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Australia’s Aboriginal languages and the Sami in Northern Europe

I have been reading into dying and endangered languages since learning that the Saami people, Europe’s last indigenous group who live variously in the northernmost parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, have their own languages which still remain within the Finno-Ugric group of which Finnish and Hungarian are a part. I learned that “language superiority” is threatening the Samigiella language, which is now only spoken by 200 people. Parents in Finland are beginning to believe that it is not conducive to education and life skills to teach their children Sami languages, although one professor of linguistics argues that “all languages are equal”. I personally would challenge the usefulness of such a sweeping statement to suggest that different indigenous languages developed for different purposes. As Sofia Jannok suggests in this TEDx talk, the language of her people developed through nature and the need to describe it. Hence the commonly mis-suggested fact that Eskimos have 300 words for snow is in fact true – it just depends on your definition of an Eskimo.

I digress. Paul Rickard’s film about aboriginal languages in Australia shows a different part of Aboriginal culture from the one I previously discussed on this blog. In the 1750s, Australia had 750,000 aborigines speaking over 250 languages. There was, however, no commerce or government activity, making these aboriginal territories an easy target for European settlement. Today only 20 of these indigenous languages remain, although it is common for older aboriginal people to speak many of them – some speak 5 or 10.

One such surviving aboriginal language is the Gumbaynggirr language, spoken in Nambucca town in New South Wales. The last native speaker died in 1981; however, through carefully-preserved recordings and perseverance, steps have been taken since the late 1980s to revive the language. Older people who grew up hearing the language often speak English sentences containing Gumbaynggirr words. They are firm believers in the idea that “a language belongs to a territory” – quite the opposite from the global village we see developing in the Western world today, where it is expected that to be a useful member of society you must have some level of English fluency, promoting the idea that English is the only important language. English may indeed be the “global language”, but retention of other languages is just as important as learning English. When a language disappears, a people disappears. A part of their culture is lost as well as the stories they have to tell about their land. This is what I believe the Aborigines to mean when they say that their language belongs to their territory – they know and have learned the history of the land they grew up on and the language they spoke there is an intrinsic part of it.

In central Australia three language groups have survived. Most Aborigines speak a mixture of English and their native language – code-switching to create their own way of speaking, differentiating them from white Australians. In Alice Springs in central Australia the impact of white settlers was disastrous; the Aborigines lost the rights to their land and did not regain access until 1964. They were not given the vote until 1967. The settlers attempted to mine for uranium, destroying the land that is tied to their language: Eastern Arrernte. When the settlers came, the Aborigines were expected to assimilate by attending English-speaking mission schools where they were beaten if they spoke Arrernte. Not allowing a child to speak his or her mother tongue is cruel and is tantamount to abuse. Research has shown that it slows cognitive development and creates an impossible struggle for the child to understand the world around him or her through language.

John, our Aboriginal host, says that “I really feel good speaking Arrernte because my language belongs to the land. The land and the language are interconnected. I want my children to learn about both worlds: to survive in town and understand the land”. Out of this belief has grown the demand for bilingual, bicultural schools in Alice Springs where children are taught both Aboriginal and English languages and cultures. Children participate in excursions to the outback where they learn about Aboriginal culture and hear from the town elders the many spiritual stories pertaining to the Aborigines. However, what I notice about these schools is that they cater exclusively to indigenous children. This is a double-edged sword: white children are not being exposed to the rich culture and history of their land, but Aboriginal children are isolating themselves further by not socially. assimilating with white children, making it more difficult for them to integrate later in life should they so wish. It seems that Rickard is presenting a culture clash in which, to the detriment of Australia’s ancient civilisation, one culture is winning.




  1. Pingback: Our Generation: interview with Sinem Saban and Damien Curtis | ethnofilmia - May 20, 2014

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