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Why We Need Indigenous Languages in Children’s Books

Ann-Marie Cahill


Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

Language is part of our cultural identity. We have over 8 billion people in the world, speaking over 6,500 different languages, and more than two-thirds of those languages are spoken by Indigenous peoples. Today, 9 August, is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. A day recognised and celebrated to protect the rights of our First Nations people. For many Indigenous cultures, it starts with their language — a key part of their cultural identity, heritage, and lives. However, Indigenous languages are quickly fading from existence. Every two weeks, an Indigenous language dies, and with it an unfathomable amount of history, knowledge, experience, and culture. This issue is so important, the UN has also launched the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). And the best way to revitalise Indigenous languages is to encourage a greater presence in kids’ books. It’s one of the easiest and most effective places to start. 

Author’s Note: I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the lands and waters on which I reside; the Cammeraygal People of the Guringai Tribe of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to all Aboriginal Elders, past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who read this article. I acknowledge and respect the vital contribution Indigenous people and cultures have made and still make to the nation we share and the literary community.

Indigenous Languages: The Protection of Cultural Property

If our cultural identity was a house, language would be the walls: there in every room, helping us define our space and giving us the structure to work with. You have to start early with your walls; otherwise, you can’t really build the rest of the house around it. Similarly, we identify with language from a very young age. Our family and home are the foundations, but language is how we understand what it all means within our cultural community. For some Indigenous communities, their language is the only way to continue their traditional knowledge for future generations. 

In the ‘Ngaanyatjarra Lands’ desert region of Western Australia, the Indigenous communities have lived through many changing policies for language education, both locally and at a national level. Within the education system, priority is given to learning the English language and literacy, while elders and families are responsible for passing traditional language and practices to younger generations. In an ideal world, Indigenous children would gain all the benefits of a multilingual childhood: exposure to their First Language and educational opportunities to learn the national language. But this is rarely the case. For a range of reasons (including funding, support, lack of resources, lack of training), many schools are unable to sustain Indigenous languages within their learning environments, prioritising the focus on the national language. By the time young children become young adults, they believe their First Language is of lesser value. It is a horrible consequence of national policy felt across many Indigenous peoples; for example, “Educated Not To Speak Our Language:  Language Attitudes and Newspeakerness in the Yaeyaman Language” by Madoka Hammine in Journal of Language, Identity and Education (2021) explores how “The emergence of Indigenous language revitalization seeks to…recover the loss of ancestral languages as embedded in Indigenous knowledge systems.”

As recent as 2019, researchers Dr. Inge Kral and Dr. Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis highlighted the need to maintain Indigenous languages through everyday language policies and practices. Most families know this and are eager to work with schools. Kids spend most of their day in school, but without adequate language resources, they don’t have the opportunity or exposure to seeing their First Language being valued or taught in a structural way. By the time they are young adults, many use a mix of First Language and English to communicate (known as ‘codemixing’); a practice many Indigenous people feel can disconnect them from the traditional language. 

Learning First Languages is Learning About The Land

For many Indigenous languages, it is a very small number of people who keep the language alive through regular use and education. However, every Indigenous language is tightly connected to the environment from which it developed. At the UN Biodiversity Conference, President Csaba Kőrösi of the UN General Assembly said, “If we are to successfully protect nature, we must listen to indigenous peoples, and we must do so in their own languages.”

Traditional languages are built from the environment in which they are created. Researchers Susan Chiblow and Paul J. Meighan explained this relationship really well in their article, “Language is Land, Land is Language: The Importance of Indigenous Languages”. In it, they said, “Indigenous languages are like ecological encyclopedias and ancestral guides with profound knowledge cultivated over centuries”. For example, many local sites in Scotland are named with respect to the landscape and what is found there, such as Loch nam Breac Mora, which translates to “lake of the big trout”. Sure, it’s not overly creative, but it shares the intimate connection the Indigenous people have with their land. 

No language is created nor preserved in a vacuum; they all evolve over time. However, while ‘codemixing’ can help young people preserve their cultural identity, they may lose the contextual understanding of their First Language without the geographic connection. Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri man and prominent Australian journalist, spoke of this disconnect back in 2016 and has talked of it again this year. “We had words for white people and police and food and animals; it was a language apart, it belonged to us, likely incomprehensible to others. But it wasn’t Wiradjuri. It was a language like us — people clinging to often shattered traditions, part of an old world and not yet finding a place in the new.”

How Children’s Books Bridge the Divide

Publishing Indigenous languages in children’s books is one significant and vital step toward the preservation of Indigenous languages overall. It can also be an important step in reconciliation, albeit small in comparison to the horror experienced by our Stolen Generations. The power of children’s books cannot be underestimated in any cultural setting. However, when published in Indigenous languages, it gives a powerful boost to cultural identity and reinforces the message, “YOU are important. YOU are valued.” The more representation seen at a young age, the more respect is given to identity and the community as we grow. 

In Australia, organisations like Children’s Ground are working directly with communities to preserve Indigenous languages in a way that values both language and culture. They provide early learning programs on the country, including children’s books published in First Languages. In three years, Children’s Ground has already seen a huge increase in early learning engagement, from 14% to 82% of communities. Research in other areas has shown this kind of improvement can help kids feel more confident and capable within the general education system. 

Bilingual books featuring Indigenous languages can also preserve languages across multiple generations. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) recently launched its book We Look, We Find by Women and Children from the Napranum Community. It is the first commercially published children’s picture book featuring the Thaynakwith language. It has already been heralded as a fantastic tool to help preserve the language, sharing words and context with permanence on the printed page. It’s one of many programs shared by the ILF to help Indigenous communities continue with their First Language and their connection with the land. 

On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it’s important to take action and support the preservation of cultural identity. Find Indigenous writers and creators, and take the time to hear their stories. Read their words and listen to their First Language. Acknowledge the history within and the connection with the environment from which it was born. And most importantly, share this with younger generations. The sooner our children see us valuing Indigenous voices, the sooner they will feel valued, too.