The Loss of Indigenous Languages - the Sociological Effects Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Loss of Indigenous Languages - the Sociological Effects

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The loss of indigenous language in Australia and in other countries is a dominant factor in the loss of culture. The loss of culture has had a dramatic effect on the lives of those to whom that culture belonged.


Culture and language is in most instances much the same thing; following the loss of language, the loss of culture and heritage is likely. The loss of language has many harmful effects on the people to whom it belonged. A sense of disconnectedness is often reported and it can be the cause of many of the problems dealt with by indigenous groups. To explain the issue of loss of language and its impact on indigenous groups and their culture we will examine the Australian Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander (ATSI), and the fight for the integrity of their languages.

Before European settlement in 1788, perhaps the oldest culture in the world remained fundamentally untouched for tens of thousands of years. There were around 600 to 700 distinct nations on the Australian continent, many of which had their own language - over two hundred in fact. Today, only half this number survive in any given form and only 20 are in common use. The largest community is the Yolugu tribe of north-east Arnhem Land, whose language has nearly 6,000 speakers.

There are a number of reasons for the decline of native languages in Australia. With Australia being announced Terra nullius ('land without owners') the Aboriginals were referred to as squatters on their own tribal land. In many cases where land was to be developed for farming, the Aboriginals, whose land it was, were moved off the land and sent to settlements. This must have had a detrimental effect on a culture so intertwined with the land the tribe occupied. Firstly their lore of the land, passed down verbally from each generation would no longer be relevant on the settlement.

A language long associated with the culture is best able to most exactly, most richly, with appropriate overtones, [relay] the concerns, artefacts, values and interests of that culture.
Fishmam, 1996

Much of the cultural heritage is lost in this manner. Words only used for a certain plant or stream of significance are no longer in everyday use, so are lost to the younger generation.

Secondly, there was the loss of language through the Europeans' policy of assimilation. The Aborigines Protection Board ('the Protection Board') was established in 1883. The aims of the Board in the late 1800s and early 1900s were to concentrate Aborigines on reserves, enforce dependency through a ration system, destroy the culture and absorb those other than 'full-bloods' into white Australian society. The removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their subsequent placement in 'training homes' and other 'educational' institutions was also an integral part of the Board's practice. At these homes, Aboriginal girls were trained as domestic servants, and Aboriginal boys were trained to be rural workers. The children were forbidden to use their own language and most were forbidden to see their parents, even if they lived on the same mission station. Many never saw their parents again. Sally Morgan says, from her own experience, 'the children were taught to be ashamed of their Aboriginality, and pretended all their lives that they were White. Some never knew they were Aboriginal.' The loss of language, culture and identity has had a dramatic effect on the lives of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.


While the assimilationist approach that Aboriginal people be diluted into a larger culture had devastating effects the welfare emphasis, which sought to improve hygiene and material conditions for Aboriginal people, had some success... However, service providers were totally insensitive to Aboriginal cultural prerequisites, believing that such attitudes had no place in a modern family.
- The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody National Report, 1992

The report lists this cultural attack as one of the reasons for the high crime rate and domestic abuse accruing within Aboriginal communities around Australia. However the loss of language also has its effect on the individual. The Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH), a government-run organisation, states that the suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are proportionally high. In Western Australian they are double the rate of non-ATSI suicides.

Aboriginal people are hugely over-represented in Australian prison populations. Nationally, Aboriginal people constitute less than 1% of the Australian population; however Aboriginal people constitute 19% of the total adult prison population, and approximately 40% of the juveniles in detention. Also:

Between 1988 and 1998 the number of Aboriginal prisoners increased by 107% nationally. Aboriginal prison populations have grown faster than non-Aboriginal prison populations in all Australian States and Territories.
Dubes, 2002

According to the report, this alarming trend is partly caused by the sense of alienation felt by Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islanders, saying that their disconnection from traditional culture, and the resentment caused by discrimination by mainstream society has left the ATSI without guidance.

Iris Lovett-Gardiner's perspective, being born on the Aboriginal mission at Lake Conder, is that 'the local history for Aboriginal people is one of dispossession. White people rounded up local Aboriginal people and put them on a mission at Lake Conder. Children on the mission lived in dormitory conditions and not with their families. This has resulted in the total loss of our language and the loss, by most of those in our community, of a sense of belonging to a family.'

There are a small number of foundations working to improve the state of native language loss within Australia such as: Regional Aboriginal Language Centres (RALCs) established in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the 1980s as indigenous-controlled bodies. They were charged with assisting in the running of local community language programmes in their regions, including language documentation, education and training, materials and multimedia production, and interpreting/translation. However, it was not until the 1990s that these centres delivered any type of successful language service.

