SLLT, Vol. 3, 2003

Lorraine Bonython


Australia is a multicultural society. When we consider that there are indisputable links between language and culture it follows that we must also be a multilingual society. The dominant language, and therefore the dominant culture of Australia is English. This paper explores the minority languages, particularly Aboriginal languages, in the changing sphere of social justice in Australia. It seeks to highlight the role of social, educational, linguistic and financial rhetoric in changing government policy toward minority language maintenance.

In 1788 there were two identifiable groups in Australia - Aboriginal and English, and the Aboriginal group was not one but many. With over 700 tribes and approximately 250 languages the Aboriginal group was in itself a multicultural and multilingual society. With the coming of white culture many tribes and their native languages perished over time. Thus, those Aboriginal communities which have survived represent only a small percentage of the original inhabitants and fewer still of their original languages. Certainly this means they are 'minority' languages because they are spoken by very small numbers of people. These are not the only Aboriginal languages however, as there are also Aboriginal Englishes that have developed since white settlement. But now the multicultural and multilingual nature of Australia is not defined simply in the context of English and Aboriginal as there are other 'minority' languages in Australia. Immigration, particularly in the last fifty years, has brought a wealth of people for whom English is not the mother tongue. We now have a plethora of European, Asian and Middle Eastern languages with their inseparable links to culture. With both indigenous and minority language groups in Australia, Zammit's (1997, p.141) use of immigrant minorities to describe immigrants and their descendants (be they of voluntary or refugee status), and involuntary minorities to describe indigenous persons is useful terminology in simplifying the dichotomous issues in minority language support.


According to the ABS (2001 Census), there were 6,109,059 persons who spoke a language other than English at home of which only 50,978 were indigenous languages. Certainly, of the 4,105,646 persons born overseas only 11.4% stated that they either did not speak English very well or at all. But in any consideration of minority language support the significant figure is that in a total population of 18,972,350 a massive 32% does not speak English at home. Since minority language support has ramifications for minority culture support and concomitant family links nearly one third of Australia's population is in need.


Since white settlement in Australia, English has been established as the dominant language and culture. In the early years the expectation of the preservation of English society and culture was paramount in the ruling and administrative classes. Thus English became the dominant language in the sense that all communication, the legal system, the administrative system, the education system and the economic system flourished only within the domains of English. An exuberant missionary force ensured that Aboriginal languages were not used and standard English was taught in the mission schools. Aboriginal English was also "dismissed as 'bad English' [and] it is only since the 1960s that linguists and educators have recognized it as a valid, rule-governed language variety" (Eades, n.d. para. 9). Migrants from Europe and later from Asia knew that power resided in those who spoke standard English and that educational and economic aspirations were severely limited without English. Thus Australia became an example of where "in multilingual settings, one language becomes increasingly dominant over the other languages" (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, & Spencer, 1999, p.17). For many years therefore Aboriginal languages and their peoples were ignored. Similarly the early years of the 20th century saw all and any Government policies concerning migration to be those of assimilation into English language and culture. It was not until the 1970s that there was any real recognition of the social and psychological impact of enforced assimilation through the concept of educational disadvantage. This brought a gradual community recognition of the social needs of migrants and indeed our indigenous peoples. As educationalists and social reformers became more vocal, government began to take a stand on social justice issues and publicity was given to the notion that

"one's ancestral language is frequently an important fulcrum of communality, a rallying point for political and social solidarity, of psychological comfort in the home, of heartfelt aesthetic power or a conveyer of specific meanings related to self and identity" (Kalantzis, Cope, & Slade, 1989, p. 59).

There had been some early attempts to redress what was perceived by the more vocal social reformers as social injustice. The first of these social reform policies saw attempts to create community language programs but as is often the fate of early policies, the realised outcomes were very much a token effort. Finally the Report on a National Language Policy in 1984 made some progress towards minority language maintenance, and its real concern was with indigenous languages as ethnic minority languages were not considered to be in need of support:

"There is a genuine need to preserve Aboriginal languages, particularly as a number of them are seriously threatened. But this concern does not apply to the immigrant languages of the past two centuries, all of which have ongoing organic histories elsewhere" (Report on a National Language Policy, 1984: Cited in Kalantzis et al., 1989, pp. 61-62).

Here then, it was clear that language support for involuntary minorities should occur but language support for immigrant minorities should not. The 1984 Report, however, was to significantly change the direction of community awareness and Government spending on educational and social equity. Lo Bianco's (1987) National Policy on Languages did not exclude immigrant minorities from language support, however. Rather it embraced social justice for all Australians:

"mother tongue learning in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community languages…is justified on educational, psychological, familial, and social grounds" (Lo Bianco, 1987, p. 15).

