AUSTRALIA: An English only policy vs Aboriginal History

Languages fading before our Eyes

Kanyilkura wangka jurnpurrpa. We ought to keep language strong

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia have been fighting a loosing battle to save the many Indigenous languages of the country since European settlers first stepped foot in this country.

In the years since, more than 230 languages have died or fallen from use. An estimated 20-25 languages survive and are spoken fluently as a first language. Hundreds more dialects of those languages have been lost, the vast majority never being recorded.

This sad state of affairs continues unabated with very little Federal or state funds being put into language preservation. The Federal Government provides less than $25 million per year for this critical language work.

The state I live in, Western Australia (WA), still does not have an Aboriginal languages policy which means that the 60+ languages are not recognized by the state in any way and not a single cent of state funds is directed to their preservation and use. Nor any interpreting and translating services provided for first language speakers. It’s incredible that such an advanced and progressive country ignores the dying languages in its own backyard!

I’ve worked as a linguist for the last 8 years. I worked as a teacher and principal in some of the remotest Aboriginal communities for more than 20 years prior to that. In that time I’ve worked with many children whose first and only language was an Aboriginal language. And yet, when they attend school, learning is in Standard Australian English. Millions has been spent by the state and Federal governments trying to understand and remedy the fact that less than 20% of Aboriginal people have functional literacy rates. Go figure…

In Australia, many Aboriginal people live in discrete communities tucked away in the remotest of locations you could imagine. As far from town and all the social issues they bring as possible. People live in communities to try and preserve culture, language and a way of life important to them. 

One community I lived in, Parnngurr, is in the Great Sandy Desert region of WA. I was the only non-Aboriginal person in the community for 3 years, living in a caravan and bough shelter made from bush timber, chicken wire and Spinifex grass. The nearest town was 8 hours drive over many sand hills along bush tracks in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. In those days, we didn’t have telephone, mail or email services. I had a cranky 2-way radio that worked only early in the morning and evening and I used it to contact the Royal Flying Doctor Service base. Heck, electricity was only available when I turned on a little 5kva generator to power up the precious photocopier I had for making worksheets for the kids. I cooked on an open fire and lighting at night was kerosene hurricane lamps.

The school was a shed made by the community from bush timber and scrounged sheets of corrugated iron. No windows or a door. The walls stopped 12 inches from the iron roof to allow air to circulate. Desks and chairs for the students were begged from town schools and the rubbish dumps. The heat was intense inside until one day community men turned up and pulled out a couple of sheets of the iron from the wall to create a window. Phew!

But we loved that little school. I sought donations and hand-offs until we had a nice little schoolroom complete with a bit of carpet on the floor. Snakes were a problem and first thing each day was a quick look through the room to see what was about and dispatch them before the kids came along. More than once kids were on the carpet for a story or singing and felt the wriggle of a snake underneath. You’ve never seen a shed cleared so fast of people as when a king brown snake wriggled in!!

One day I could not focus, was dead tired and the kids were irritable and hopeless to keep on task. The day dragged on and on. I popped out to my caravan next to the school to collect some resources, glanced at the temperature gauge and it registered 54 degrees Celsius. That’s 129 Fahrenheit. Time to pull out the paints and paper and forget any other kind of learning in that kind of heat.

Another time, we heard a commotion outside. I pushed the canvas cloth door aside and saw the biggest willy willy (tornado ) I’ve ever seen coming along. Whipped back in the classroom, telling the kids to quickly throw everything they can into desks and the cupboards just before the willy willy ripped through the shed sucking everything it could out the door and window and covering what it couldn’t with sand. Kids, desks, the blessed carpet and everything. That day the community lost several of the tents people lived in and we never, ever saw them again! Such is life in the desert.

That little tin shed classroom was the happiest and most vibrant of classrooms I’ve ever been in. Why? Because the kids all spoke and learnt in their first languages Manyjilyjarra and Kartukarra. The languages of the land. And learn they did. Aboriginal teacher aids worked with me to deliver each lesson in the kid’s first language. Literacy was not an issue, the kids became very literate and many of those kids have grown up to become community leaders.

The spirit of the people, the connection to country and language, to Aboriginal Law and culture flowed uninterrupted from the community into that little school and back again. It flowed through language.

But schools like that are no more in Australia. There is an English-only policy where by children, regardless of their first language, must be taught literacy lessons in English.

Much work remains to be done to rectify this situation. I work with many people and supporters who campaign for policy change to happen. Well, for a policy to be released in the first place! Until then, Aboriginal people still can not access translating and interpreting services, can not understand when they are in a city hospital what’s going on, or when in the judicial system, stand in the docks of court and only guess what the English speakers are talking about. Aboriginal people are still being discriminated against in the luckiest country on earth simply because they speak languages 40 000+ years old. It makes me want to weep in frustration.

Maybe those of us who call for a state language policy will have an effect, but at least we’re trying. I work with languages of the Goldfields region of WA now. I secured $160 000 Federal funding to record and preserve 6 languages of the region. That amount of money cannot employ the 6 linguists needed to do the language work properly so I do a fast and dirty data collection and recording of people speaking. My hope being that at least if recordings are made, someone, somewhere in time can work with the material to create concise dictionaries and grammars. It hurts to ignore the 12-15 other languages that my time and the meagre funds cannot spread to work with. But maybe in time I can work with more. Information on that work can be found at 

Australia is an incredible country. Beautiful and breath taking beyond belief. Remote as anything you can imagine. Vast, wild and dangerous. It’s a rich country with a standard of living only dreamt of by the majority of the world. And yet, in the midst of all this magnificence, is a terrible ignorance that will see the death of the oldest living languages and cultures on this earth without significant change. I can but hope that change happens.

Sue Hanson


  1. What I’d love to see is for aboriginal languages to all become official languages in Canada. “Are you nuts!? We could never afford to translate every official document and sign into all those languages!” Yes, I realise that, and I’m not asking for that actually.


  2. Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations. Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.


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