In the wilds of the Australian outback, somewhere between the small town of Ceduna and Yumbarra Conservation Park, lies an isolated settlement of indigenous people. I went there to meet two elderly sisters who were the last remaining speakers of one of Australia’s indigenous languages, as a part of a radio series I was making with help from the University of Adelaide.
When white settlers arrived in Australia in 1788 English became the language of this vast continent and squeezed out much of the existing culture of the people they then called “aborigines” – a term now considered racist. From 250 indigenous languages spoken in the 18th century there are just over 100 now and only about 13 are in reasonably good health. The rest could be lost forever in this century.
When I travelled through the outback to meet those two elderly sisters I had one thought in my head: does losing a language really matter? Is there a kind of Darwinism at work, with English, Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, inevitably smothering local languages and dialects? The two sisters spoke English not just with me, but also with their children and grandchildren. They explained that when they were young women they wanted their children to “fit in” with white Australia, and that English was much more “useful” when trying to get a job – although they regretted that their own language was now doomed.
The sisters came to mind this week with a report from Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands. It says that the Scottish Gaelic language could be lost within a decade. The report, called “The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community,” says that out of 5.4 million Scots only 11,000 are habitual Gaelic speakers, mostly in the western highlands and the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
This decline comes despite various efforts to keep the language alive. In 2019 it was claimed that 20,000 people signed up to learn Scottish Gaelic on a free online learning app, although how many have kept up the language is not known. Scotland’s deputy First Minister John Swinney welcomed the initiative by saying that "the Gaelic language is a vital part of Scotland's cultural identity and we want to ensure those who wish to learn and use the language are given every opportunity to do so.”
But beyond curiosity, how keen are people really to learn? And how useful is it to do so? One of my uncles learned Gaelic, but only when he retired. It was a hobby, something of no use in his working life (he designed aircraft engines.) The BBC produces programmes in Gaelic for BBC Alba, a dedicated Gaelic TV channel, and yet in the last national census (2011) just 57,375 people, about 1 per cent of the population of Scotland, said they can speak the language at any level.
It is estimated that almost half of the world’s 7,000 existing languages could disappear by the end of the century, despite the efforts of activists.
In Hawaii there has been a similar loss of native speakers of Hawaiian, although I met energetic campaigners who use the language at home and who have miraculously withstood the deluge of American TV and popular culture. In Ireland the British tried to stamp out Irish Gaelic but it proved impossible to defeat and remains a cornerstone of the culture, with official status in the Irish Republic. Irish is taught in schools and in April 2016 just over a third (1.7 million) of the total population of 5m in the Irish Republic claimed to be able to speak the language, along with about 100,000 others in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, Irish too, is under pressure. It remains an important symbol of national identity, yet in day-to-day use fewer young people find time to hold conversations or read in Irish. Most of my Irish friends can say a few phrases and make a basic kind of conversation, but outside areas of the west of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht, English remains the language of choice. As a post-graduate student I learned a little Irish, but when a language is not used, it dies. Sadly, I remember almost none of it.
After interviewing the pair of sisters in Australia I came upon an answer to my question of whether this matters. I went for a nature walk in the bush with a guide who talked to me about the plants, birds and animals and how his people co-existed with them for generations. When I asked him why keeping indigenous languages mattered in modern Australia, he said that each species of animal and plant around us, the kangaroos, wombats and eucalyptus trees, was unique. Each language was also unique, a different way of seeing the world. He said that a language dying was like an animal or plant species becoming extinct. Did I not understand that this loss made the whole world it poorer? Yes, I thought, now I do understand. At that moment it was me who was lost for words.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter