Australia Native Language Bailout

An elder from Australia's Ngarrindjeri indigenous people, performs a traditional ceremony. Australia has pledged 7.8 million US dollars this year to help save more than 100 indigenous languages which are in grave danger of dying out. (AFP/File/Paul Ellis)“Australia has pledged 7.8 million US dollars this year to help save more than 100 indigenous languages which are in grave danger of dying out,” AFP reports.

Arts Minister Peter Garrett said the money would be spent on translation services, tests for children and a feasibility study for a national centre for Aboriginal languages. “These languages are… a significant part of Australia’s heritage and we must ensure they are protected for the benefit of future generations,” Garrett said. “A focused and coordinated national approach is critical to safeguard indigenous culture and save these unique languages.”

Australia has 145 languages and dialects with 110 at risk, according to a 2005 report, as they are often spoken only by small groups of over-40s. About 30,000 people are currently studying indigenous languages around the country.

Why?  These languages are dying out because they’re no longer useful, presumably because the tribal cultures have assimilated into Australia’s English-speaking culture.

I’m all in favor of historical preservation.  It would be worthwhile to preserve any of these languages that exist as written languages for the sake of future historians and anthropologists.  Ditto recordings of native speakers speaking their language.  If that cost $7.8 million equivalent, it would probably be a good investment.

But spending the money for the sake of having dying languages continue on as inefficient secondary means of communication strikes me as horribly counterproductive.  Much better to learn both English and a second actually-spoken language (Chinese comes to mind given Australia’s geography).

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    I would support such a bailout to save the English language from twitter-speak.

    I would also like to select a random town in the Southeast of England to speak only Middle English, circa the Canteburry Tales.

  2. Dutchgirl says:

    As a pragmatist, I heartily agree that pumping dollars into a useless language is wasteful. However, as a privileged westerner, I am also loathe to consign someone else culture into the dustbin of history. There is some onus on the usurping culture to preserve what it has overpowered. This is especially important for the second generation of aboriginals who no longer have access to their original language, disconnecting them from the oral histories and other aspects of their culture. I don’t know what the appropriate actions would be to satisfy the burden, but lets not pretend it doesn’t exist.

  3. ShawninPHX says:

    I agree in part.

    I guess my hang up is when I think back to the WWII code talkers. Those Navajo, Cherokee and other native American speakers whose language helped us immensely during WWII. It confounded the Japanese and helped save innumerable troops from harm.

    With issues like this I try to look at the long term potential value versus just the immediate cost.

  4. odograph says:

    The best argument isn’t about current users, but about future scholars. Language shapes thought, and a bigger toolbox of human languages gives greater perspective on the human mind.

    A parallel could be drawn with the innovation possible in a WindowsTM only world. On both cases a market winner invisibly narrows our view.

    A few million for preservation is fine.

  5. James Joyner says:

    A few million for preservation is fine.

    Again, I have no problem with spending money for scholarly preservation. My problem is with trying to keep these around as faux-living languages.

  6. odograph says:

    That’s the rub though, how many native speakers do you need for preservation? (dictionaries and videos are probably not enough)

  7. tom p says:

    funny, my wife and I were discussing this exact subject over the past few days.

    Our take? Freedom is little more than a word until it is denied you. She grew up in Franco’s Spain where she could not speak her native language in public because Franco said “No”.

    Her Father has given her a thousand and one little Mallorcan sayings, none of which she can write down because…


    James, to you, Mallorcan may well be a dying language, but to her it is a part and parcel of who and what she is.

    Her Grandfather disappeared in the Spanish civil war, Her grandmother gave birth to her mother while rotting in a Spanish prison during a bombing raid,… These tales are told best in Mallorcan, but they are mere words to us here in America. To my wife, however, they are part and parcel of who and what she is. 1938 is not that long ago.

    And we are all the poorer for the loss of these tales.