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Census data misleading; languages still at risk

A report in The Australian claims that the 2011 census showed that the Aboriginal language “crisis” has been overstated, that indigenous languages are not in danger of dying out. Aidan Wilson looks into the data to find out what’s going on.

Just before Christmas, The Australian published an article about indigenous language use in Australia that drew on research conducted by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the ANU. The article began with this:

Aboriginal language ‘crisis’ exaggerated, says census

New census analysis reveals that the “crisis” in Aboriginal languages is overstated, debunking the notion that mother tongues are dying out.

In the Northern Territory the proportion of Aborigines speaking an indigenous language at home rose from 59.1 per cent in 2006 to 64.7 per cent in 2011.

For years now we’ve been hearing statistics like ‘a language dies every two weeks’ and ‘by the end of the century, half of the world’s 7000 languages will no longer be spoken’, and the top-end of Australia has been indicated as a hot-spot for language endangerment. Also, having worked on endangered languages over the last 7 years, I can say from my own experiences, and those of my colleagues, that the situation is critical and is not being overstated.

So how could the census possibly reveal that there isn’t a problem?

To attempt to answer this, I downloaded the original report and got reading. I quickly found that its findings don’t bear much resemblance to those of The Australian:

The main finding was that there has been a steady decline in the percentage of indigenous Australians who speak an Indigenous language between 2001 and 2011. Given the potential individual and community benefit of Indigenous language retention, this is clearly a negative finding.

How then, did The Australian come up with the overall impression that ‘mother tongues’ are no longer threatened?

The numbers that The Australian cites are correct, inasmuch as that is what the census data says. The number of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory that self-reported as speaking an Aboriginal language rose from 28 974 in 2006 to 34 086 in 2011, which equates to 59.1% and 64.7% respectively (as reported above) of the overall indigenous population that reported speaking an Aboriginal language.

But if we look closer at the numbers and the breakdown of individual languages, it quickly becomes clear where the misunderstanding lies.

The census is simply not the best way to assess the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

Alongside the report, CAEPR has published a spreadsheet of data (available here) showing indigenous languages and their speaker populations in both 2006 and 2011. One thing that’s strikingly obvious is the extraordinary increase in the number of speakers for some of the languages on the list. Some languages that had very few or no speakers in 2006 (reportedly) apparently experienced miraculous rejuvenation over the subsequent five years. Dalabon for example, exhibited a phenomenal rate of uptake, with only 7 people reporting as speaking the language in 2006 shooting up to a whopping 73 in 2011, a ten-fold increase. This, to be brutally honest, is impossible, and many of the languages in the list exhibit a similarly inexplicable increase in the number of speakers.

Respondents are clearly answering the language question based on their linguistic affiliation – the language they claim in virtue of being born into a particular linguistic group – rather than their actual linguistic ability. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially given that the census doesn’t otherwise ask for anything such as one’s ancestral language. Nor is this specific to Aboriginal people. This is something that many migrant communities and families have to grapple with when filling out the census. A 3rd generation Italian family might only speak Italian sparingly, with their grandparents for instance, but they’ll still put down ‘Italian’ as the language they speak at home, just as my father – a staunch atheist – always answered ‘Methodist’ under religion. It simply highlights the limitations of a simplistic, self-reporting survey such as the census for enumerating more complex questions such as language (and religion, for that matter).

Another methodological problem for the purposes described here, is the inclusion of non-traditional Aboriginal languages, such as Kriol (the most populous language in the list) and Yumplatok (or Torres Strait Islander creole; incidentally the second-most populous language on the list). Since the census is being interpreted to assess the linguistic health of Aboriginal languages overall, including these languages only serves to cloud the data. For instance, if a community switches from their traditional language to Kriol (as has happened many times in Australian history), but the size of that community grows over time, then the overall numbers would show an increase in the number of people speaking ‘an Aboriginal language’ rather than, more accurately, that the traditional language is no longer being spoken.

The census is simply not the best way to assess the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages for the issues mentioned above. Fortunately then, there is the National Indigenous Languages Survey. The first such survey, completed in 2005, was a huge national undertaking that attempted to get accurate figures for the state of indigenous languages. It found (emphasis mine):

The situation of Australia’s languages is very grave and requires urgent action. Of an original number of over 250 known Australian Indigenous languages, only about 145 Indigenous languages are still spoken and the vast majority of these, about 110, are in the severely and critically endangered categories.

The second National Indigenous Languages Survey is currently being conducted and when finished, will probably show that the situation hasn’t improved in the last 7 years, contrary to the claims of The Australian.

