The National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS) Report 2005 provides a summary and analysis of the results from a survey of Indigenous languages vitality status and resources that was carried out in 2004.
Databases of NILS responses are available from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), subject to NILS confidentiality provisions. AIATSIS contact details are provided at the end of this Executive Summary.
Chapter 5 and the Appendices of this report contain some detailed results, methodology and information from the survey, and detailed recommendations arising from NILS.
The survey itself was innovative in that it was an Internet survey with respondents providing online answers to a questionnaire, with assessments able to be processed as numbers or free text commentary. Telephone interviews and meetings supplemented the information gained from the questionnaire. A separate survey questionnaire was circulated to collecting institutions, and assessment of the AIATSIS audio-visual collection was also conducted.
The analysis of NILS was carried out using ten indicators of the vitality of languages, resources, attitudes and practice. The indicators were based on a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Expert Group’s proposals on assessment of language vitality (UNESCO 2003). In developing the NILS Report language endangerment indicators, which are detailed in Appendix A, reference was also made to work on the State of Indigenous Languages (SOIL) report for Australia (McConvell & Thieberger 2001).
The NILS questionnaire provides a more detailed picture of language proficiency and use for a sample of languages than the Australian census. It is recommended that detailed surveys be carried out on a rolling basis in Australian regions in the future.
One of the main findings of the report was that the situation of Australia’s languages is very grave and requires urgent action. Of an original number of over 250 known Australian Indigenous languages, only about 145 Indigenous languages are still spoken and the vast majority of these, about 110, are in the severely and critically endangered categories. This critically endangered category indicates languages that are spoken only by small groups of people mostly, over 40 years old.
Eighteen languages are strong in the sense of being spoken by all age groups, but three or four of these are showing some signs of moving into endangerment.
Many other languages are not fully spoken by anybody, but words and phrases are used, and there is great community support in many parts of the country for reclamation and heritage learning programs for such languages.
Other detailed recommendations for standards and processes for measuring language endangerment are to be found throughout this report.
Evaluation is an important part of these proposed initiatives and the language endangerment indicators used in NILS are recommended as a basis for the criteria to be used to measure progress in language maintenance and revival programs.
Collaboration between different departments, governments and different programs, particularly between language and education programs, is seen as important. The current Australian Government emphasis on a ‘whole–of-government’ approach is conducive to such initiatives. This report’s recommendations are in line with current policy frameworks attempting to address Indigenous disadvantage.