New report shows importance of languages

The National Indigenous Languages Report reinforces the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and the role they play in culture and identity.

The report is a key achievement of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, which highlighted the importance of language and the work underway to maintain and revive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages for future generations.

It has found being able to speak a First Nations language has positive effects for an individual’s wellbeing and mental health through greater social connection, and community benefits through stronger cultural participation.

Indigenous languages are central to Australian stories and identity. From lullabies sung to babies in language, to the stories that underpin Australia’s world-renowned Indigenous visual art, language is embedded across all art forms. This is demonstrated in the literature sector, through the decisions of major Australian publishing houses to publish books wholly or partly in languages, and through the awarding of prestigious industry prizes to Indigenous authors for works exploring language and language reclamation.

Australia’s Indigenous languages are embedded and celebrated across the breadth of Australia’s music sector, from opera to hip hop. Deborah Cheetham’s ‘Eumerella’ was the first major choral work to be performed entirely in language, and Baker Boy was recently awarded the coveted Artist of the Year Award at the National Indigenous Music Awards for the second year running.

The report shows that language work, across a broad range of sectors, opens greater employment opportunities. Speaking language is essential in many jobs, with people such as teachers, translators, broadcasters and tourism operators drawing on their knowledge of language in their jobs.

The fundamental importance of language and culture to Indigenous Australians is reflected in the historic new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. The National Agreement establishes 16 national socio-economic targets, including—for the first time—a target relating to the number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Australia’s work to reinvigorate language is highly regarded internationally, particularly the Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts Program, which supports a network of 20 Indigenous language centres.

These centres provide vital language services to communities and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to strengthen their languages. The report finds that there are at least 31 languages being reawakened by communities in Australia.

There is still work to be done to fully realise the benefits of languages in Australia. Of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken at the time of European contact, between 123 and 159 languages are still in use. All of Australia’s Indigenous languages are under threat and only 12 traditional languages, and two new languages are considered strong.

Australia will continue to work to maintain, revive and celebrate languages during the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages, set to start in 2022.

The report is a collaboration between the Office for the Arts, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the Australian National University.

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