On 21 October 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Resolution A/RES/71/178 on “Rights of Indigenous peoples” proclaiming 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. UNESCO will serve as the lead organization for the International Year of Indigenous Languages beginning on 1st January 2019. Within Australia the Australian Government Department of Communication and the Arts through their Indigenous Languages and Arts program will take the lead at a National level; while in Queensland the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy will be the driving force for Queensland activity.
The overarching theme is Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation. UNESCO emphasises that “languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only in education, communication, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory”. Underpinning this is the level of endangerment of traditional Indigenous languages across the world.
UNESCO on their IY2019 website identify approximately 7,000 languages spoken across the world however the sobering reality is that 2,680 of these are considered endangered. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages produced the above map which highlights the ‘language hotspots’ where urgent attention is needed; unfortunately Australia is considered one of these ‘hotspots’.
In the Australian language landscape, a similar picture emerges in that of the 250 traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages only 145 are still spoken in some form; 18 of these are considered ‘strong/thriving’ while 110 of these classified as ‘critically endangered’ (National Indigenous Languages Survey, 2005).
The UN declaration of IY2019 aims to raise awareness and promote indigenous languages in these five key areas:
1. Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation.
2. Creation of favourable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to Indigenous languages.
3. Integration of Indigenous languages into standard setting.
4. Empowerment through capacity building.
5. Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge.
State Library has achieved positive outcomes in these areas through the IKC and Public Libraries networks as well as ongoing activities under the Indigenous Languages Project. In the buildup to IY2019, we would like to explore opportunities that engage communities with State Library collections, skill community language workers and create new knowledge for language use in communities.
Since this announcement, UNESCO has developed an action plan and outlined the themes and priority areas. These documents will guide the State Library of Queensland other organisations to develop events and activities that not only celebrate Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, but also supports community efforts to document and record their language knowledge. For example, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has released a briefing paper which outlines not only the important role of libraries as repositories of cultural heritage, including languages and traditional knowledge but also the ways in which libraries and other collecting institutions can work with Indigenous communities to record and document language. Community access to collections is also recognised as a key priority by IFLA, particular in rural and remote areas.
The Queensland Government also issued a media release on 9 August in support of the International Year of Indigenous Languages announcing plans to progress an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages policy. There will be an extensive community consultation process that builds upon initial work undertaken at the recent Queensland Indigenous Languages Forum held at Rockhampton in May 2018. At the moment there is a lot of energy around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages to gather momentum towards 2019.
While State Library is exploring ideas for IY2019, we acknowledge it is important that Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language communities are an integral part of the development or implementation of any events or activities. ‘Nothing for us, without us’ is one of the fundamental principles of the UN Action Plan – it will certainly shape how State Library will work with communities in celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
The State Library Indigenous Languages Project welcomes your thoughts and ideas around IY2019 and will be working with Indigenous Language Centres, IKCs, Public Library and community language workers over upcoming months as part of our planning. We look forward to joining with community in celebrating IY2019 as well as supporting community groups to revive and maintain traditional languages across Queensland.
Indigenous Languages Coordinator, State Library of Queensland
State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Webpages
Note: Additional content for this blog post has been sourced from the United Nations webpages and supporting documentation pertaining to the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
References and Further Reading
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (2005) National Indigenous Languages Survey. 499.15 2005
Capell, A. (1963) Linguistic Survey of Australia. Q 499.15 cap
Curr, E. M. (1887) The Australian Race: its origins, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent. RBF 572.994 cur
Edwards, R. (ed) (2003) Dictionary of Torres Strait languages. Q 499.1503 RAY
Eseli, P. (1998) Eseli’s Notebook. S 306.089 001
Howitt, A.W. (reprint) (1996) The Native Tribes of South-East Australia. J 306.089 how [Online access through SLQ]
Lawrie, M. The Margaret Lawrie Collection of Torres Straits Materials. TR2082
Meston, A. (undated) Archibald Meston Papers Undated. OM64-17
Nekes, H., Wurms, E. and McGregor, W. (2006) Australian Languages. J 499.15 NEK
Sutton, P. (ed) (1974) Languages of Cape York: papers presented to the Linguistic Symposium, Part B, held in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Biennial General Meeting, May,1974. G 499.15 1976
Tindale, N. B. (1974) Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits and Proper Names. Q 994.0049915 tin
AIATSIS Austlang Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Database website
Australian Government Department of Communication and the Arts: Indigenous Languages and Arts webpages
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) IY2019 Brief
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages website
Queensland Government Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships website
Queensland Government Media Release “Queensland welcomes a worldwide focus on Indigenous languages”
United Nations IY2019 website
United Nations IY2019 Action Plan