This report makes clear that there is no single, homogenous experience of Indigenous languages in Australia. In some parts of the country, people speak traditional languages in all facets of their lives, including for cultural and commercial activities. There is no one, clear context in which languages function.
The report outlines an approach which policy makers and service providers can use to understand the regional differences and considerations of language, when planning, implementing and evaluating initiatives.
- For the most part, the role of language has not been well-considered in the design and delivery of government policies, programs and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In some sectors, translation and interpreting services are available for people who speak traditional language. What has been largely ignored is the role that traditional language plays in the lives of people who may not speak it. Further, the circumstances through which languages have been lost are still a source of sadness and grief for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
- All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people benefit from the recognition of and respect for their cultures, including their languages, and a consistent theme in recent government consultation reports is that culture needs to be embedded in service delivery. In addition, in some areas the language needs of the service recipients should also be recognised, although these are not always included in evaluations of service effectiveness.
- Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages that are considered endangered or sleeping can be revived, renewed or reawakened. This process can vary depending on whether the language group is starting the journey with no fluent speakers, or with some. It has been demonstrated that it is possible to revive a language at either end of this continuum.
- Today, there is still a diversity of Indigenous language varieties, but the nature of that diversity has changed. There is now a mix of traditional and new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken across Australia, along with English and foreign languages, which are being spoken to varying degrees. The language community should be able to choose to use their first language in all aspects of community life, and there should also be support for learning English to a high standard, so people can access all available economic and social benefits and opportunities.
Given the centrality of language – both its absence and its presence – to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this report encourages organisations, including governments at all levels, to use its findings to inform policy, program development and delivery for this country’s First Peoples.