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3. Language Endangerment: Policy Issues

Australia’s Northern Territory will phase out Bilingual Education for Aboriginals

Date: Wed, 02 Dec 1998 10:29:27 +0930
From: Bob Boughton

The following statement was the work of a group of people in Alice Springs and is being forwarded for information and action by those interested in the future of bi-lingual education.

Wednesday, December 2nd, Alice Springs, NT

Yesterday in Alice Springs a Forum of educationalists attended by over sixty (60) people including many experienced Indigenous educators gathered to discuss the future of Aboriginal education in Alice Springs, particularly for Arrernte-speaking high school age students. As the Forum was listening to a proposal concerning the implementation of Arrernte and Warlpiri languages as part of the curriculum for Aboriginal children in Alice Springs schools, news arrived that the Northern Territory Government Minister for Education Peter Adamson had just announced in the parliament his government's intention to replace bi-lingual education with ESL programs throughout the Territory (For the NT Department of Education Statement, and copies of the Minister's press release, see

To say that the announcement came as a body blow is to underestimate the demoralising effect that it had on the gathering. A number of people immediately pointed out that the announcement gave communities a false and potentially divisive choice, and that communities should never be asked to surrender the right to teach and learn in their own languages, before they could access ESL support. ESL and bi-lingual education are not mutually exclusive, it was said, but could and should work together to produce quality educational outcomes for Aboriginal communities. It was also pointed out that this action directly threatened the rights of indigenous language speakers to educate their children and young people in those languages if they wished, with government support, a right specified in the current draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A majority of people at the gathering voted to call on the Government to withdraw its announcement and immediately conduct extensive consultation with Aboriginal organisations and communities in Central Australia.

Bob Boughton
Research Fellow, Indigenous Education Program
C.R.C. for Indigenous and Tropical Health, Menzies School of Health Research, Central Australian Unit, PO Box 8569, Alice Springs N.T. 0871, Australia.
Tel +61-8 895-17637 (w) -31668 (h) Fax: -17590
email: bob(at)

Selections from :
Australian Indigenous Languages (Internet Library for Australian Languages) Edited by David Nathan


Attack on bilingual education in the Northern Territory 14 December 1998

Recent correspondence indicates that Bilingual Education is being withdrawn in the Northern Territory. Many Territorians are concerned about the future of the NT's children.

The findings of a NT Department of Education review includes the following Initiative:

"Progressively withdraw the Bilingual Education program, allowing the schools to share in the savings and better resource English language programs."

A 3 year time frame has been suggested, with some of the major restructuring likely in the first half of next year.
… It is worth noting that in 1994, the Australian Senate published a Report A Matter of Survival, the findings of an inquiry undertaken "because of widespread concern over language loss amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people." Participants in the inquiry included Dr Michael Wooldridge, MP, the current Health Minister, Mr Les Scott, MP, (Chair) Mr Garrie Gibson, MP and the current member for the NT, Warren Snowdon.

Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 08:47:51 -0400
From: Kenneth Hale
Subject: Re: ELL: Bilingual ed ditched

Dear David:
Here is a letter I sent to Abramson and Stone about bilingual education. I hope it's appropriate. Best, Ken.

December 9, 1998

Hon Peter Adamson, MLA
Minister for Education
Fax: 618 8981 7440

The Honorable Mr. Adamson:

I am writing in relation to the decision to withdraw bilingual education from the educational programs for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. I was one of the contributors to the 1975 report on bilingual education and one of the people involved in producing materials and in training Warlpiri-speaking teachers during the first months of the Yuendumu Bilingual Education Program.

Bilingual education has been one of the most effective ways to ensure that the linguistic traditions of local communities play the role they deserve to play in the schooling their children and young adults. This has been established as virtually axiomatic in indigenous communities the world over. While it is of course a necessity that pupils gain full access to the language of the nation in which they live, English in this case, it is also necessary that their native language and cultural heritage be accorded a position of dignity and integrity in the context of their formal education, which constitutes a significant percentage of their waking hours.

With 35 years of experience in working with indigenous language communities, in the United States, Australia, and Nicaragua, I feel qualified to say that policies which effectively remove from the school setting the intellectual heritage represented by the local language have consequences which are serious and harmful for students who need to have that heritage and to realize that it is important and deserving of a position of centrality in their education. The policy of denial deprives students of something they need. They need their language and they need to see their language accorded the respect it deserves. Given that the school is an important and prominent institution in Aboriginal communities, the best way to show respect for an Aboriginal language is to give it a serious position within the school.

