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Nick Thieberger has just drawn attention to an article today from "The Australian" about the impending extinction of Australian languages, based on a Worldwatch report.  "It is estimated that 90 per cent of the languages spoken by Australia's Aboriginal peoples will perish within the current generation".

This is timely, as over the last few months we have seen increasing attempts by representatives  of the Government to attribute the dreadful state of some Indigenous people to  policies assisting them to maintain their languages and cultures.

In fact, over the last century many Indigenous communities all over Australia have been shifting from speaking traditional languages to speaking English-based creoles or varieties of English.  I have
seen no studies to show that, (keeping remotenesss of location and availablity of jobs constant) this shift has been accompanied by greater access to jobs, wealth, health and happiness.  
(Please add comments with reference if you can think of any).

Bilingual education has been blamed for Aborigines' poor English. But most Indigenous schools in remote Australia have not, and never have been, officially bilingual.  They have been English-medium schools. There is no evidence to suggest that children from the English-medium schools have learned English and other school subjects better than the children from the bilingual schools, and consequently have better access to work.  There are places where such testing could be done, but it needs to be done by independent assessors without a vested interest in the success of one or other type of program.

Second, bilingual programs in Australia have by and large been transfer programs - that is, they are based on the premise that many children learn better through their first language, and that  this allows them to transfer their skills to the dominant language.  The children have been taught English as a second language, from very early on. 

Third, these bilingual programs have often been under-resourced and under threat - they are more  expensive to run than English-only programs.  Whether a school remains bilingual usually depends on the principal of the school - and often new principals want to make their mark by reversing the policies of their predecessors. (a case in point is a new principal in a school which until his arrival had a Kriol bilingual program.  He made a bonfire of the Kriol materials laboriously
created by the local school staff).

Whether bilingual education slows language loss really hasn't been tested either.  We can point to communities such as Yuendumu which have had long-standing bilingual programs, and children
are still learning Warlpiri as their first language.  But no longitudinal studies have been done considering language loss and maintenance in comparable communities with and without bilingual
education programs. 

What isn't in doubt is that communities are shifting away from speaking Indigenous languages, and that once children stop speaking these languages, the languages will disappear.  If there are benefits to this language shift, as the Government appears to be claiming, they certainly don't seem apparent right now. Bilingual education may not be the solution to language loss, but until a better solution appears, it certainly cannot be dismissed.

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About the Blog

The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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