Language and the right to identity

| July 3, 2017

‘Our Languages Matter’ is NAIDOC Week’s 2017 theme. Languages matter because they are inherent to culture. But they are also inherent to political freedom and the right to self-determination; a right that Australia has accepted as it is set out in the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Language is concerned with the right to identity. It was to extinguish identity that the state developed policies to undermine indigenous languages and it is as a measure of restitution that the New South Wales government, for example, is developing the education system’s contribution to their renewal.

Languages matter because they allow people to think in ways that are culturally contextualised. Access to one’s own language is a measure of freedom because language is never freely surrendered, but usurped through political factors over which one has no control.

The capacity to be educated in one’s own language, see and hear it in public broadcasting, speak it in parliament and judicial proceedings and participate in community affairs in that language is a measure of the extent to which one is truly a citizen.

The indigenous right to language remains contested in contemporary Australia only because the right to substantively equal and meaningful citizenship for indigenous peoples is contested. If one cannot use one’s language in public life one is not enjoying substantively equal citizenship. Arguments against language are arguments against human equality.

While self-determination is an internationally recognised legal right belonging to all peoples, its meaningful extension to indigenous Australians requires significant political will.

Canada and New Zealand formally recognise this relationship. In Canada, the state recognises an indigenous peoples inherent right of self-government and the right to conduct that government in their own languages. The effect is to support government occurring according to indigenous cultural values and practices and to sanction an essential constituent of the right to culture.

In New Zealand, Maori is an official language of the state. In every legal, political and social respect its status is equal to that of English. The status of the Maori language means that assumptions of the English language’s inherent cultural superiority that helped to rationalise assimilationist policies are, at least officially, put to one side.

As in Australia, New Zealand’s liberal political foundation means that choice in schooling is usually accepted without argument. The right to religious or philosophically based alternatives to public schooling is accepted as a mark of citizenship. Yet, Australia does not uniformly accept that such a right extends to indigenous people receiving schooling in their own languages.

While there are arguments in New Zealand that the state does not admit the right to the extent or with the quality that it ought, there is no officially sanctioned objection of principle. The New Zealand education system is distinguished by schools teaching in the Maori language and with reference to Maori pedagogies and epistemologies. These schools are supported by a national curriculum and the state training of linguistically qualified people as teachers. The right to exist as Maori and to exercise citizenship as Maori is affirmed.

There do remain arguments about the Maori language’s position in public life. There are objections grounded in prejudice and there are pragmatic concerns that the level of political will may not support the full contribution that schooling might potentially make to language revitalisation. However it is clear that the since the 1980s, when liberal principles of freedom and choice in public service delivery became prominent and opportunities for Maori schooling increased significantly, the Maori language has shifted from a position of ridicule to an important employment attribute in the education system.

The social isolation that the Maori speaking school teacher once faced has been replaced with professional employment opportunities that involve preserving and developing cultural identity as a right of citizenship.

Relationships among language, education, culture and economic development are also marks of the right to meaningful citizenship. Professional employment opportunities for Maori speakers in the education sector increases Maori access to the middle class and language revitalisation is also economically important in broadcasting and in the creative industries where art, music and popular culture illustrate the relationship between cultural and economic development.

Indigenous languages matter.


Indigeneity: a politics of potentialAustralia, Fiji and New Zealand (2017) Bristol: Policy Press

Indigenous health: power, politics and citizenship (2015) Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing