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NAIDOC: Languages matter because people matter


Indigenous Australia infiltrated by numerous languages. Cartoon by Chris Johnston

The National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week originated in the conviction that the Australia Day celebration presented a one-sided image of Australia's history.

Australia Day celebrated uncritically the disruption to the culture and life of the earlier inhabitants of the land which followed the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney cove. It did not celebrate the cultures and peoples who were destroyed by European settlement.

NAIDOC week embodies the desire of Indigenous Australians to celebrate their own rich cultures that preceded the European conquest and continue to form an irreplaceable strand of Australian identity.

This year Naidoc Week is particularly significant because it is held in the shadow of the Uluru declaration by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. In response to the desire that Indigenous Australians should be appropriately recognised in the Australian Constitution, representatives of Indigenous communities met to make an agreed statement about what that recognition should mean.

They made it clear that any action should be more than symbolic. It should give Indigenous Australians a status that guarantees them a say in the measures that affect them. It was not acceptable to make them objects of government decisions, as they have been in the Intervention. They must be agents, not just talked about, but empowered to speak authoritatively.

The theme of the week is 'Our Languages matter'. It lies at the heart of the Uluru statement. It also poses questions about the way in which we conceive our identity as a nation, and so about how we should respond to the Uluru statement.

To say that our languages matter implies that in Australia we communicate in many languages. English is the language of business and public life, but many other languages, both Indigenous and introduced, are the primary languages of groups of Australians. Many people speak more than one language, an endowment to be praised, not lamented.

Language is much more than a means of communication. It is an emblem of our tribe, marking out those who are our near relatives and those who are strangers. Language shapes how we interact with others. To say that our languages matter implies that no one language is given absolute precedence over others. Diverse languages may have precedence in different areas of our lives.


"An Australia that is seen as multilingual while sharing English as its common language, and as multicultural and multireligious while sharing a common national identity, is richer and more enduring than one in which there is one language, religion and culture."


Language is also the medium through which culture is transmitted. Culture includes our relationship with our own history, the customs and symbols of our parents, and the songs and stories that make up our heritage.

When we enter the language and culture of another society, the transmission of culture that takes place is not simply a transaction between teacher and student in which we learn a new language and new ways that replace the old. It is an organic process, often over some generations, in which the new culture is grafted on to the older vine, with the result that both cultures are enriched and modified.

In celebrating NAIDOC Week this year, that sophisticated understanding of the transmission of culture and language must be kept in mind. Many Australians have assumed that English is the only language that is or should be used for communication in Australia, and that other languages should fall into disuse as soon as possible, as should other national customs and cultures, to be retained only as museum items. The Indigenous Convention, which brought together the reflections of Indigenous communities around Australia, each with their own traditional language, shows how vacuous is that view and how rich are the consequences when diversity is recognised.

NAIDOC Week celebrates Indigenous lives and culture. But, like those lives and that culture, its message is a timely gift to all Australians. At a time when public discourse is impoverished, national identity is often defined in terms that narrow, exclude and demean minorities, and oppose the national and indispensable English language to other languages, which consequently do not matter.

An Australia that is seen as multilingual while sharing English as its common language, and that is also seen as multicultural and multireligious while sharing a common national identity, is a richer and more enduring nation than one in which there is one language, one religion and one culture that exclude others. Ultimately languages matter because people matter. In Australia Indigenous languages and Indigenous people have both been treated for far too long as if they don't matter. Both NAIDOC Week and the Uluru statement call for a better way.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC Week



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Existing comments

Every Australian should be encouraged to learn how to think in more than one language, including indigenous language, not just because Innovative Australia needs to survive by being a global trader, but because God is infinite and cannot fully be expressed in any language. However, some languages may be better able than others to capture certain aspects of him. If, like most Australians, I know about God through English, would I know more, or differently, about him through Pali or Pitjantjatjara?