It is interesting to note that Lo Bianco (1987, p.24) based his recommendations on the 1986 Census which had only 1,275,000 persons who spoke Languages Other Than English (LOTE) at home whereas the 2001 Census cites 6,109,059 persons. Surely this in itself must impact minority language support for 2003 onwards.

According to Kalantzis et al. (1989, p. 66), millions of dollars were directed to be spent on multiculturalism and the introduction of LOTE into school curricula under the guise of languages of economic significance by the end of the 1980s. The most significant step was that Aboriginal and ethnic languages were explicitly recognized though English was to be taught to all.


When we consider that individual identity comes from native language and culture the Equal Opportunities and Affirmative Action Policies must be seen as affording a measure of support to minority languages. As Wardhaugh (2002, p. 124) recognises, even in a country where there is a dominant language, i.e. English in Australia, a growing number of our population belong to different "speech communities". It has long been recognised that children from ethnic and Aboriginal backgrounds may speak standard English at school but their native language at home. Their parents may speak standard English at work and when shopping but they speak their native language with like community members. This is why, perhaps unconsciously, community language programs have traditionally emphasised "preservation of cultural values and generational ties, and valuing ethnicity through home language maintenance and home use and the development of second language literacy" (Davies, Groves & Wilkes, 1997, p. 51).

The National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia (1989) which was "the Government's policy response to Australia's cultural and linguistic diversity" was a statement of acceptance of responsibility for the linguistic rights of minority groups. It had a three pronged focus of "cultural identity", "social justice" and "economic efficiency". This National Agenda recognised the significance of "language maintenance and development, in English or other languages" including "Aboriginal people and other people of non-English speaking backgrounds" (Australia's Language, 1991, pp. 12-13).

Although not a response to the Australian Agenda, the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996) affirmed that each minority group represented a "language community" whether they had "developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion between its members" in a "particular territorial space" (i.e. the Aborigines) or "they [were] separated from the main body of their community" or declared to be "immigrants [or] refugees". It is incumbent on the Australian government, therefore, to ensure the linguistic rights of all of these minority groups as defined in Article 3 (p. 5):

But the ramifications for language policy and planning are problematic within the Australian context when we consider the vast number of languages present. For example, a study done of Australian schools by Zammit (1997, p. 141) identified students who could be "immigrant minorities such as Vietnamese, Khmer, Turkish, Macedonian, Greek, Italian, Serbo-Croatian or Arabic or involuntary minorities such as Aboriginal students speaking Pitjantjatjara, Burra or Luritja." These immigrant minorities and involuntary minorities only gained social and linguistic justice as a result of the rhetoric of the 1990s. It is necessary, however to take the identification of languages in our schools (and thus community) further.

In The Australian Language and Literacy Policy (ALLP) of 1991 the following languages were listed as priorities in State and Territory language policies:

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island languages, Arabic, Auslan, Chinese, Croatian, French, German, Indonesian/Malaysian, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Modern Greek, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese. Of these, Chinese, French, German, Indonesian and Japanese are priority languages in all States and Territories" (Australia's Language, 1991, p. 76).

It is interesting that although the ALLP dedicates a section to Aboriginal Language and Literacy Issues it does not at any time deem it necessary to list them. Thus Zammit's (1997) involuntary minorities appear to be just that. While the section dedicated to this group offers some reasonable perceptions (ALLP, Australia's Language, 1991, p. 94) such as the policy should be to "preserve, protect and promote the rights and freedom of indigenous Australians to use and develop indigenous Australian languages" there is also a hint of condescension with the comment "Aboriginal languages are eligible for support as priority languages and therefore could be made available to all Australian children".

The concept of priority languages was the direction of the LOTE policy to bring multiculturalism in the form of bilingualism to all Australian children and attracted both State and Federal funding. This policy of bilingualism for all children seemed to address issues such as social and linguistic justice by affording recognition and value to LOTE. However, the concept of multiculturalism does not sit comfortably with all writers. For example, in his criticism of LOTE policies, Cooray (2000, para. 15) is emphatic that

"there is a difference between teaching language for its educational value and teaching it in pursuance of the illusory goals of multiculturalism. If education is the objective, then priorities must be determined rationally after taking account of resources, costs and benefits."

It appears that just recently such a view has been adopted by the Federal Government for on 9 October 2002, the Gold Coast Sun newspaper reported that

"Thousands of Gold Coast primary school students learning a second language will soon have their classes canned while their teachers will be joining the dole queue...[as a result of]...the Federal Government...pulling $5.2 million in language studies funding" (Mackenzie, 2002, p.1).

It is quite obvious that educational initiatives that looked towards multi-cultural and multi-lingual opportunities are no longer priorities and the funding to maintain language policies in schools are subject to Government whim.


