Aboriginal Language Revival The Intersectionality of Language Practices

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Tarunna Sebastian
Angela Giovanangeli


Aboriginal language revival is a recent phenomenon in Australia (Rigney 2006; Troy 2012). Prior to British colonisation, Australia had over 250 distinct languages that could be subdivided into 600-700 dialects, clearly, Australia was composed of ‘multicultural and multilingual societies’ (Rigney 2006, 385). Today only 18 Indigenous languages are spoken by all generations of people within a given language group (Social Justice Report 2009). 

In response to the urgent need to protect Indigenous languages, in August 2009, the Australian Government launched for the first time a strategy titled Indigenous Languages - A National Approach 2009 (Social Justice Report 2009). It highlighted the Government’s plan to preserve and revitalise Indigenous languages through targeted actions. More recently, in 2016 the state of New South Wales introduced Indigenous languages in the secondary school curriculum, with other states following. Australian universities are increasingly offering tertiary courses (Bagshaw, 2015). Subsequently, the Aboriginal Languages Act 2017 was passed in New South Wales with a 5-year plan to reawaken and nurture Aboriginal languages.  

Meanwhile, Australian Aboriginal women play a key role in reclaiming language and their voice in the policy arena by contributing to radical pedagogies and healing through language revival programs. To this end, Indigenous scholars in Australia see their work as drawing on generations of women, particularly in the context of Grandmother’s Laws, and their contribution to resistance, challenge to stereotypes and focus on survival as an outcome (Watson 2015; Behrendt 2019). Grandmother’s law is part of Indigenous law where men and women hold equal positions with reciprocal rights and responsibilities for maintaining societal equilibrium in their own Nations and in their own languages. These interdependent roles are designated as women’s and men’s law and are also referred to as “Women’s Business” (Burarrwanga 2019, p.72) and “Men’s Business” (Canuto et al. 2018). “Grandfathers look outwardly, protecting home community, Land and camp” (Wall 2017). Grandmothers look inwardly, teaching and nurturing younger generations in having respect and responsibility to care for Country, to benefit both Land and people and to maintain cultural connection with family, language, and Land (Wall 2017). 

As a result, competing tensions exist in the area of Indigenous language learning with government policies on the one hand providing western models for language learning within educational institutions while on the other, Indigenous community led structures are informing vital ways of re-centring language pathways. 

The aim of this paper is to build on and contribute to work in the area of Indigenous languages in Australia by examining the intersectionality relevant to the revival of an Indigenous language in order to understand the ways in which different forms of language knowledges intersect and interact to shape experiences of oppression and privilege to address and challenge systemic forms of inequality and discrimination. It draws on a framework that is informed by the relation between knowledge and pedagogy (Apple 1993; Aronowitz & Giroux 1985) and by Indigenous pedagogy frameworks (Watson & Heath, 2004; Watson, 2015). This framework acts as a useful, yet destabilising factor that brings into question how teachers teach and what systems of knowledge are applied.  

The study draws on interviews with Indigenous educators in both an Australian educational institution and a community context to examine the relation between people and society in the process of language revival as well as the challenges posed and solutions offered by the way various forms of language knowledges intersect. 

Article Details

Author Biographies

Tarunna Sebastian, University of Sydney

Tarunna Sebastian has worked at The University of Sydney since July 2019. She is a Pitjantjara and Anmatyerre woman with strong community ties in South Australia, the Northern Territory, and her adopted home of Sydney.  Currently, she lectures in the Master of Education (Leadership in Aboriginal Education), as well as in undergraduate courses. 

Angela Giovanangeli, University of Technology Sydney

Angela Giovanangeli is a senior lecturer in the School of International Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests focus on language pedagogies, intercultural education and Indigenous perspectives in education.