Language and Culture

“The world loses a language every two weeks” - Wade Davis

Remote Indigenous Media is an important tool in the maintenance of Indigenous language and culture. First Nations Media Australia believes that strong language and culture are fundamental to strengthening Indigenous identity and culture.

Strengthening indigenous identity and culture is clearly interconnected with languages. Languages are embedded with knowledge and information about culture, place, history, spiritual beliefs, kin systems and they frame people’s ways of seeing and understanding the world. 

Languages in Australia are highly endangered and it is estimated that we only have the next 50 years to ensure their survival. Whilst indigenous people clearly maintain their identity and culture even in cases where languages have not been transmitted between generations, languages are clearly a rich library and archive of cultural knowledge. Languages contain information about places and practices that are not always able to be translated in to another language (such as English).

Background on Indigenous languages

In the early 1800’s there were an estimated 300 distinct Indigenous languages in Australia. Over half of these are no longer in daily use and are considered to be extinct or, as some prefer to say, “sleeping”. Many of the remaining languages are known to only a handful of Elders, and face extinction without urgent steps being taken to record them.

In the last 218 years Australia has suffered the largest and most rapid loss of languages in the world. Of the 145 indigenous languages still spoken in Australia, 110 are critically endangered. All of Australia’s indigenous languages face an uncertain future if immediate action and care are not taken. 

Link between remote Indigenous media and language maintenance

First Nations Media Australia sees an intrinsic link between remote indigenous media production and language maintenance. This link goes beyond the obvious fact that much of the content produced in remote communities is produced in local languages. First Nations Media Australia sees massive growth opportunities in the digital economy for remote media practitioners to be creating content that can be used in school curriculum, language documentation for academic/linguistic study, production of TVCs and education campaigns in local languages, etcetera. 

Languages contain complex understandings of a person’s culture, their identity and their connection with their land. Language enables the transference of culture and cultural knowledge across generations. Languages are a source of pride and strength.

Supporting languages can have flow on benefits into broader educational, employment and health outcomes. Languages are a key to unlocking indigenous disadvantage and crucial in the journey of reconciliation.

First Nations Media Australia sees a strong correlation between supporting remote indigenous media to produce content and the use of this content as relevant curriculum for remote community schools. 

Locally relevant content in early childhood education is proven to be highly engaging for young people whose first language is not English. Entering a school environment that has familiar language is a strong stepping stone to English learning. 

Some key reasons to support languages

Culture - Language maintains the strength of a person's culture and identity. When a person has a strong connection to their own culture and language, it provides an additional channel for communication with that person and their community about issues such as education, health and employment.

Health, Education, Employment - By accessing communities and particularly the younger generations through culturally and linguistically appropriate approaches you will have greater success in getting the communities involvement and hopefully better outcomes in areas such as youth literacy, unemployment and the associated problems of crime and substance abuse. Indigenous language programs in schools have shown to have a positive impact on school attendance rates and community involvement in schools. More generally, learning a second language has proven improvements in cognitive development and in the literacy of both languages.

Reconciliation - Supporting the reclamation and maintenance of Australia’s Indigenous languages is an essential element of genuine reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Efforts to date represent real and meaningful attempts to overcome more than two centuries of dispossession. The results of this work are not only symbolically powerful but are crucial elements in improving the wellbeing, cultural and economic situation for Indigenous Australians.

Science and sustainability - Australian indigenous languages carry with them an intimate understanding of the ecological systems and the land from which they came. Losing these languages results in a loss of knowledge of species, behaviours, habitats, climatic patterns and sustainability practices that could lend support to tackling the increasing environmental challenges we face in Australia.

There are also potential macro and micro economic benefits from research into the ecological knowledge of Indigenous Australians, particularly looking into pharmaceutical properties and the ecologically sustainable agricultural development of Indigenous plant and animal species.

Economics - Languages can play a vital role in improving the economic prospects of Indigenous individuals and communities. Bilingual education has improved the numeracy and literacy of indigenous students. Strong languages can result in more opportunities for employment in areas such as education and training, translation and interpreting, and underdeveloped areas of cultural tourism.

