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Knowledge of endangered languages in the Sudanese Community, Melbourne, Australia


Language Unspecified
Depositor Simon Musgrave
Affiliation Monash University
Location Australia
Collection ID 0529
Grant ID PPG0042
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The primary result of this project is a report giving detailed information about the linguistic make-up of the Sudanese community in Melbourne, especially the presence of speakers of endangered languages. This material is made available as a report which has been distributed within the Sudanese community and to interested Government and non-Government bodies. A condensed version of the report is also prepared for publication in a suitable journal.

Another result of the project is a limited amount of documentation data, sufficient to establish that for some languages there are speakers with sufficient knowledge that they can serve as consultants in more detailed documentation. This material is archived with ELAR and with PARADISEC, and copies are made available to the Sudanese community.

This research is the initial stage in a research program which aims to document a number of languages of the Sudan.

Two secondary aims of the research are significant for community involvement. Firstly, we actively seek members of the Sudanese community who are interested in language and especially in their linguistic heritage. We identified several such people who are candidates for training as assistants in a future documentation project. Secondly, we assessed the level of interest in language maintenance within the Sudanese community, specifically in sub-communities associated with minority languages, in order to include maintenance activities in the planning of future projects. Previous research has suggested that, at least within the Dinka-speaking sub-community, language maintenance is viewed very positively among younger people (Izon 2005)


Group represented

Three regions of Sudan are the loci of internal conflict, the southern region of the country, the eastern region, and the Darfur region in the west (ICG, no date). The conflicts in the south and in the east have continued for a number of years and these situations have stabilised to some extent recently, but access for foreigners remains dangerous. In Darfur, the conflict continues currently. At the date of writing, the Australian government’s travel advisory for Sudan is Do not travel with specific advice:

“The security situation in Sudan, including the Darfur region, is extremely dangerous and volatile. Civilians, including foreign aid workers and journalists, are at extreme risk of being caught up in the violence between the various factions. Armed conflict, banditry, kidnapping, lawlessness and other criminal activity have also increased.”

(, accessed 12/12/07)

Therefore there is no possibility of carrying out linguistic fieldwork in Sudan now.

As a result of the conflicts within the country, substantial numbers of Sudanese have become refugees, and some of these people have settled in Australia. According to the Department of Immigration & Multicultural Affairs Settlement Database (Data extracted on 2 May 2006, quoted from MRC-NW 2006), 6553 people of Sudanese origin have settled in the state of Victoria. It is hard to obtain full information on the language background of these people, but some indicative data is included in MRC-NW 2006 (p7):

The data was extracted on the 9th of May 2006. The data include all Sudanese settled first in the western suburbs of Melbourne between 1 of September 1996 to 1 May 2006.

Language Number of Settlers
Arabic 1,343
African excl North African 220
Middle Eastern & North African 204
Other (Nfd) 130
Tigrinya 73
Amharic 63
English 18
Acholi 10
Asante 4
Others 24
Total known 2,089
Unknown 144
Total 2,233

Further information can be extracted from the 2006 Australian Census data (, accessed 13 December 2007). The category ‘Language Spoken at Home’ gives the following figures for the Melbourne region:

Language Number of speakers
Acholi 42
Dinka 2139
Nuer 801
Unspecified African languages 1062

These figures do not include those speakers giving Arabic as their home language, as it is not possible to break that category down by place of origin in the available data. The ‘Unspecified African languages’ category will include people from outside of Sudan, but many major African languages are listed separately in the data and it is therefore probable that most of these people speak minority languages and some are from Sudan. It is important also to remember that the Census tracks the language used in homes, rather than knowledge of language. We have recent anecdotal evidence that some Sudanese people use majority languages such as Arabic or Dinka in their homes although they also have knowledge of minority languages.

Overall, we believe that it is very likely that minority languages from Sudan are represented in the Sudanese community in Melbourne, and that there is a strong case for exploring the possibility of documenting these languages with Australian residents while access to Sudan is problematic.


Collection contents

The first phase of the project was to improve our knowledge of the languages spoken in the Sudanese community in Melbourne. Existing sources (eg. MRC-NW 2006, Izon 2005) contain information about the major language groups such as Arabic and Dinka, as well as some smaller, but still large, groups such as Acholi. For our purposes, we needed an exhaustive listing of the languages, and in some cases, the dialects, spoken by members of the Sudanese community. This information was obtained by detailed questionnaire-style inquiries based on existing social groups in the community, such as church groups, resource groups and community organisations. Where such inquiries yield reports of the presence of speakers of minority or endangered languages or dialects, the speakers were tracked down and further inquiries were made to ascertain the number of speakers of the language present in Melbourne and whether any social networks exist based on that language or on the source region of the speakers.

This first phase of research also provided some current information about the status of minority language communities in Sudan. Most immigrants in Australia maintain contacts with family and friends in the country of origin (Izon 2005) and our questionnaires include questions intended to elicit information about the conditions of the home communities of the languages found in Australia.

The information collected in the first phase of the project was assessed by the investigators. In consultation with the research assistant, a small number of languages (we envisage four as a manageable number) were selected for more detailed investigation. Two main criteria were used in selecting these languages: i) the degree of endangerment of the language in its home community (to the extent that accurate information on this point is available; and ii) the language potential of the speaker community in Melbourne. The second phase of the project was to further clarify this second point. The size of the community associated with each language has been established and the language proficiency of community members has been assessed. Where suitable language consultants are identified, preliminary documentation were undertaken, for example recording and transcription of short narratives, in order to identify speakers who were able to act as consultants in a more extensive documentation project. In this phase of the work, we aimed to identify individuals in the various language communities who are interested and suitable to be trained as assistants in any future project. A third aim was to assess the extent to which the various communities see language maintenance as important and to investigate what strategies for maintenance might usefully be included in a larger project.

The success of the project depends on the maintenance of good relations with the Sudanese community overall, and with specific sub-communities within it. We worked initially through existing community organisations and networks, and assigned funds in our budget to cover items such as gifts and the cost of shared meals in order to maintain relationships. In the second phase of the project, when more intensive work with individuals will be involved, we will pay consultants for their time.

Team Structure:

    CI1 (Musgrave) leads the project and has primary responsibility for data collection in Loc1 (Dandenong), and for archiving, and shares responsibility for preparing final reports and other publications.
    CI2 (Hajek) has primary responsibility for data collection in Loc2 (Footscray/Maribyrnong), and shares responsibility for preparing final reports and other publications.
    RA (unnamed) has responsibility for data collection in Phase 1, and assists the CIs in data collection in Phase 2. The RA also assists in the preparation of materials for archiving.


Other information

References: Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: ICG (no date) International Crisis Group: Reports by region – Sudan., accessed 13 December 2007. Izon, Meredith. 2005. “I’m not going to lose my language.” A sociolinguistic study of language use and attitudes to language maintenance of multilingual Dinka Sudanese teens. Unpublished Master of Applied Linguistics thesis, Monash University. MRC-NW. 2006. Community Profiles – Sudan Born Community. St Albans VIC: Migrant Resource Centre, North West Region.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Musgrave, Simon, 2008. Knowledge of endangered languages in the Sudanese Community, Melbourne, Australia. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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