In conclusion, I wish to urge in the strongest possible terms that the decision to withdraw bilingual education from the school in the Northern Territory be reconsidered and revoked.

Sincerely yours,

Kenneth Hale
Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics

Davyth Hicks quoted a message from 21 December on the list CORNISHSTUDIES(at)

The decision of the Australian Northern Territory Government to axe school teaching in Aboriginal languages and the furore the decision has generated
might seem somehow familiar to Cornish people…
For a flavour of the ‘debate’ I will quote two articles from the Canberra Times of 10th December, both starting on page 1 of the newspaper:

By Naomi Mapstone and Emma MacDonald
The Northern Territory Government has been accused of winding back the clock to the assimilationist education policies of 40 years ago.

Indigenous communities and educationists are in uproar about the move to teach in English only, accusing the government of disempowering Aboriginal people, denying them the right to keep their culture and languages alive and jeopardising literacy outcomes.

Between 60 and 100 jobs are at risk, affecting 21 indigenous communities in the territory.

NT Education Minister Peter Adamson (Country Liberal Party) defended the decision to phase out bilingual education yesterday, saying employment opportunities for Aboriginal people would be maintained and children could still learn their own languages at home.

If a community felt strongly about learning indigenous languages, they could invite elders to come into the school and teach voluntarily he said.

Federal Labor Member for the NT Warren Snowdon, a former teacher, said English was the second language of many indigenous students, and proficiency in a first language was a proven aid to progress in a second. ‘Bilingual education is regarded as fundamental to providing two-way education for Aboriginal people… clearly the NT Government has decided that rather than having policies for the next millennium, they'd rather have policies of the 1940s and 1950s,’ he said.

The chairman of the central Arnhem Land Galiwin'ku community, George Daynambu, said his community was angry that its language was to be denied official recognition.

‘Equal rights demands that cultural richness of languages must be recognised and promoted,’ he said.

The Ngulu community of Tiwi people on Bathurst Island said the move harked back to the assimilationist policies of the past.

‘We feel angry - nobody came and talked to the Tiwi people. This is discrimination, it is attacking Aboriginal culture and language,’ they wrote in an open letter.

‘The children need to learn their own language, keep it strong. They learn relationships, singing, dancing, skin group, seasons, country, totem, story telling, clans, dreamtime…kids need to be able to read and write in Tiwi because that is what they will speak forever.’

Papanyah School community spokeswoman Diane de Vere has asked for the issue to be reconsidered as a matter of ‘urgency, conscience and hope.’

By Emma MacDonald
World languages expert Stephen Wurm has warned that a decision to cut bilingual education for Aboriginal students could extinguish indigenous languages.

Australian National University Emeritus Professor Wurm, who speaks 40 languages, including several Aboriginal dialects, and who is the president of the Permanent International Council of Linguistics, said yesterday that the Northern Territory Government's move was a ‘great shame’ and could ‘come back and haunt it’.

The Government's justification that English was a more important language for indigenous people to learn was ‘stupid’.

‘People think that bilingualism is harmful to English, but that is absolute idiocy. The vast majority of speakers of languages in the world are bi and multilingual, and there is no harm to English with that’, he said.

Professor Wurm said the Government was displaying the ‘typical attitude of speakers of large languages such as English, French, Russian, Chinese’.

Yet he warned that if indigenous languages did disappear, the Government could be faced with young people storming back to scholars and politicians saying ‘Please, we have forgotten our language, can you teach it to us?’.

Professor Wurm reported that the University of Adelaide had been requested by a local community to provide tuition in an extinct language, resulting in 50 fluent speakers.

He warned that reviving an extinct language was difficult and expensive and that the Northern Territory Government could face enormous pressure from many of the active Aboriginal communities.

Professor Matthew Spriggs, FAHA
Dept Archaeology & Anthropology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200,
Australia. Tel:+61-2-6279-8229, fax -2711

See also the Editorial column above, for FEL’s response, and how you can contribute; and for a Petition Form on electronic media:

UK Committed to Sign the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of Welsh; Active Consideration for Irish and Scots Gaelic

(Much of this information is from the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, and especially Contact Bulletin 15.1 (Nov. 1998)).

