To the rescue of ancient tongues

October 14 2002

Nearly half of NSW's Aboriginal languages have died out. Debra Jopson looks at an ambitious new plan to revive those that are left.

Not so long ago in the lands of the Gumbaynggirr people around Nambucca Heads, there lived eight old people who were fluent in their native tongue. Now, there is just one, Auntie Maggie Morris, who language teacher Mardi Walker reckons would be "pushing 80".

A crisis? Well, no, because the young people have decided to reclaim their language. Walker, 29, started learning seven years ago. She is now teaching it to two year 11 students, Alisha Wilson and Amanda Jarrett, for their Higher School Certificate and believes about 50 others in her area are learning it.

"It is part of our culture, so it makes Aboriginal people look forward to going to school," says Zeminda Walker, 18, a year 12 student at St Vincent's College, Potts Point, who in 2000 became the first student to successfully take an Aboriginal language - Gumbaynggirr - as a School Certificate subject.

The Gumbaynggirr may have rescued their language in the nick of time. But the NSW Government has now recognised that the death of 30 of the state's 70 Aboriginal languages is a cause for shame, and acknowledges the rest are in crisis.

"One [thing] we shouldn't be proud of is the loss of language to Aboriginal people," the Deputy Premier, Andrew Refshauge, says. "It's important we change that around because a strong culture does need a strong language."

After a history of indifference to language loss, the State Government has finally agreed to act. Refshauge spoke of resurrection recently when he announced almost $1.2 million for an Aboriginal Language Centre to help communities rebuild languages, with three full-time researchers, an internet database and $100,000 seed funding for communities. This includes $20,000 each for the Gumbaynggirr, to publish their new dictionary, and for a CD-ROM in the Gamilaraay language, spoken from Walgett to Tamworth and north to Boggabilla.

Communities had started the revival over the past decade. The most notable efforts have been made by the Awabakal people, of south-eastern NSW; the Bakandji, Gamilaraay and Wiradjuri, of the west and the centre; and the Dunghutti of the north-east. The NSW Board of Studies has developed a course in the Bakandji language in conjunction with Aboriginal people in the Wilcannia area. There is a course in Wiradjuri for students which includes six songs for children and a grammar book. The Awabakal, from the Lake Macquarie area, have been able to draw on a Bible translation made by a missionary, the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, with local Aborigines in the early 19th century.

But some NSW languages have only 10 words left, some have 100 and others have begun to be reconstructed using old tape recordings, word lists compiled by anthropologists and snippets from elders' memories, says Refshauge's Aboriginal affairs policy adviser, Edwina Crawford.

While academics have pieced together remnants of the Eora language of Sydney, using the writings of the earliest British colonists, Crawford says that when their descendant Allen Madden performs a "welcome to country", the traditional Aboriginal greeting at formal Sydney events, he often apologises for not being able to speak in his people's language.

Why care? "We should know our own language so we can know where we come from," says a St Vincent's College boarder, Michaela Fitzgerald, who, with her sister, Alkira, and cousin, Ashleigh Walker, are learning Gumbaynggirr using tapes sent from Bowraville by their grandfather, Ken Walker.

She loves the way her tongue rolls when she speaks it. "Giinagay Ngaya yaam Michaela. Ngaya yilaami bawrrung. Nganyundi jugin Gumbaynggirr," she says to demonstrate. (Hello, my name is Michaela and I come from Bowraville. My homeland is Gumbaynggirr.)

A Bakandji woman from north-western NSW, Crawford remembers the emotion when her "Nan" spoke in the old tongue at her 70th birthday celebration. "When you hear another Aboriginal person speak the language, you get teary because it is that connection we have had to our culture and it's been stripped away," she says.

She imagines her elders, banned from speaking language on the missions, "whispering it to each other, or speaking it running halfway down the riverbank, or up trees" to keep it alive. The new resource centre could unearth rich pieces of language hidden away for years by families, she believes.

Every Wednesday in Walgett, eight Aboriginal adults gather at St Joseph's Primary School to learn the local Gamilaraay language, and its sister language Yuwaalaraay, using tapes of elders and words pieced together from other records by a local linguist, Brother John Giacon.

One, John Brown, who is teaching language in the school while still learning himself, loves the economy of Gamilaraay. For instance, one word, "yaama", means "Hello, how are you?"

The State Government's new draft policy on Aboriginal languages aims to give every indigenous schoolchild in the state a chance to learn to speak in their own tongue, if it is reviveable, or another if it is not.

Brown says that while Aboriginal communities want to keep ownership of the languages, other children would be welcome to learn.

"If Japanese, French and German are good enough to teach, then Aboriginal languages should be, too," he says.

Reprinted from Sydney Morning Herald October 14 2002