New Australian program pledges millions towards endangered aboriginal languages

Posted on Friday, August 14th, 02009 by Laura Welcher
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Australian ElderIn a new announcement by the Australian government, the equivalent of $7.8 million US dollars will go towards programs that work to save endangered aboriginal languages.

Australia is one of the linguistically rich regions of the world, in recent history having upwards of 275 distinct languages.  These languages also contain some fascinating linguistic features, such “mother-in-law” avoidance speech, unique noun class systems (witness the Dyirbal noun class for “women, fire, and dangerous things”), and words of surprising internal complexity (take for instance the Mayali word Abanyawoihwarrgahmarneganjginjeng. ‘I cooked the wrong meat for them again’.)

Of these 275 languages, 111 are now extinct, and an additional 100 languages are considered to be critically endangered, with only a few elderly speakers remaining.  To address this precipitous decline, the new program proposes to start with “translation services, tests for children and a feasibility study for a national centre for Aboriginal languages.”

Programs like this may seem like too little too late, but declaring these languages “national treasures” can actually go a long way in creating a better climate for their continued use.  A similar policy change came when the United States passed the Native American Languages Act of 1990, reversing decades of destructive government language policies, and setting up a grant program that continues to fund community-based language research to this day.

There is also support for aboriginal language documentation through a number of other grant programs, both large and small, that exist to support language documentation around the world.  These include the Endangered Language Fund (ELF), the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL), the US Federal Documenting Endangered Languages program and a few private programs such as The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Program and the Volkswagon Stiftung funded DoBes project.  Each of these programs has been underway for several years, and combined, have a rich portfolio of successful projects to their credit.

(Thanks to Stewart Brand for passing this news item along.)

  • William Crane

    For each endangered language there exists an endangered culture in which it once thrived. I would hope that projects like these will draw attention not merely to the extinction of these languages, but to the decline in cultural diversity in the presence of the current predominant world culture. Dying alongside these languages are ways of life that have existed far longer than the civilization in which we live, and I’d like to think more could be accomplished than recording the last squeak, bark or roar of a species before it blinks out of existence forever. Saving the language (through translations and creating bilingual speakers inside and outside of the culture) could possibly help the culture to merge with surrounding cultures and actually speed its demise. Save the culture and save the language. This however is a much more difficult task.

  • Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, you interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign.

    The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.

    Your readers may be interested in Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

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