The Charter is a document formulated by the Council of Europe on 5 September 1992, which defines minimum standards for the treatment of indigenous languages by European states. It outlines measures relating to Education, Judicial Authorities, Adminstrative Authorities and Public Services, Media, Cultural Activities and Facilities, Economic and Social Life and Transfrontier Exchanges. It is flexible, in that it only requires countries that ratify, accept or approve it to guarantee action under a appropriate selection of these measures. The Charter requires a minimum of 35 such measures (out of a possible 94) for a given language, with 3 each from the Education and Cultural groups.

The previous Conservative administration in the UK had decided not to sign at all. But the new Labour government in 1998 stated its acceptance of the Charter’s principles through Derek Fatchett, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in response to a Parliamentary Question. Its readiness to sign the Charter for Welsh was declared by Ron Davies, then Secretary of State for Wales.

It is necessary to provide for the use of Scots Gaelic in the courts before this language can be included, and it was said to be the Government’s intention this year (1998) to draw up legislation for use of Gaelic in civil cases where Gaelic is used by a substantial proporton of the population. Irish in Northern Ireland was to be specified “at an early date”.

Scots (a dialect of English) is to be specified under Part II of the Charter, which only states Objectives and Principles, without minimum standards for measures to be enforced. This mention of Scots is not geographically specific to Scotland; and it is in fact an issue in the Northern Ireland negotiations what status is to be given to Ulster-Scots.

The following clauses are part of the “Good Friday” 1998 Northern Irish Peace Agreement:

Economic, Social and Cultural Issues

3. All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.



4. In the context of active consideration currently being given to the UK signing the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the British Government will in particular in relation to the Irish language, where appropriate and where people so desire it:

• take resolute action to promote the language;

• facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand;

• seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language;

• make provision for liaising with the Irish language community, representing their views to public authorities and investigating complaints;

• place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education;

• explore urgently with the relevant British authorities, and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Teilifis na Gaeilge in Northern Ireland;

• seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland; and

• encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be sustained by a new Assembly in a way which takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community.

Poignant report on the Regional Languages and Cultures of France (Derived from the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages’ Contact Bulletin 15.1 (Nov. 1998)).

In response to a request from the French Prime Minister, Bernard Poignant (mayor of Kemper in Brittany) continued the work of Nicole Péry (a parliamentary deputy from the Basque country) in producing a report on regional lngauages and cultures in France. It was duly delivered on 1 July 1998, and immediately published.

It recommends signing and ratification of the European Charter, despite the recent controversy about this in France, where the Council of State, on 24 September 1996, ruled that it was incompatible with the clause of the French constitution (added in 1992) that “la langue de la République est le français”. The report recommends changing the constitution if necessary.

It recognizes 12 ‘cultural languages of the Republic other than French’. Besides Basque and Breton, these are Mosel-Alsatian (written as German), Catalan, Corsican, Creoles (of Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion), Occitan, Flemish, Tahitian, the Kanak languages, the Oïl languages close to French itself (e.g. Picard, Champenois …) and Franco-Provençal.

Its concrete proposals are for the languages to be considered in recruitment of teachers, language quotas for public TV and radio, and centres for meetings and discussion. By and large, it has been met with a measured welcome from representatives of the regions.

Parliamentary Report on the Status of Corsican (in French): Statut de la langue corse dans l'enseignement, Corse, Septembre 1998

Claude Truchot (Univ. Franche-Comté, France: ) nous a envoyé ce rapport, sur la base du rapport de la commission d'enquête parlementaire sur la Corse et comptes-rendus de presse.

Le volumineux rapport de la Commission Parlementaire d'Enquête sur la Corse Nouvelle remis au Premier Ministre français en septembre 1998, recommande au Gouvernement la défense et promotion de la langue corse comme étant une des sept priorités pour sortir l'île de la situation économique et sociale difficile où elle se trouve actuellement. Elle relève que si la connaissance du corse est en baisse (60% de la population de l'île est en mesure de soutenir une conversation contre 80% en 1977), le processus de valorisation dans les médias et dans la culture (surtout chez les jeunes) est en forte hausse. Dans l'éducation 85% des élèves du primaire apprennent le corse notamment dans onze écoles bilingues. Cet enseignement est prolongé dans le secondaire, soit dans des "sections méditerranéennes" (français, corse, latin, italien ou espagnol), soit en tant que langue vivante. En 1997, environ un tiers des élèves avaient passé une épreuve de corse au bac. Par contre la Commission ne se prononce pas en faveur de l'obligation de son enseignement, contrairement à ce que demandent les nationalistes et une partie des élus de gauche, mais recommande un élargissement des possibilités d'apprentissage, ce qui devrait être, pour l'instant, la position gouvernementale.

