.

However, these language reclamation efforts won’t necessarily be straightforward. In Adelaide, some members of the community view the Kaurna reclamation effort as an unauthentic and neo-colonial construct of linguistics. Some individuals interviewed contest the standardization of spellings in particular. This standardization is based on records left by the missionaries Christian Gottlieb Teichelmann and Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann over a supposedly “more authentic” wordlist created by William Williams in 1840. Other points of contention include the bypassing of differences in dialect as well as a supposedly male-centric approach to the Kaurna reclamation effort. Other interviewees challenge whether Kaurna was ever really a “dead language” as opposed to one that was merely “sleeping” and waiting to be re-energized. Yet others contest the creation of new words for modern technology because of the deeply spiritual relationship between the language and land. This particular question on invention versus authenticity in Indigenous language reconstruction continues to be debated world over.

Yet despite these differences in opinion, progress is being made. Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP), an official body established between linguists at the University of Adelaide and the community on the Adelaide Plains, has coordinated the “recovery” of Kaurna through numerous initiatives since 2002, for example, by partnering with Adelaide City Council to rename twenty-nine parkland areas in their original Kaurna names. That being said, there have been allegations from certain interviewees that this naming initiative follows colonial subdivisions of space and controversially associates Indigeneity with the city’s margins. For these individuals, the work of KWP embodies a very European way of working: in an academic setting that has excluded their opinions. The colonial legacy has also prevented some in the Kaurna community from wanting to share their language with non-Indigenous Australians. However, most advocate for sharing the language and this approach to Indigenous language reclamation should be favored. Revival shouldn’t restrict who can speak or learn Indigenous languages, otherwise they will remain in peril.  

Despite recent progress made on Indigenous rights through the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, investment into Indigenous languages remains a low priority for the Australian government. Yet the largely successful reclamation of Kaurna showcases how communities can leverage their creativity to give Indigenous languages more national precedence. Similar language revitalization efforts now need to be replicated across Australia to ensure the sustainability of Indigenous languages. As with Kaurna, there will certainly be difficulties in obtaining community consensus on each and every initiative to revitalize endangered languages. Yet without more federal coordination and funding, Indigenous languages risk being lost forever. Protecting linguistic diversity is a global responsibility and Australia needs to accelerate its efforts.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”


Sana Chaudhry

Sana is currently a business Intelligence Analyst. She has previously worked as a researcher on crime in the UK, and holds two Masters in International Security. Her former experiences also include working on counterterrorism at the EU and on tech innovation at the UN.

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