Without Government support minority language communities will have to struggle to survive. The loss of LOTE programs may be the tip of an iceberg that will see the slow withdrawal of State and Federal money from language maintenance and revival efforts. This may prove to be disastrous for many Aboriginal languages that are already endangered and in rapid decline. As Fromkin, Blair and Collins (2000, p. 468) assert, "in its literature, poetry, ritual speech and word structure, each language stores the collective intellectual achievements of a culture, offering unique perspectives on fundamental problems of the human condition". The loss of any language and its concomitant culture is therefore a loss of our humanness, of our history. Sadly, until recently white Australian history has been one of genocide of the indigenous peoples and repression of their languages and culture. Any withdrawal of Government support at this stage will see many efforts at language maintenance lost. At least 150 Aboriginal languages and their concomitant cultures have been lost since 1788 and the significance of this cannot be understated. "Once a language dies it is gone for all time" (Wardhaugh, 2002, p. 37). The continuing loss of Australia's indigenous languages was highlighted recently in an article in The Weekend Australian:.

"When Big Bill Neidjie died late last month, the Gagadju tongue died with him. The last speaker of the language of the Bunidj people, Neidjie died near Kakadu…His death marked the latest instalment in a history of rapid decline. Aboriginal languages are dying all over the nation" (Powell, 2002, p. 26).

Thus the maintenance and preservation of Aboriginal languages must become a priority on the Government agenda. While it may be argued that dead languages can be revived, it "takes a great deal of time, money and political will" (Morrison, 2002, p. 26) and the efforts are not always successful. Many writers cite the case of the revival of Hebrew, but this was a written language and thus there were records that could be reviewed. We do not have the same capacity to revive non-codified oral languages unless they have been well documented as in the case of Kaurna, and this is why it is important to put resources into preserving Aboriginal languages now. "The survival of Aboriginal culture and language...depends solely on what happens in Australia" (Cooray, 2000, 4). Crystal (2000, p. 162) reports that there has been "limited success" in preserving Aboriginal languages but that now we at least have opportunities "to record dying languages using audio and video facilities, the situation can only improve". A significant question of course, is do we have the resources both human and financial, to do it?


The ALLP clearly states that "All Australians need to have effective literacy in English, not only for their personal benefit and welfare but also for Australia to achieve its social and economic goals" but for NESB students "the development of initial literacy in the first language is desirable for personal development" (Australia's Language, 1991, p. 9). This view is endorsed by Davies et al. (1997, p. 28) who affirm that "when the different learning styles and skills from the learner's first language and culture are not tapped into in the mainstream classroom, confusion and disillusionment may be the result". Thus we must be concerned with issues of social justice and also with issues of psychological health. Both are vital when we consider successful learning not just of English as an L2 but in the maintenance of the L1.

We must be cautious however of extremism. Davies et al. (1997) cite the example of the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara education experiment in South Australia where all teaching was done in the native tongue. The result was that eventually the community demanded the right for their children to learn English. This was a demand for social justice for their children whom they believed were denied access to the linga franca and all of the social, economic and cultural benefits that understanding and fluency in English brings to other Australians.

A more successful policy for maintaining minority languages was the Two-Way learning concept initiated in the Northern Territory by the Gurindji people. Two-way education "aims at a two-way exchange of knowledge, language and culture" (Davies et al. 1997, p. 39). This has been duplicated in schools with other minority language groups with varying success though it could be argued that it is often simply tokenistic. My own experience as a School Principal was that we would celebrate other cultures (and their languages) for a specific day or a week during the year and then return to mainstream schooling as though it had not happened. At least the word celebrate gave it a positive aspect! Though as Davies et al. (1997) conclude, the involvement of parents and the community in the education system has considerable benefits to all parties but it has little impact on language maintenance unless there is an ongoing policy that is directed towards that goal.

More recently there have been some successful educational projects directed at cultural and language maintenance for Aborigines, namely the Felix, The Desert Schools Project and The Baiyai Research Project. These projects focus on "English, Aboriginal English and education" (Eades, n.d. Defining Aboriginal English section). But as with all educational projects concerned with language, short and long term planning is vital. It must address the need to resource staff training and staff maintenance both on a state and on regional levels. This is particularly important when we consider Bilingual programs, and the ALLP was most adamant that

"in the case of non-English-speaking background children learning English in Australia, bilingual education programs give status within the education system to the languages which the children bring to school...evidence suggests that, where possible, literacy should be established first in the child's first language" (The Australian Language and Literacy Policy, 1991, p. 79).

This is endorsed by Davies et al. (1997, p. 25) who report that where there is an emphasis on "developing the L2 at the expense of the L1 (subtractive bilingual contexts) [it will] lead to academic difficulty and cognitive disadvantage for the learner". It may even result in what Fishman (1991, p. 55) calls "language shift" where "the stresses and strains of cross-cultural contact [erode] the ability of the smaller and weaker to withstand the stronger and larger". In these instances the maintenance of a minority language becomes fraught with difficulty especially if the next generation refuses to speak anything but standard English.


