Australian Indigenous languages are in a “dire” situation, with one language expert predicting that “we won’t have any Australian languages that are strong within the next five years”.

Professor Jaky Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney made the comments after the launch of Australia’s newest circulating coin at Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.

The coin was developed in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) with a design featuring languages from 14 Indigenous communities, to mark the United Nations General Assembly’s proclamation that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The 50-cent piece incorporates translations for ‘coin’ from some of the many Indigenous languages in Australia. The design was developed in consultation with language groups from around Australia, including Kaurna people.

The coins were unveiled by AIATSIS CEO and Co-Chair of the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages Steering Committee, Craig Ritchie, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney, Professor Jaky Troy, Kaurna man, Jack Buckskin with his children and Royal Australian Mint CEO, Ross MacDiarmid.

“These coins are a celebration of Australia’s unique and diverse Indigenous languages, we hope the coins will serve as a tangible reminder of the important efforts being undertaken to preserve, protect and revitalise Indigenous languages in Australia” Mr MacDiarmid said at the launch.

Languages are central to the identity of Indigenous Australians and the second National Indigenous Languages Survey conducted in 2014 by AIATSIS recognised that remaining connected to language strengthens well-being and self-esteem in Indigenous communities Mr Ritchie said.

“Indigenous languages carry more meaning than the words themselves, so too does currency carry meaning beyond its monetary value.The release of these coins is another milestone in recognising the diverse cultures that shape our national story of over 60,000 years” said Mr Ritchie.

Speaking after the launch, Professor Troy said that she welcomed the release of the coin to raise awareness about Australian languages.

“I think one of the great things about this coin is that it’s going to put out into circulation, literally, 14 words from Australian languages.

“These are languages that are strong languages, some of them, that are still spoken on a daily basis and other languages which are in a revival mode or a renewal mode.

“Some of the words on the coin, for money, actually go across several languages.

“So by looking at this coin you can learn a lot about Australian languages, and about the connectedness of the people who speak the languages” she said.

Despite the work that many communities have been doing to revive and strengthen their language, the future for Australian Indigenous languages is not looking promising Professor Troy said.

“The trajectory for Australian indigenous languages is poor at the moment.” she said

The last published National Indigenous Languages Survey in 2014 identified 13 Australian languages as strong. The previous survey in 2005, nine years before had identified 18 strong languages in use.

“So in a space of nine years, we lost five languages” Professor Troy said.

“If we’ve got 13 that are still strong now and we’re losing five languages roughly every decade, we won’t have any Australian languages that are strong within the next 20 years.

“So it’s pretty dire what’s going on” she concluded.

She says that one factor that is not often considered is the role that maintaining language canplay in understanding and protecting the natural environment.

“I think one of the biggest issues worldwide is that the languages are not seen to be useful. That somehow speaking English is more useful. That you can get out there and do everything you need to do in your life on English.

“Well you actually can’t.

“If you don’t speak the language of the country that the language belongs to, you lose all the knowledge and information about that country and also how to survive in it.

“If you want to talk about, for example, this environment here we’re in in Adelaide, you want to understand the salt water, the ocean, the bird life, the plants, the trees, the water, you really do need to understand it in Kaurna, not in English, because the Kaurna have been curating this area now for tens and tens of thousands of years.

“English in itself does not give you any information about this area here. It can only, at best, do a poor translation of whatever might’ve been shared by the local Indigenous people.

Professor Troy says that communities need support to speak and maintain their language.

“We need a really concerted effort across Australia to celebrate and actually use our Indigenous languages.

The whole country really has a responsibility to do that. All people, Aboriginal or not Torres Strait Islander or not.

“The Commonwealth government really does need to put a huge amount of funding into this so that there can be materials out there in our languages. Everything significant that the government does should be translated into language as well. So that’s my feeling.

To see the new 50c coin including information on the languages, go to:https://www.ramint.gov.au/2019-50c-international-year-indigenous-languages

By Lucy Kingston