Census of Canada's Aboriginal languages

The Daily, Statistics Canada , 14 December 1998:

This report is based on an article in the publication Canadian social trends that explores which of Canada's Aboriginal languages are flourishing and which are in danger of disappearing.

The article examines the factors that differentiate viable languages from endangered ones. In addition, it compares language use and maintenance patterns between 1981 and 1996 to understand what happened to Aboriginal languages over the years, and what the future may hold for them.

The article uses data from the 1981 to 1996 censuses as well as the 1991 Aboriginal Peoples Survey. The 1996 Aboriginal identity population includes those people who reported identifying with at least one Aboriginal group, that is, North American Indian, Métis or Inuit. In 1991 and in previous censuses, the Aboriginal population was defined using the ethnic origin question based primarily on ancestry. Because of changes in concepts and measures of the Aboriginal population over time, the time-series analysis from the census is restricted to language-based data only.

During the past 100 years or more, some 10 of Canada's once-flourishing Aboriginal languages have become extinct, and at least a dozen are on the brink.

As of 1996, only three out of 50 Aboriginal languages - Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway - had large enough populations to be considered truly secure from the threat of extinction in the long run. This is not surprising in light of the current situation. Of some 800,000 persons who claimed an Aboriginal identity in 1996, only 26% said an Aboriginal language was their mother tongue, and even fewer spoke it at home.

The 50 Aboriginal languages belong to 11 major language families - 10 First Nations and Inuktitut. Some of these families are large and strong, others small and vulnerable.

The three largest families together represent 93% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue. About 147,000 people have Algonquian as mother tongue, the family that includes Cree and Ojibway. Another 28,000 have Inuktitut, and 20,000 have Athapaskan. The remaining eight language families account for 7% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue, an indication of these languages' relative size.

Since a large base of speakers is among the essential factors to ensure long-term viability, the more speakers a language has, the better are its chances of survival. Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway all boast more than 20,000 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.

In contrast, endangered languages rarely have more than a few thousand speakers, and often they have only a few hundred. For instance, the two smallest and weakest language groups, Kutenai and Tlingit, have mother tongue populations of only 120 and 145 respectively.

Aboriginal languages underwent steady erosion between 1981 and 1996

Between 1981 and 1996, most Aboriginal languages experienced a steady erosion in linguistic vitality. Although the number of people reporting an Aboriginal mother tongue increased nearly 24% during the 15-year period, the number of those who spoke an Aboriginal language at home grew only 7%.

As a result, for every 100 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, the number whose home language was most often an indigenous language declined from 76 in 1981 to 65 in 1996.

Endangered languages experienced the largest declines. For example, for every 100 individuals with Salish languages as a mother tongue, the number who used it at home fell from 35 in 1981 to only 12 by 1996. Tlingit and Kutenai had practically disappeared by the 1990s as languages most often spoken at home.

The use of Cree at home declined as well, but by considerably less than other languages. For every 100 individuals with Cree as a mother tongue, the number who used it at home declined from 78 in 1981 to 65 in 1996.

The younger the speakers, the healthier the language

Age plays an important role in maintaining a language. The younger those who speak a language, the healthier it becomes. Problems for a language arise in communities in which the average age of speakers is higher. As the elders in such communities who speak the language die, the language might too.

Overall, the average age of the population with an Aboriginal mother tongue was 31 in 1996, up from 28 in 1981. Meanwhile, the average age of individuals who spoke an Aboriginal language at home also increased during the 15-year period, but to a lesser extent. It was 27 in 1996, up from 25 in 1981.

There are two reasons why people with indigenous languages as a mother tongue are getting older. First, although fertility rates are still high, they are declining, translating into relatively fewer children. Second, the proportion of the Aboriginal population with an indigenous mother tongue is decreasing with younger generations.