The major problem associated with a policy of bilingual education is that "planning the status and function of different languages in society often involves provision of greater (or fewer) opportunities for the acquisition of different languages in the educational sphere" (Bialystok & Cummins, 1991, p. 224). This then presents an equity issue: which minority languages will attract government, educational and financial support in what proportions? How do we prevent the subtle suggestion that one minority language is more important than another and avoid the self esteem issues associated with those decisions for the speakers of languages that are perceived to be of less status because they are not supported. Should immigrant minority languages be funded differently to our involuntary minority languages? Cooray (2000, 4) would certainly endorse such a suggestion: "The Aboriginal question is a separate debate and should not be confused with the questions regarding the cultural interests of other groups." However, if this is to be Government policy then Australia will contravene the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996) by not providing "equitable relationships between all languages and cultures" within a "political framework [with an ethos of] linguistic diversity based upon respect, harmonious coexistence and mutual benefit."

Without support for the L1 language and thus culture of students for whom English is a second language we fail to exploit all the potential those people have to offer. The ramifications for adult learners of English are even more manifold. We have still not addressed the issue of ESL for migrants who have limited or no literacy in their own language. Thus we have not only cultural but educational barriers to learning English and the maintenance of these community languages is therefore complex. Perhaps we need a policy that provides these groups with speakers who are literate in their L1 in order to support and maintain their language in Australia. These are social issues that must be addressed.

"Members of minority ethnolinguistic groups are frequently...socially disadvantaged...[through]...powerlessness numerically, politically and in terms of resource control of almost every kind. This is quite obviously so...[for]...unselected immigrants...[and]...minoritized indigenous populations" (Fishman, 1991, p. 59).

Policy and planning are evolutionary processes that reflect changing attitudes and priorities. Issues concerning language maintenance and revival in Australia are a reflection of changing attitudes and priorities both in a social and educational context. The full understanding of language death "fuels the motivation and commitment of linguists, community groups, and support organizations" (Crystal, 2000, p. 163) to lobby for Government resources and keep minority languages on the national agenda. Yet we must again return to the question of whether we have the resources to fund language programs for both immigrant minorities and involuntary minorities.

The fact that Australia is a multicultural nation and therefore has many minority languages cannot be refuted. What we must do is consider how we will support the speakers of indigenous and other minority languages within a social and educational context in order to retain their social contact and generational contact. In doing so we must be alert to the fact that "cultures, languages, individuals, communities and homes all differ. It appears that the only the school... This can help us plan our language programmes in terms of the likely demands that will be made on children everywhere" (Davies et al., 1997, p. 62). This seems to suggest that the way to tackle the issue of language maintenance is at an educational rather than a community level. But surely the two are inseparable. However, we also face the risk of being overly concerned with "language curriculum strategies founded on a simply pluralist model of culture [or] with approaches more concerned with the role of education in fostering social equity and founded on an holistic understanding of language-in-culture in an industrialized social setting" (Kalantzis et al. 1989, p. 51). The warnings of Cooray seem to have some credence within this context. He believes that

"notions of multiculturalism which assert the right of each ethnic community to maintain its language and culture on Australian soil, if necessary with the assistance of public funded programmes [is unrealistic both financially and socially]" (Cooray, 2000, para. 3).


Language maintenance is vital for all minority groups as is the real opportunity to learn English in Australia. The advantages of English speakers in this country are undisputed. But the enriching process for Australia of having bilingual or multilingual speakers cannot be underestimated. Maintenance of minority languages within the context of community and education programs must contribute towards social harmony in a cosmopolitan society. Recognition of our indigenous peoples and their rich culture and language is only one step. Providing the assistance to maintain their languages and concomitant cultures requires massive resources. We must always remember that these are oral languages and once lost revival is difficult if not impossible. But ethnic minorities also have the right to language maintenance. Certainly the issue of revival may not need to be addressed in Australia when there is a situation of native speakers in their homeland. But the needs of people to establish a sense of community with like speakers and to pass their culture to the next generation is vital. So too must the attitude of native English speakers be to immerse themselves in LOTE so that there is a true sense of cultural exchange.

It is a vexing question and massive responsibility to ascertain how we can help all of the minority languages to survive, and if indeed, we should assist all of them or only the involuntary minorities. If this is the case we necessarily deny our immigrant minorities social justice. Regardless, there must be a partnership between Government, linguists and educationalists in order to take responsibility for language maintenance/revival in Australia. When we consider the implications for language policy and planning we must consider not only by whom but how such decisions will be made. Is it a government decision, an educational decision, a community decision, a social decision or a combination of all of these? Who represents the minority groups to the decision makers? Issues such as these must be considered if we are to help minority languages survive and in so doing ensure our cultural and linguistic diversity.


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