This year, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association marked International Mother Language Day for the first time in recognition of the diversity of languages in the Commonwealth.
The United Nations and UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day is marked annually on 21 February, and it promotes the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world. The CPA celebrated the diversity of languages in the Commonwealth amongst its 2.4 billion people and the role of language in building inclusive and democratic societies as well as preserving both our heritage and diverse cultures.
Indigenous languages are facing the very real prospect of extinction across the world. Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. According to UNESCO figures, at least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages currently spoken around the world are endangered. Globally 40% of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.
In February 2019, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt Hon. Patricia Scotland QC stressed the important role that languages play in education, intercultural dialogue and culture. “In the Commonwealth we are aware that languages, especially mother tongue languages, are powerful instruments for preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage as peoples. Indeed, there is growing awareness of the vital role mother languages play in development, by adding to cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. Mother languages can also strengthen cooperation towards attaining quality education for all and building inclusive knowledge societies that preserve cultural inheritances.”
One of the biggest examples of language diversity ‘under threat’ is in Nigeria, where the population speaks more than 500 indigenous languages. According to UNESCO research, a quarter of children below 11 years old in the country are unable to speak their parents’ indigenous language. If this trend is not checked, linguistic experts believe Nigerian languages will fall out of use in two to three generations – 50 to 75 years’ time – and be confined to the history books. Even the three major indigenous languages of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are not safe as young people use English in their daily interactions.
The most linguistically diverse place on Earth is the island of New Guinea, which is split into the independent state of Papua New Guinea, and West Papua, which is part of Indonesia. In an area of 786,000 km², approximately 1,000 languages are spoken. Compare this to Europe, where around 100 languages are spoken in an area of over ten million km².
In the CPA Small Branches network that stretches from the small states in the Pacific across to islands in the Caribbean and many places in between, small jurisdictions have long histories of interaction with local communities. According to UNESCO, these local communities in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations which includes language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a complex cultural relationship.
The role of indigenous languages in fostering inclusion in education and in wider society cannot be underestimated. Parliaments can play a role in the wider acceptance of indigenous languages in many different ways.
In New Zealand for example, recent innovations in the New Zealand Parliament which had made Parliament more accessible to citizens and more relevant to their lives included the relaxation of rules to facilitate the observance of some aspects of ‘Tikanga Maori’ or Maori culture, such as permitting ‘waiata’, the singing of songs or hymns from the public galleries, and the saying of a ‘karakia’ or prayer by a Member at each sitting.
The New South Wales Parliament is just one example of a Legislature that introduced an Aboriginal Languages Bill into the Legislative Council in October 2017 to promote and protect the ‘languages of the first peoples of the land comprising New South Wales’ which are ‘an integral part of the world's oldest living culture and connect Aboriginal people to each other and to their land’.
In my own jurisdiction of the Australian Capital Territory in June 2020, we marked an Australian first for language recognition when our Parliament’s Acknowledgement of Country was delivered in the Ngunnawal language for the first time in an Australian Legislature. The ancient language of the Ngunnawal people echoed through the chamber as the Acknowledgement of Country was delivered. The ACT Assembly is the first Parliament in Australia to deliver its Acknowledgement in an indigenous language at the start of each sitting.
An Acknowledgement of Country allows non-indigenous Australians to pay respect to the indigenous people whose country they meet on and recognise their role as enduring guardians or ‘traditional owners’ of that land.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a unique, deep connection to their ancestral lands, known as ‘country’ and in ACT, the Traditional Custodians of the land are the Ngunnawal people.
In November 2019, the ACT Assembly had voted unanimously to shift from an English to Ngunnawal language Acknowledgment of Country and the resolution calling for this was the first tripartisan motion in the Assembly's history.
One of my duties as Speaker of the Assembly is to read the Acknowledgement of Country at the start of each parliamentary sitting and so I undertook linguistics training with Ngunnawal man Cheyne Halloran and linguist Louise Baird.The wording of the Acknowledgement of Country in ACT is as follows:
Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal.
Yanggu ngalawiri, dhunimanyin Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari.
Nginggada Dindi dhawura Ngunnawalbun yindjumaralidjinyin.
This is Ngunnawal Country.
Today we are gathering on Ngunnawal country.
always pay respect to Elders, female and male, and Ngunnawal country.
As Commonwealth Parliamentarians, we must celebrate and protect the diversity of languages in the Commonwealth to build inclusive and democratic societies.
(left to right:) The Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Andrew Barr, MLA; Ngunnawal elder, Warren Daley; ACT Greens Leader, Shane Rattenbury, MLA; Leader of the Opposition, Alistair Coe, MLA; and Speaker of the ACT Assembly, Joy Burch, MLA are photographed following the first delivery of the Acknowledgement of Country in Ngunnawal language at the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory. Although the building was closed due to the pandemic, a small group of elders were invited to sit in the public gallery for the occasion as representatives of the Ngunnawal people in recognition of this significant milestone in the Assembly’s reconciliation journey with Canberra’s indigenous people.