Date: June 02 2012
A number of Aboriginal languages are in danger of extinction, a parliamentary committee was told this week, with just 20 to 30 considered viable.
In 1788, it is estimated, more than 250 languages were spoken. By 2005, when the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies did a national survey of languages, it identified just 145 languages. Of those, 110 were classified as ''severely and critically endangered'', meaning they were spoken by small groups of people who were mostly older than 40.
The standing committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs on languages, which met on Thursday, was told it could cost $90 million to save languages under threat.
But National Congress of Australia's First Peoples director Venessa Curnow told the meeting that calls to increase funding had been unheeded since the 2005 report.
''The delay in implementing on-the-ground solutions for communities for language maintenance, revival and revitalisation activities is unacceptable and requires urgent action,'' she said.
''Factors like insufficient funding, a lack of co-ordination and strategic approach to language maintenance and revival efforts, and the cessation of bilingual education in the Northern Territory [where the largest number of speakers of 'strong' languages reside] are all part of the crisis.
''Ours is an oral tradition and maintenance of the remaining active First Peoples languages and revitalisation of those languages which are 'sleeping' is very much possible with the right will, approach and resources.''
Committee chairman Shayne Neumann said the inquiry, which has held hearings across the country, had seen many people break down in tears as they described the loss of languages.
Not only is language tied to culture, he said, for Aboriginal peoples it was tied to land.
''I think there are big benefits to the wider community [of languages being retained],'' Mr Neumann said.
''If we can be proud as Australians in the wider community of the sports players and the singers and the artists, why shouldn't we be proud of the language? It was spoken for 40,000 years before people with my skin pigmentation came along. We've got an obligation as Australians to do something about this.''
There have been more than 150 submissions to the inquiry, which is due to report to the federal government in a report in October.
Mr Neumann said while increased funding to protect, preserve and revive languages would be part of the commitee's recommendations, throwing money at the issue would not fix it.
''At the moment, funding is siloed, haphazard and inadequate,'' he said.
''So we haven't done it well enough and the evidence we've got is there's a real need for translators. In justice areas there's a real problem … in health there's a real problem.''
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