The rich cultural practices, knowledge systems and cultural expressions of Torres Strait and Aboriginal people are a source of great strength, resilience and pride. Traditional languages are inextricably linked to culture and as such these two important aspects of heritage cannot be considered in isolation.
The Torres Strait region is the home of two traditional languages and six dialects:
European arrival, and in particular the establishment of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the Torres Strait in 1871, saw the beginning of assimilation between Island and western cultures. During this time, we were actively discouraged from speaking traditional languages and practising culture. This resulted in a new language known as Torres Strait Creole, which remains the common language to all Torres Strait Islanders.
In the early years of the 20th century, linguist Sidney Ray produced the first written record of the Kala Lagaw Ya and Meriam Mir languages as a result of his fieldwork during Alfred Cort Haddon’s 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. Public policy in Australia has lead to both the demise and promotion of traditional Indigenous languages over the last 200 years.
Assimilation and integration policies and programs of the 1900s saw generations of Torres Strait Islanders removed from our homes – this, along with a focus on the English language in the education system, and the need for people to relocate from the Islands to find employment have all been significant contributors to the demise of traditional languages.
During the 1970s Torres Strait traditional languages were taught in some schools under the LOTE (Language Other Than English) program, however this was a discretionary program and not mandated by all schools in the region. In 1986 Education Queensland took over the responsibility for delivery of education in the Torres Strait; in 2007 the 17 primary and secondary schools of the region were amalgamated to create Tagai State College.
In 2008, the Torres Strait Islander Regional Education Council initiated community consultation that identified a significant need for traditional languages education. Tagai State College has responded to this identified community need through a series of initiatives, including a commitment to a two-stage immersion Language and Culture program which seeks to revitalise and maintain our traditional languages.
Recent surveys such as the National Indigenous Languages Survey (1 and 2), the 2012 House of Representatives Inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities, and Closing the Gap initiatives have raised awareness of the situation of Indigenous traditional languages in Australia.
While our traditional languages are still in existence, the number of fluent speakers has diminished over time, and it is for this reason that they now face extinction.
The Torres Strait Traditional Languages Centre, in partnership with Tagai State College, is leading the language revitalisation work across the Torres Strait.
With the support of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, many communities have recently begun implementing targeted traditional language, culture revitalisation, and maintenance projects. In addition, Tagai State College has embedded a prep to year three immersion program in all of their schools across the region.
Despite these programs, our efforts are being hampered by language shift (students speaking Creole which delays the learning of traditional language); language loss (traditional languages not being passed on by parents to their children); and language corruption (mixing traditional and modern languages, inconsistent spelling, etc.).
The launch of the Torres Strait Traditional Languages Plan and Traditional Languages Charter in 2016 was a watershed moment for the Torres Strait. Together, these documents provide the regional roadmap towards language revitalisation.