Opinion: Do you know your local language? asks Craig Ritchie

Craig Ritchie

Craig Ritchie

Barayn marrung – that’s good day in the language of my people, the Dunghutti people whose traditional lands lie from the eastern extremity of the Mid North Coast to the Northern Tablelands.

Born and raised in rural New South Wales I was the first in my family to go to university.

My learning journey in the western academic tradition continues today, but it wasn’t until I took up my role as the CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) recently that I continued my Dhungutti language journey.

I am privileged to have access to linguists who have studied Dhungutti and to a language collection like no other in the world.

AIATSIS is an institution with Australia’s First Nations peoples, cultures, knowledge and history at the heart of its mission.

We have over 1 million items.

Our languages collection is inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register, with over 4300 titles in over 200 Australian languages.

I am well-placed to learn my language and my heritage.

A survey conducted by AIATSIS in 2005 found that of over 250 Australian Indigenous languages about 145 were still spoken, with about 110 endangered.

Under a decade later a 2014 follow up survey indicated there were only around 120 languages still spoken.

But why do our languages matter?

In 2012 a report, Our Land, Our Languages, showed Indigenous peoples who speak their languages have markedly better physical and mental health and are more likely to be employed.

In 2011 Noel Pearson challenged all Australians to learn a local language and pass it to our children, saying it was “the noblest and worthiest cause for an Australian patriot” (The Australian, 21 May 2011).

Six years on, I wonder how many of us have taken up the challenge?

And as we head towards NAIDOC Week for 2017, with this year’s theme ‘Our Languages Matter’, I wonder how many people even know the name of the Indigenous language and groups in his or her very own region?

My hope is that this NAIDOC Week will shine a light on those local language centres and speakers across the nation striving to keep languages strong.

Craig Ritchie is the CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).