Many people are calling for a more proactive approach. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation put together a report 'Towards Social Justice: A Compilation Report Of Consultations'. ATSIC and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation consulted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on matters like social justice measures. The report states that:

Cultural studies, histories, cultures and languages, should be compulsorily introduced into the curriculum of all education institutions throughout Australia [including] the right to be educated in our own languages and measures to promote language maintenance, [and] equal status should be given to Aboriginal dialects and the English language within the education system.
ATSIC and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 1994

New Zealand - Canada

Language loss is a worldwide issue. Australia's neighbour, New Zealand, has struggled with the loss of the Maori native tongue for the past two decades but has succeeded where Australia has failed. In 1980, The Maori people of New Zealand faced much the same problem as the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; they called a large tribal Hui (meeting) that year to determine the future of the language. A programme called Te Kohanga Re, 'The Language Nest', was developed. 'The programme consisted of a total school immersion of young children in the Maori language, values, and ways of life', according to Alison Yaunches. The technique used by the Te Kohanga Reo centres has attracted the attention of many other countries as word of the programme's success spreads. One such group is the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico.

European settlement of New Zealand was a unique enterprise and differed from Australia's colonisation. Where Australia was declared 'Terra Nullius', New Zealand was recognised as being owned, and the Europeans settled the land through negotiations rather than force. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed on 6 February 1840 between the English Captain William Hobson and approximately 45 Maori chiefs, established British sovereignty over the islands, while protecting Maori rights to their lands and natural resources. In the majority, the Europeans maintained the peace with the Maori to whom the land belonged. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Maori language has survived settlement more efficiently than many Aboriginal languages. However, largely, this survival is attributed to the fact that Te Reo Mäori was the national language and varied little from tribe to tribe.

The First Peoples of America are also struggling to save their languages, with many organisations such as Native Languages of the Americas preserving and promoting American Indian languages. On the American continent, the history of genocide and assimilation of the Aboriginal echoes Australia's experience in some ways. Canada, like Australia, implemented boarding schools in an effort to socialise the indigenous people. The damning report, 'Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust', explaines that survivors of the boarding schools and their families from both Canada and the US are now drafting a resolution they aim to have introduced in Congress that would demand compensation for the roughly 100,000 native children taken from their homes in the 18th and 19th Centuries - with the goal of assimilating them into white society; America's stolen generation.

Activists argue that Washington is liable under international law for any continuing effects of that system, including the loss of aboriginal languages and the widespread violence in many native communities.
Annett, 1998

There are three groups within Canada that comprise the Canadian Aboriginal, the First Nations (often referred to as 'Indians'), the Inuit (northern people formerly referred to as 'eskimos'), and Métis (people of mixed French and Indian blood who originally settled in western Canada). The issue of loss of cultural heritage and language has affected them all.

The policy of forced assimilation has devastated Aboriginal people. Its legacy is loss of language and destruction of culture, chronic addictions, community violence, suicide, broken families, mistrust of leadership and authority, and shame. In the past decade, many residential school survivors have also come forward with stories of physical and sexual abuse suffered while attending residential school.
DeGagné, 2000

In response to outcries from the Aboriginal community in Canada, the government issued a 'Statement of Reconciliation'. This statement was contained within a document entitled 'Gathering Strength - Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan.' The document acknowledged the state's role in the implementation and running of these schools, and acknowledged the damage they have caused to Aboriginal culture. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) was created and the Government committed $350million in funding. The Aboriginal response to the statement varied. Some thought the statement was a step forward in Aboriginal reconciliation, while others interpreted it as a means of minimising lawsuits. Despite the differing opinions, the statement was widely interpreted as an apology.

Programmes have been initiated in Canada to maintain Aboriginal language. They are government-funded and run by elders in the community. One such organisation is the Yukon Native Language Centre. Programmes include adult education and diplomas in native studies, and school-based learning. Nearly all Yukon communities have school-based Native Language programmes. These are offered to both non-native and native students, with the aim of exposing the students to the local language and to encourage a positive attitude toward it.


The loss of language long associated with a culture cannot be taken and replaced without harmful affects. The Australian Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander people have lost a tremendous amount of distinct, irretrievable culture, with only four per cent of their languages remaining strong today. The loss of language is felt broadly through the communities of those affected. Through the loss of language, and culture (which are synonymous), a sense of alienation, hostility and disregard has emerged, affecting all manner of life throughout Australia. The struggle for language is common throughout the world. Some languages have been saved, but most are still in danger, like many of the languages of the Americas. Others have died out entirely. New Zealand is a beacon of light for those who struggle; their success has inspired others to carry on the fight to save their cultural heritage.

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