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Indigenous Languages | Language, Aboriginal, Community, Regional, Torres, Strait, Islander, Projects | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
Indigenous Languages PDF Print E-mail

The voices of the land

from Nikki McCoy - Acting Assistant Manager,
Broadcasting Language Arts and Culture ATSIC

"The re-introduction of our language is restoring our people's confidence and identity, which is helping to reverse the devastating effects of assimilation. Before the revival of our languages we adopted the word Koori or Tasmanian Aboriginal and seldom used our own word to identify who we are. The name Palawa is now used statewide with pride and has made our identity even stronger." Gaye Brown, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, in the DEET publication, Alive and Deadly, May 1995.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are under considerable threat. When European colonisation began over 200 years ago, there were approximately 200 - 250 distinct Australian languages, each with its own range of dialects. Recent studies indicate that fewer than one - third of the original 250 languages are used with any frequency. Two-thirds are no longer spoken, have only a handful of elderly speakers left, or have evolved into new forms, commonly known as "Aboriginal English". Even the strong languages which are still in frequent use are under considerable threat from encroachment by Western culture.


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages initiatives Program, (ATSILIP), aims to maintain and develop those languages that are still strong and to retrieve those that are not. It does this through the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, through language teaching, broadcasting, recording and researching.

In the 1995-96 financial year, ATSIC allocated $4.8 million to implement the ATSILIP. The main recipients of this funding are described below:


FATSIL, the national advisory body, develops national priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, provides a comprehensive consultative mechanism through regional language committees to direct community input, advises ATSIC and the Government on Indigenous languages, and supports and provides information to language centres on language maintenance issues.


Regional Language Centres decide regional priorities and provide infrastructure for community groups to teach, record, and research languages.

Language centres also provide access to computers, video and audio equipment, phone, fax and expert assistance from experienced language workers and linguists, a place to store master copies of video, audio and written material.


LANGUAGE PROJECTS Individual language projects to assist in the maintenance of indigenous languages vary depending on the status of the languages of the area.

In places where indigenous languages are still spoken, projects may involve elders taking children to their traditional lands and telling stories in language, or younger members of the community recording the memories of remaining elders who still speak the language.

Other projects may involve research in libraries and archives to retrieve languages which are no longer spoken. In 1995-96 ATSILIP funded fifteen individual language projects.


Regional Language Committees are established where there is no language centre to support individual language projects.

As with language centres, regional committees decide on local language priorities, advise ATSIC Regional Councils on the allocation of ATSILIP funds, provide a network to share information, and provide a forum to discuss language issues.


In 1995-96, ATSIC began prioritising and implementing the recommendations of the ATSILIP review, conducted in 1994-95 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute.

As some of the recommendations required additional information before implementation, a needs survey of community languages was conducted to obtain information on the status and needs of indigenous languages.

The survey was extremely successful, with in excess of a 70% response rate.

In 1996-97 the outcome of the needs survey of community languages will be collated into a national report.

This report will form the basis of policy development to make the Language Maintenance program more relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities involved in language maintenance and heritage activity.

The report will also be used to develop new program guidelines and performance indicators which will reflect the uses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have for their linguistic and cultural heritage, and the ways that they wish to link the past with their present day situations.

The information derived from the needs survey of community language will also be used to seek agreement between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments for better government service delivery.


The Language Maintenance component was not subject to direct budgetary cuts for 1996-97. The component, however, was affected by the 1996-97 budget cuts, as follows:

A large number of staff involved in language maintenance work were employed as trainees under the Community Training Program (CTP).

The termination of the program has meant a reduction in the number and scope of community language maintenance activities.

Considering the rate at which indigenous languages are being extinguished, this development can be expected to have a detrimental effect on the linguistic and cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the maintenance of their cultural identities.

Contact: Ms Nikki McCoy 06 289 8871