Preserving indigenous languages crucial to a nation's wellbeing and identity

02 March 2022

With 2022 marking the start of UNESCO's Decade of Indigenous languages' a CQUniversity linguistic expert is highlighting the importance of preserving Indigenous languages in Australia and worldwide for the wellbeing and identity of a nation's people.

Linguist and Adjunct Professor at CQUniversity's Centre for Indigenous Health Equity Research Alexandra (Sasha) Aikhenvald said the aim of UNESCO's Decade was to build 'a global community for the preservation' revitalization and support of indigenous languages worldwide'.

"This is a way of celebrating the intricate complexity of indigenous First Nations languages and their cultures' so as to make sure they do not disappear without trace'" Professor Aikhenvald explained.

More than 80 per cent of the nearly 5000 languages across the world are in danger of disappearing forever' under the pressure of major languages.

"When a language falls into oblivion' this affects the wellbeing and the identity of the nation which suffers the loss' and makes our world poorer and less colorful'" she said.

"This is not unlike the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

"The UNESCO Decade is a means of trying to restore and to maintain the diversity' and support the indigenous minorities' their languages' and their rights."

Professor Aikhenvald is an authority in South American Indian languages and is the author of I saw the dog: how language works' a book tackling linguistic diversity and the dangers of its loss' with a special focus on tropical areas.

From her experiences with the Tariana people of Brazil' Professor Aikhenvald understands the complexities of language and identity and how it could be relevant to Australian First Nation's people.

Brazil is one of the most multilingual and linguistically diverse countries in the world. The Brazilian state of Amazonas is home to about four million people and at least 300 indigenous languages.

"As things change under the impact of Western colonization' the national language' Portuguese' is becoming more and more prominent and the Indians are rapidly losing their ancestral language'" she explained.

"They feel destitute – complaining that they are now compelled to speak what they call 'borrowed' languages."

Professor Aikhenvald's connection with the Tariana people and their language goes back a long way.

Since 1991' she has been working with the remaining speakers on documenting their language' putting together a grammar reference' a dictionary' several story books' and teaching materials.

"This kind of work' known as language documentation' is essential for keeping the language going'" she said.

She said similar to the First Nations languages of Australia and many other regions' Tariana is an oral language – traditional stories and lore used to be memorised and then transmitted by story tellers.

Working with language speakers' Professor Aikhenvald devised a writing system which was praised by Tariana who now could see their language written down' just like other Western languages.


She was also responsible for helping to establish a school which teaches Tariana language for a few hours each day by trained teachers and speakers.

"Having a Tariana-only school boosts people's resilience and pride in their identity. They are now confident that their language is not going to disappear'" she said.

Professor Aikhenvald's successful experience in teaching Tariana shows how important it is to have indigenous language as part of school curriculum.

"This is a way of valuing it' ensuring that it lives on and on'" she said.

"Australia – and especially North Queensland – is home to substantial linguistic and cultural diversity.

"The family together with the school system play a crucial role in the maintenance and survival of First Nations languages.

"This is what we see for the Tariana' and for numerous other First Nations people. Experience like that of the Tariana enhances the importance of the Decade of Indigenous languages."