Why we do what we do
Before colonisation, it is estimated that there were as many as 371 distinct languages spoken across Australia, or between 700 and 800 when including dialects and language varieties. Many people were multilingual, often speaking at least 4 languages from neighbouring nations. However, Australia has recently been identified as one of five language endangerment hotspots worldwide, with only 13 languages being passed on to children today, and although some languages are considered strong, most are critically endangered, and all are considered vulnerable.
The reasons most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are now endangered, or ‘sleeping’, stem from the destructive forces of colonisation and the continuing pressures to speak English today. Early conflict over land brought about the disruption of traditional language groups, while violence and massacres during the ‘Frontier Wars’ resulted in a significant loss of culture, and with that of course, language.
Many of those who survived conflict were forcibly resettled from their lands onto missions, government reserves, and stations, often among speakers from different language groups. Later, Aboriginal ‘Protection’ Acts and Assimilation policies separated children from their families and communities, and speaking Indigenous languages was banned. Children were put into institutions, given English names, and punished for speaking their languages, further harming the bond between language and country.
Today, the pressure to speak English remains strong, given that all government services operate in English, and translations and interpreters are restricted to specialised settings. Most schooling is delivered in English only, and while there are a few bilingual education programs in parts of Australia, they are often limited and under threat.
Why revitalising languages is important
The knowledge of one’s heritage language (or languages) is crucial for a strong connection to culture, family, country, identity and community, and has a vital link to both physical and emotional wellbeing. The disconnection to heritage languages is a great source of pain for many people, and studies have proven that speaking an Indigenous language correlates with a stronger sense of self and wellbeing.
This link between language and wellbeing is so crucial that the United Nations declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness of the world’s many endangered languages, the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples worldwide, and “the important contribution they make to our world’s rich cultural diversity.”
What is being done to revitalise languages today
While colonisation has had a bleak impact on peoples and languages, Indigenous Australians also have a strong history of resilience, resistance and survival.
Much has been held onto, and the efforts to reclaim, revive and strengthen Australia’s first languages are part of the 230-year long legacy of endurance, strength and struggles to decolonise. Communities have demanded the right to control decisions about their language, and for research outcomes that meet the needs of the communities.
Communities are working hard to revitalise their languages all across Australia, drawing on a combination of sources such as community-held knowledge, historical documents, and archival records such as film and audio recordings.
Several Indigenous-led language projects and programs also take place in a variety of forms. There are increasing opportunities for Indigenous Australians to revitalise and learn their languages through community language centres and organisations, in kindergartens, schools and at universities, through television and radio shows, through music and outdoor education programs, and many more.
To create a positive input to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community resilience, health, wellbeing and cultural identity through enabling the sustainability of Indigenous languages.
We contribute to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through the services we deliver, by providing direct relief from the suffering and distress that arises from the loss of Indigenous languages and the subsequent alienation from cultural heritage and Indigenous identity. Our programs seek to facilitate the self-determination, resilience and confidence of Indigenous communities to develop their own specific solutions that foster healthy, engaged and independent Indigenous communities.
We strive to advance the sustainability of Indigenous Languages and to increase the participation of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of their language documentation and revitalisation through our training programs, resource sharing, networking and raising community awareness.
History of Living Languages
Living Languages was founded as the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity Inc. (RNLD) in 2004 by Margaret Florey and Nick Thieberger with an original mission to advance the sustainability of Indigenous languages and to increase the participation of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of language documentation and revitalisation through training, resource sharing, networking, and advocacy. Through its first five years, RNLD was an unfunded, volunteer organisation that mainly served as an online hub for coordinating and sharing expertise, methods and resources between people who are working to support Indigenous languages.
In 2009, RNLD was funded in order to develop its training activities across Australia, and has been continuously funded since by the Australian Federal Government under a grant scheme now known as the Indigenous Languages and Arts (ILA) Program.
At this point RNLD entered a new phase which has seen it become a key national organisation delivering grassroots training to Indigenous people across Australia. In 2019 the organisation’s name was changed to Living Languages, in order to better reflect this mission. The several strands of Living Languages’ training program are now the cornerstone of our work. At its inception, the primary aim of the training program was to create a transformative social impact through building a greater sense of agency so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could develop, run and control their own language projects themselves. The positive impact of our programs is widely felt on language revitalisation activities being undertaken by Aboriginal people across the country.