Roy Chen Yee | 03 July 2017  

Beautiful. Language does matter. My language is who I am. It elevates me. It allows me to be me. If this is true for me , then it is also true for others. Happy NAIDOC week. Let us all celebrate language.

Beth | 03 July 2017  

As well as sharing a common national identity, we should aim higher, and see ourselves also as a part of the international community, and try to live up to our responsibilities as well as the benefits and privileges involved. We are one people, one family, all children of the Constant and Universal God, and we should behave as such; otherwise our common prayer to 'our Father' is a sham and a source of reproach to us.

Robert Liddy | 03 July 2017  

Before rugby test matches between Australia and New Zealand both national anthems are sung. The first half of the NZ anthem is sung in Maori followed by the English version in the second half. The anthem is a prayer recognising God's dominion and asking for his protection over New Zealand. This is then followed by the embarrassment of the secular Australian anthem not recognising our indigenous people or God and simply bragging about the landscape, some dubious non-existent "values" and some woman named Gertie who lives by the sea.. Then follows a Maori war dance with both indigenous and non-indigenous New Zealanders united as one while the Aussies look on, stupefied, wondering what on earth is happening. Words do define a people and make such a difference to our lives.

john frawley | 03 July 2017  

I welcome Andrew Hamilton's observations about the importance of languages for all of us - their absolute centrality when trying to understand each others' cultures. Can anyone please advise on where a city-dwelling, non-Indigenous adult should go - first - to obtain advice on learning an Aboriginal language? (Koori Heritage Trust? A university that offers an Indigenous Studies program? A private teacher?) As to which language ... well, if I just consider my own preference, I love music and singing ..... But there are many reasons for seriously studying a different language, and 'my own preference' is just one of them.

Ann Morrow | 03 July 2017  

Language is so very important.It is so sad that as aboriginal elders getting older and passing on that they are not always teaching the younger brothers and sisters and children the language of their tripe or area. We should be doing whatever we can to help and to encourage the government to give proper aid so they don't die ouT.They are part of our rich heritage.

Heven Menzies. | 03 July 2017  

As a post-script to John Frawley's comment - and when a brilliant Aboriginal footballer playing for the Sydney Swans performed a few steps of a war dance, he was vilified and booed by an embarrassingly large number of the Australian spectators.

Ian Fraser | 04 July 2017  

It is interesting that, in what used to be the British Isles, Welsh and Irish have made a comeback in Wales and Eire. Welsh is not compulsory, but, in parts of West Wales, you would be lost without it even though everyone is bilingual. In the Irish Republic, Irish is a compulsory subject to Leaving Certificate, including in schools such as St Columba's and The High School in Dublin, which were/are schools which cater mainly to members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) who were considered part of the Ascendancy. Given the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, I think this sort of policy would probably not be feasible for non-ATSI people here. We do need to genuinely understand and appreciate our ATSI fellow citizens and their history. Bear in mind that, historically, most in the First Fleet did not want to come here and that many of their descendants lost their ancestral language e.g. Scottish Gaelic; Irish and Welsh and most of their ancestral culture. Many other Australians whose non-English ancestors came here have had the same experience. Australians of primarily English ancestry have also lost part of their cultural roots. Perhaps we are all finding ourselves? Australian culture is in a process of change.

Edward Fido | 04 July 2017  

Ann, I am aware Sydney University running reclamation of indigenous language and has a course http://sydney.edu.au/courses/master-of-indigenous-languages-education

Gordana Martinovich | 04 July 2017  

It must be considered we are one world and indeed ultimately one race - human - made richer by a variety of cultures flourishing through recognising equity serves strength. Knowing about God in English but influenced by Latin and Greek thinking then knowing also supersedes language when you consider practices such as meditation.

Gordana Martinovich | 04 July 2017  

Ann I have also come across the following which may connect you in the right direction vis languages https://learndarug.com/consultants/

Gordana Martinovich | 07 July 2017  

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