Heritage - Australia's unique indigenous languages are a vital and vibrant part of Australian culture heritage. They represent a connection for many Indigenous communities to their pasts, an understanding of their cultures today, and provide a window for non-Indigenous Australians to appreciate the diversity, history and strength of the many cultures in their country.

Response to Inquiry

Language-Diagram Lionel-JamesFirst Nations Media Australia submitted a response to the ‘Language Learning in Remote Indigenous Communities’ Inquiry in 2011, stating:

Languages contain complex understandings of a per- son’s culture, their identity and their connection with their land. Language enables the transference of culture and cultural knowledge across generations. Languages are a source of pride and strength.

First Nations Media Australia sees an intrinsic link between remote indigenous media production and language maintenance. Supporting languages can have flow on benefits into broader educa- tional, employment and health outcomes. Languages are a key to unlocking indigenous disadvantage and crucial in the journey of reconciliation.

First Nations Media Australia presented to the Senate hearing in Alice Springs in April 2012 and was represented by Chairperson Noel Heenan, First Nations Media Australia and ICTV staff and five PAW Media work- ers. A second submission was prepared from statements by those who presented. The final Inquiry report, entitled ‘Our Land Our Languages’, included numerous quotes from First Nations Media Australia submissions, including a diagram about the interconnected role of language by Lionel James of PAW Media (below). 

Key Recommendations and signature documents which support Indigenous Languages:

The Labor Party Constitution

“Labor will make the protection, preservation and revitalisation of Indigenous languages a major priority. The urgency of this is underscored by the probability that 90 per cent of Indigenous languages will disappear over the next generation.” 

(Principle 105 of Chapter 13 of the Australian Labor Party National Platform and Constitution, 2007) 

The chapter on ‘Respecting Human Rights and a Fair Go for All’, states, among other things, that the Australian Labor Party will:

  • value “Indigenous decision making in education and promote community leadership on the importance of education”;
  • support “quality teaching environments and institutions that are culturally inclusive and will encourage Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in education curriculum”; and 
  • support “bi-lingual and bi-cultural education and [that it] believes they have value for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.” 

2005 National Indigenous Languages Survey, Key Recommendations

1. Language Nests A pilot program of Language Nests, which are Indigenous language programs for early childhood, should be established following consultation and a scoping report. The nests should be run in communities for all language categories (strong, endangered, and no longer spoken).

2. Community Language Teams Community Language Teams should be established to assist the running of Language Nests and other projects, including the documentation of languages.

3. Regional Indigenous Language Centres Regional Indigenous Language Centres should operate in all areas of need to provide infrastructure and technical support to Community Language Teams. Existing centres should continue to operate but should be evaluated and new centres should be considered for some regions which have no current coverage.

4. National Indigenous Languages Centre A feasibility study should be undertaken to evaluate the merits of establishing a National Indigenous Languages Centre.

HREOC Bringing them Home Report 1997 – Refers to the social dysfunction caused by decline in use of own language and recommends:

Language, culture and history centres 

12a. That the Commonwealth expand the funding of Indigenous language, culture and history centres to ensure national coverage at regional level. 

12b. That where the Indigenous community so determines, the regional language, culture and history centre be funded to record and maintain local Indigenous languages and to teach those languages, especially to people whose forcible removal deprived them of opportunities to learn and maintain their language and to their descendants. 

Taskforce for the Education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (1995) recognises

  • the importance of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, cultures and languages to all Indigenous and non-Indigenous students 
  • the importance of the use by teachers of culturally inclusive methodologies and the provision of education which will strengthen Indigenous students’ identity and cultural values

Taskforce for the Education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (2000) states that schooling should acknowledge the 

“capacity of all young Indigenous people to learn by expecting all Indigenous children to be fluent in Standard Australian English and at the same time being inclusive of the student's home language” (MCEETYA 2000, p.20) 

Little Children Are Sacred Report 

  • That the government invest in the recruitment and training of Aboriginal Interpreters – a proportion of whom must be trained and supported to enable them to work in the areas of child protection and criminal investigations of abuse.

