Expert Working Group Report


Aboriginal languages—economic value



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Aboriginal languages—economic value


In Australia, English and migrant languages are 'widely regarded as being economically useful languages as opposed to Aboriginal languages' (Mühlhäusler & Damania 2004). Dockery (2009) advocates that a new approach must be developed based on an assumption that Aboriginal knowledge and language are equally valid for promoting development outcomes. Indigenous languages and associated knowledge are important assets in natural and cultural resource management, biodiversity conservation, art and creative industries, new and emerging economies (such as carbon farming) and the knowledge economy generally (including research, linguistics and climate change adaptation). In remote Australia it is reported that Indigenous ecological knowledge is critical to linking Aboriginal people with market economic activity associated with the use, management and knowledge of the natural environment (Altman 2003; Walsh & Douglas 2009; Cunningham et al. 2009; CRC-REP 2011). Acknowledgment and valuing of Aboriginal languages is an essential precursor to realising economic benefits for knowledge holders and for appropriate sharing of knowledge through partnerships with industry.

Intergenerational learning—the importance of language to Indigenous knowledge


In a fast-changing world, the maintenance of language and cultural values is more important than ever before. Indigenous people place a high priority on language maintenance, especially in light of the delicate relationship between loss and generational change and difference (Cristancho & Vining 2009). Senior Indigenous people have experienced profound and rapid change during the course of their lifetime and know exactly what the losses are, although such losses remain largely unaccounted for by Australian society at large.

For Indigenous people, language and its specialised vocabulary encapsulate the depth and breadth of cultural understanding and show respect for the Jukurrpa/Dreaming. As Veronica Dobson, a senior Eastern Arrernte woman, explains:

Language is important for maintaining all traditional knowledge. Everything on the land has Arrernte names and stories about them in Arrernte. If language is lost, the knowledge is lost and it can't be handed down to younger generations. For example, many younger Arrernte people nowadays believe that a particular butterfly (intelyapelyape) is connected to the ayeparenya caterpillar, when it is really the butterfly from the caper bush grubs. In actual fact, the ayeparenya caterpillar turns into a moth, called arrelyapelyape, but most Arrernte people don't know that word anymore. So with the word forgotten, so too is the moth's connection to the lifecycle of the ayeparenye caterpillar. This is one of the main totems for Alice Springs and the loss of this knowledge is a very significant thing for our people. (Veronica Dobson, quoted in Johnson 2006, p. 32)

Changing cultural paradigms


Cultural competency is rapidly emerging as a significant issue across policy, research and service provision and is particularly important as a tool for responding to the challenges of improving Indigenous engagement with science. Cultural competence has been usefully defined as a system that acknowledges and incorporates—at all levels—'the importance of culture, assessment of cross-cultural relations, vigilance toward the dynamics that result from cultural differences, expansion of cultural knowledge, and adaptation of services to meet culturally unique needs' (Betancourt et al. 2003).

Improving the cultural competency of those involved in program development and delivery is a key strategy in addressing sociocultural barriers to equity in participation and in changing racial or ethnic disparities in outcomes across health, education, employment and, indeed, most social and economic indicators.

Universities Australia has recently completed a project in association with the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council to provide Australian universities with tools to embed cultural competency at an institutional level, to provide encouraging and supportive environments for Indigenous students and staff, and to produce well-rounded graduates with the skills necessary to provide genuinely competent services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Pilot projects at Edith Cowan University and the Universities of Wollongong, Newcastle and Western Australia were successfully completed and a best practice framework was adopted in November 2011. This framework comprises five principles:


  • Indigenous people should be actively involved in university governance and management.

  • All graduates of Australian universities will have the knowledge and skills necessary to interact in a culturally competent way with Indigenous communities.

  • University research will be conducted in a culturally competent way in partnership with Indigenous participants.

  • Indigenous staffing will be increased at all appointment levels and, for academic staff, across a wider variety of academic fields.

  • Universities will operate in partnership with their Indigenous communities and will help disseminate culturally competent practices to the wider community.

Role and composition of the Expert Working Group


The Expert Working Group on Indigenous Engagement with Sciences is a diverse group of experts from the research, education and community development sectors. The full list of Expert Working Group members is in Appendix 1.

The role of the group was to review the state of Indigenous engagement with science in Australia and develop a set of recommendations that could help strengthen the scientific community's role in increasing Indigenous participation in and engagement with science. The group held four face-to-face meetings and one teleconference during the period June 2011 to February 2012. The group also undertook an indicative review of current programs to gain a snapshot view of the nature and range of Indigenous engagement in science (see Appendix 2).

The group was acutely aware of the absence of a Torres Strait Islander in its membership and acknowledges the need for further consultation to ensure that Torres Strait Islander issues and interests are adequately considered in implementing relevant elements of the Inspiring Australia initiative.


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