Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee: Aboriginal Languages in South Australia

3rd June 2020

Parliamentary Committees 

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS (15:59): I move: 

That the report of the committee on Aboriginal languages in South Australia be noted. 

The members of the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee, as you would have known during your membership, Mr President, are fortunate to be able to travel to Aboriginal lands in order to meet with community members and service providers across the state. On one such visit to Yorke Peninsula, which initially involved meetings at Point Pearce and Maitland, committee members met with the Narungga Aboriginal Progress Association (NAPA) to hear about the inspiring work the organisation is engaged in with the Narungga (Nharangga) language. 

The committee was struck by how NAPA was not only able to develop and distribute upwards of 18 language resources, but to do so in a way that is innovative and accessible to community members. It is clear that the work that NAPA has been undertaking has a much broader impact on the Narrunga community than just language acquisition, generating interest in culture and identity, and having far-reaching impacts on employment, skills development, education and community cohesion. 

From this experience, and in acknowledgment of 2019 being the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee resolved to embark upon an inquiry into Aboriginal languages in South Australia. The hope of the committee is that the report resulting from this inquiry will lead to a better understanding of the power of Aboriginal languages to improve and develop our community of South Australia. 

South Australia is privileged to be home to some 46 different Aboriginal languages, and some of Australia’s strongest Aboriginal language communities. The report recognises and celebrates the languages and the custodians of these languages, who have lived in South Australia for tens of thousands of years. The inquiry found that language plays a crucial role in connecting Aboriginal people to culture, kinship and country, and can be a powerful force in the recovery of connections lost through the sands of time and colonisation. 

Ongoing collection of data by academics also suggests that Indigenous languages have wideranging benefits for physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as education and employment. Indeed, it has been found that investment in Aboriginal languages will support six of the seven Closing the Gap targets established by the federal government. Throughout my parliamentary career I have been engaged in a variety of mental health and suicide prevention efforts, so from a personal perspective the connection between language and health has been a point of keen interest to me. 

The committee has been impressed by the passion and dedication demonstrated by elders, teachers, linguists and students. South Australia has a rich language heritage. Today, many of these languages are now sleeping, but the example of Kaurna slows how such passion and dedication can lead to the revival of once sleeping languages, sparking renewed interest in culture and identity for community members and becoming an important and recognisable contribution to South Australian society. 

While many of our 46 Aboriginal languages are now sleeping, we are also fortunate to have four languages that are identified as being strong, that is, languages that are spoken by all generations as the primary means of day-to-day communication: Kulpantjatjara, Pitjantjatjara, Southern Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara—Western Desert languages that have been integrated into the schools in the APY lands. Across South Australia linguistically-diverse Aboriginal communities have been developing vital resources and programs to facilitate the maintenance and revitalisation of their languages. 

Through this inquiry the committee sought to understand the benefits of and challenges to these kinds of programs, and how they may be better supported by the government of South Australia. The committee hopes that the work being undertaken continues to bear fruit for generations, and that more can be made of the resources and knowledge that already abounds. As a result, it has made six recommendations for the support and development of current efforts. 

I thank all those involved in the preparation of the 16 submissions the committee received, and pay respect to the outstanding work being undertaken across the state to revive, develop, study and teach the many Aboriginal languages that are at home in South Australia. The committee received submissions that represent a diverse range of perspectives. These included academics like Professor Gil’ad Zuckermann and Associate Professor Rob Amery, who spoke on the processes involved in reviving some of our sleeping languages. 

We also heard from language custodians, such as Lewis Yerla Burka O’Brien AO, Mickey Kumatpi Marrutya O’Brien and Ivan Tiwu Copley OAM, who spoke on the social and psychological benefits of learning and teaching Aboriginal languages. The submissions also looked carefully at how Aboriginal languages can be better integrated into schools. The SACE Board has developed three new Australian language subjects that can be taught at senior secondary level. It is the hope of the committee that more schools will begin taking up these subjects and that more language custodians can find roles sharing their knowledge with young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. 

In particular, I would like to thank the staff at the mobile language team of the University of Adelaide, especially Karina Lester and Dr Paul Monaghan, who provided a comprehensive submission to the inquiry. The mobile language team has spent the past 10 years working with more than 20 Aboriginal languages in South Australia, promoting their revival and maintenance. The mobile language team worked alongside Aboriginal language custodians to ensure that language work being done is holistically integrated with the social goals of community. The scope of knowledge in this team has been of crucial importance to the inquiry and the committee appreciates their contribution. 

I would also like to give special thanks to the hard workers in the Narungga Aboriginal Progress Association. As I have already mentioned, we met originally with Michael Wanganeen and Lee Tremayne in Moonta in June last year, and it was this organisation that inspired the committee to look further at the kind of language work being done around the state. Evidence from the association during the inquiry was also very much appreciated. 

I would like to thank the members of the committee for their work towards this very interesting inquiry: the Hon. Tammy Franks and the Hon. Kyam Maher from this chamber, and the members for Giles, Narungga and Heysen from the other place. I would also mention that before the member for Heysen joined us, we had the member for Waite as a member of our committee during this inquiry. I thank them for their support for this inquiry and the significant amount of information that is contained in the report. 

On that note, I would like to thank our executive research officer, Dr Ashley Greenwood, for her support of the committee throughout this inquiry. As a trained anthropologist, she has had special insight into the use and meaningfulness of language among Indigenous groups, and this has been very helpful in identifying witnesses and documents that have supported the writing of this report. I would add that for much of the time of drafting the report for the committee’s deliberation, Ashley had a broken hand, so I think she did a marvellous job with the preparation of this report over that time. I look forward to continuing to work with her as the committee continues on with its future inquiries. With those words, I commend the motion to the house.