The census is an extremely useful enumeration of the population for a whole range of different reasons, but gathering accurate and useful information with respect to the health of Aboriginal languages is evidently not one of them.

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  • 1
    Mike Flanagan
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I think it is fair to observe that most of the above explanation would be incomprehensible to average Australian or Murdoch scribbler.
    Thanks again Crickey for your fact checking articles.The precision that you have applied to your focus is commendable.

  • 2
    Apollo
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Preserving language is very important, it helps the Aborigines to keep connection with their culture and identity.

    A friend’s friend of mine has a girlfriend who is teaching in remote Aboriginal community at the moment. She finds that the Aborigines who still have strong connection and cultural identity do quite well in life, but in areas where people have lost their culture, the people don’t know their purpose in life and turn to alchohol. To make thing worst, it’s not only the lack of employment opportunity but the unconditional welfare create a situation where they don’t know the value of money, that you have to work and earn it, they don’t know how to manage it at all.

    When you have a break in, you don’t have to worry about them stealing your valuable, they don’t do that. Just check the fruit bowl and the fridge, they were either looking for alchohol or food.

  • 3
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    In addition to the anecdotal evidence such as you’ve given, Apollo, there have been a number of studies into the health benefits to Aboriginal people of speaking their own language. In a nutshell, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who speak their own language have ‘markedly better physical and mental health’, are more likely to be employed, less likely to abuse alcohol, more likely to attend school more likely to gain post-school qualifications, and are less likely to engage in substance abuse or be a victim of physical violence.

    Having said that, the link is correlative, not causative.

    Those findings by the way come from the Office of the Arts’ submission to the inquiry into Indigenous Language Learning (more on that here), signed by Simon Crean, and features studies by Nicholas Biddle, who wrote the CAEPR report mentioned above.

    Circle of life, innit.

    And Mike: Cheers!

  • 4
    Apollo
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that Aidan.

  • 5
    Roger Clifton
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “Given the potential individual and community benefit of” speaking city-quality English, it would help indigenous interests if the article used the word “bilingual” a few times.

  • 6
    Tristan Tipps
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    And the other reason for the increased numbers reporting are simply due to a targeted strategy by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which aimed to improve collection methods in Aboriginal communities across the country for the last census.

  • 7
    Warren Joffe
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it child abuse to commit a child who is not a member of a flourishing community of indigenous language speakers numbering more than few dozen to spending hours a week studying a language in which there is no significant literature (or reliable history or geography or science) rather than almost anything else – not excluding Pali and Sanskrit….?

    If he or she is able to speak the language because it is indeed the language of the extended family or community then no doubt he or she will do so and, not surprisingly, be amongst the happier and bette balanced individuals in Aboriginal communities. But why spend time at school learning something which was never formerly taught. Is it important for a child to know that his/her tribal myth has a Green Goanna or whatever as its founding spirit and to know what the indigenous word is for that spirit? At least your typical lapsed Catholic who can laugh at the fairy stories taught as, indeed, Gospel, knows that that tradition is important to understand if one wants to understand how the modern world came about starting with Greek and Roman civilisation.

  • 8
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Yes Tristan, there are a number of reasons for increased reporting by ATSI people this time round. Biddle thinks the Apology in ’07 could have had something to do with it. The fact that a higher percentage of ATSI people are reporting speaking an indigenous language may similarly be due to an increase in people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

    Warren, if I understand your ramblings correctly, then you’re totally off-topic. But to quickly respond, I’m not suggesting that we could increase people’s lives merely by teaching them their ancestral language. As I said in a comment above, it’s (probably) only correlation, not causation, that means that ATSI people who speak their language do better (broadly speaking). So getting a community to learn their language without all the other factors in place wouldn’t achieve anything.

    I would rather argue for the removal of the arbitrary constraints on speaking one’s own language, such as monolingual education and general societal dismissal of aboriginal languages as evinced by comments such as your own.

  • 9
    BruceHassan
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a great article. I long ago gave up believing anything I read in a Murdoch paper (or even reading them). The situation you describe is similar to that on Norfolk Island and the use of Norf’k laengwij. Unfortunately, Norfolk Island remains the only Australian territory still to be excluded from the census, and there are similarly ambiguous statistics available about who speaks the language. UNESCO has listed it as an endangered language, but there seems to be zero support from the Australian Government for teaching and maintaining the language, even though the native speakers are Australian citizens.

  • 10
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Bruce. I remember hearing a couple of years ago (even longer?) that Norf’k had been placed on the endangered languages list. Unfortunately the situation you describe is typical for Australian languages, indigenous or otherwise, rather than exceptional.

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