In 1996, only one-fifth (20%) of children under age five had an indigenous mother tongue. In contrast, 60% of those aged 85 and over and 30% of those aged 40 to 44 reported an Aboriginal mother tongue.

Loss of an Aboriginal language most pronounced in the working-age population

The loss of a language appears to depend greatly on the stage of life through which people are going. Young children have not yet had time or reason to shift from their mother tongue to another language. For most of them, their mother tongue is, therefore, the same as their home language.

For example, for every 100 children under age five in 1981, 91 spoke their mother tongue at home. However, in 1996, when these children were in their mid- to late-teens, only 76 still used their mother tongue as their home language. This indicates a serious loss in home language, but the decline did not stop there.

As youth move out of the original family home, marriage, entry into the labour force, and a different, often large, urban environment can further accelerate their language decline. While this was true for both sexes, it was particularly noticeable among women. One reason may be that they are more likely than men to leave reserves for other locations where the chances of marrying non-Aboriginal people are higher.

Erosion of languages can be difficult to resist if an individual does not have the support of a closely-knit community and is immersed in the language and culture of the dominant society.

Aboriginal elders, teachers and other leaders are well aware of the gravity of the linguistic situation, however, and are taking steps to preserve indigenous languages. These include such measures as language instruction programs, Aboriginal media programming, and the recording of elders' stories, songs and accounts of history in the Aboriginal language.

1996 Census Figures for Individual Languages

Aboriginal Mother      Status of
language   tongue pop. language
Total      208,610     Mix of viable 
                       and endangered 
Algonquian 146,635	Mostly viable 
Cree	87,555	Viable large 
Ojibway	25,885	Viable large 
Montagnais-9,070	Viable small 
Micmac	7,310	Viable small 
Oji-Cree	5,400	Viable small 
Attikamek	3,995	Viable small 
Blackfoot	4,145	Viable small 
Algonquin	2,275	Viable small 
Malecite	655	Viable small 
Algonquian*350	Uncertain 
Inuktitut 	27,780	Viable large 
Athapaskan 20,090	Mostly viable 
Dene	9,000	Viable small 
South	2,620	Viable small 
Dogrib	2,085	Viable small 
Carrier	2,190	Viable small 
Chipewyan	1,455	Viable small 
Athapaskan	1,310	Uncertain 
Chilcotin	705	Viable small 
Kutchin-	430	Endangered 
North Slave 290	Endangered 
(Dakota) 4,295	Viable small 
Siouan Family	
Salish 3,200	Endangered 
Salish	1,850	Endangered 
Shuswap	745	Endangered 
Thompson	595	Endangered 
Tsimshian	2,460	Endangered 
Gitksan	1,200	Viable small 
Nishga	795	Endangered 
Tsimshian	465	Endangered 
Wakashan	1,650	Endangered 
Wakashan	1,070	Endangered 
Nootka	590	Endangered 
Iroquoian	590	Uncertain 
Mohawk	350	Uncertain 
Iroquoian	235	Uncertain 
Haida	240	Endangered 
Tlingit	145	Endangered 
Kutenai	120	Endangered 
Aboriginal	1,405	Endangered 
*Not identified elsewhere 		
Source: Statistics Canada, 
Census of Population, 1996
(The Winter 1998 edition of Canadian Social Trends (11-008-XPE, $11) is now available. For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods and data quality of this release, contact Mary Jane Norris (+1-613-951-2316), Demography Division.

Mirandes Recognized within Portugal

LISBON, Sept 17 (AFP) - Portugal was to officialise Thursday a minority language, known as Mirandes, spoken by a tiny group of 15,000 people living in the far northeast of the country by the border with Spain. A bill making Mirandes an official language was to be presented to parliament by a deputy from the region and was expected to be passed without difficulty.

Mirandes-speakers are grouped in a region of around 500 square kilometres (220 square miles) around the town of Miranda do Douro, on the river of the same name that forms the border between Portugal and Spain. Mirandes, a Latin language, is one of two surviving descendants of the Leonese language spoken in the former Kingdom of Leon, now part of the Asturias region in northwestern Spain, according to local linguist Manuela Barros.

Officialisation means that the state is pledged to promote the language in the region, to use it in schools, and to use all possible scientific means to prevent it dying out.

Antonio Teixeira