54.      That DEET urgently implements the outcomes of the Indigenous Languages and Culture Report.

National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy strategy (2000)

Recognises the value of Australia’s Aboriginal language diversity and its importance in education. It states that indigenous students acquiring Standard Australian English literacy and numeracy

“should not be at the expense of Indigenous communities’ desires to use their own languages, or to revitalise or regain languages that may have been threatened.” (DEST 2000, p.3)

DEEWR National Goals for Indigenous Education

2.       To increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed as educational administrators, teachers, curriculum advisers, teachers assistants, home-school liaison officers and other education workers, including community people engaged in teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history and con-temporary society, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. 

17.     To develop programs to support the maintenance and continued use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages.

Additional Declarations:

Australia is also a signatory to human rights declarations that specifically address the children’s right to education in their first language. These declarations include: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 27), the Universal Declaration Cultural Diversity (articles 5 and 6), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 26 and 27) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 13).


“….if our languages were like animals under threat of extinction there would be global outcry” - Lester Irabinna Rigney, Assoc. Professor, writing on Indigenous languages (FATSIL Newsletter, March 2002, p. 9).

“Australians are proud to showcase Indigenous culture at important times during the social and political history in this country, like the Olympic games … but fail to deal with the promotion and protection and investing and underwriting in the cultures, and more particularly the languages of Indigenous peoples in this country.” - Senator Aiden Ridgeway 2002

“These languages are valuable in their own right as extraordinary and unique linguistic systems but equally for the distinctive knowledge, values and social relationships they embody and to which they give access. Once lost to individuals and social groups, recovery is at best very difficult and generally impossible. When Indigenous languages and their speakers are given a valued place in the school, as in mother-tongue medium programs, the chances for survival of the languages is much greater. Conversely, if educational programs relegate these languages to the periphery, the message to children and their families is clear and strong: your language is peripheral, optional, merely decorative, and not worth your or anyone else’s real attention or effort.” - Applied Linguistics Association of Australia ALAA 2009.

“Language is at the core of identity for all people. It provides a continuing bond, built up over time between people, their families, their land and culture.”

“It's through the recording of songs, legends, poetry and lore, that language holds the key to our people’s history. It opens the way to cultural and spiritual understanding.” - FATSIL Overview 2000

“What position does language hold in relation to the whole area of cultural heritage?

It’s quite simple. If the colonizers accepted that language was the first link that had to be cut to separate a people from their culture, how can it be denied now that it is the starting point to allow reconnection. This is the responsibility that must be faced up to.” - Louise Mandell QC. Canada.  United Nations Indigenous Peoples and Racism Conference. Sydney. 2001.   

“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.” - United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 14. 1993.

References and Further Reading

Vanishing Voices - The Extinction of the Worlds Languages, Nettle, D and Romaine, S, Oxford University Press, 2000

National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005, Submitted to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts by AIATSIS in association with the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Languages (FATSIL)

'Lost for Words, The lonely fight to save our dying languages', Good Weekend, John van Tiggelen, Sept 10 2005, p. 25

'Bread Versus Freedom', FATSIL Newsletter Voice of the Land, Lester Irabinna-Rigney, March 2002, p. 9S

State of Indigenous Languages in Australia 2001, N Thieberger and P McConvell, Department of Environment and Heritage, 2001

The Voice of the Land - Published by the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Languages (FATSIL) also available on

Maori Language Nests in NZ: Te Kohanga Reo, 1982 - 2003, Presented by Titoki Black, Phillip Marshall and Kathie Irwin) at the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, New York, USA May 12 – 22, 2003

Aboriginal language resurrected in South Australia,  7.30 Report, ABC, 28/2/2001 

Linguistic Rights - National Constitutions, MOST Clearing House, UNESCO, Accessed at <>

Speaking out for an Indigenous Australian Languages Act: the case for legislative activism for the maintenance of Australia's Indigenous languages, Crossings 2002 (Volume 7), Dr Christine Nicholls, Australian Studies, Flinders University. Accessed at <>
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons, International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, Accessed at: <>

Victorian Aboriginal Centre for Languages, homepage accessed at <> April 2007