Should Australian Kids Learn Aboriginal Languages?

Should Australian Kids Learn Aboriginal Languages?

ICTMN Staff
1/25/11
Linguist Michael Christie courtesy of Charles Darwin University

Never, it seems, has there been such widespread interest in preserving indigenous languages around the world. Perhaps that is because so many of them have never been so endangered.

Many indigenous languages are currently extinct, and plenty of others are well on their way. According to Ethnologue—a Web site associated with the Dallas-based International Linguistics Center—there are 6,909 recorded languages, but only 389 (or barely 6 percent) of them have at least one million speakers. Indeed, Ethnologue.com estimates that 6,520 languages have fewer than a million speakers, 5,625 languages fewer than 100,000 speakers, and 1,787 languages are spoken by fewer than a thousand people. The risk of extinction exists not only for myriad Native languages, but also for indigenous languages in Australia, Africa, Russia, and elsewhere.

This is why, according to BigPond, Australian linguist Michael Christie believes that all Australian children should be given the opportunity to learn an Aboriginal language at school, in addition to other foreign languages. “The use of Aboriginal language in schools brings Aboriginal parents and grandparents into the school and so brings the community and the school together,” Professor Christie said.

Christie, who has been nominated for the title of Australian of the Year 2011, has been working with remote communities of the Northern Territory since 1972. He is a fluent speaker of the Yolngu indigenous language. He helped organize the Yolngu studies program at Charles Darwin University, that won the Prime Minister’s award for Australia’s best university teaching program in 2005. In 2008, Professor Christie received a National Fellowship from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, where he developed a program that made it possible for Yolngu elders in remote communities to digitally teach their languages and culture to students around the world.

Professor Christie expressed a concern that the recent rule introduced by the Northern Territory government, mandating that the first four hours of schooling in all communities should be delivered in English, might further worsen “dislocation between schools and the community.” According to BigPond, current school attendance in some remote Australian Aboriginal communities is just about 30 percent. Christie certainly doesn’t deny the fact that it is important for Aboriginal children to learn English, but he thinks they should be able to receive initial education in their native tongue, and English should be introduced to them at the age of 11 or 12. He believes that forcing English upon Aboriginal children at an early stage disconnects them from their parents and community, which dilutes the indigenous culture.

It is “important that little Aboriginal kids grow up knowing who they are and knowing their language and their land and their family before they get hammered by a foreign language and foreign teachers in a foreign classroom setting," Professor Christie said.

Christie believes that indigenous languages in Australia need a boost. According to BigPond, he wants more Australians to consider learning Aboriginal languages as they celebrate Australia Day this year.

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