‘The kids soak it up’: How Aboriginal language transformed a school

March 2nd, 2020 by Aboriginal elder Michael Kulka overheard a conversation between students that stopped him in his tracks while on a recent visit to the local primary school at Mossman, an hour north of Cairns in far north Queensland. It wasn’t the topic of the discussion that struck him, but the fact that the children were speaking in snippets of his native language, Kuku Yalanji. The words transported him back to his own early childhood, growing up on the banks of the Daintree River surrounded by traditional language and culture. As a boy, he would paint himself in white clay and sneak up on the “old girls” while they were fishing in the river, earning him the nickname he still bears today: Uncle Spook. When he was around five years old, his parents stopped speaking Kuku Yalanji in line with discriminatory government laws that banned cultural practices. “I lost something and I wanted it back,” said Mr Kulka, now 73. It wasn’t until age 17 that he ventured three hours north to immerse himself in the Wujal Wujal community, where Kuku Yalanji was still the dominant language, to reacquaint himself with his native tongue. These days, he loves nothing more than to sit with his granddaughter, telling her the language names for birds and trees. But without proper teaching, he worries his grandkids will “gradually lose it later on”. More than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken across Australia prior to colonisation. Only 13 are still spoken by children. Census data show there are now just over 300 Kuku Yalanji speakers. In Mossman, Mr Kulka is one of only about a dozen people who speak the language fluently. Read more: Brisbane Times

Researchers map ancient language in West Australian outback

December 29th, 2019 by Amid widespread concern about the disappearance of Indigenous languages, the former Catholic mission of Balgo is located in a linguistic melting pot that is thriving after tens of thousands of years. Now, scientists want to map the local "lingua franca" called Kukatja, which is spoken more fluently than English by residents of all ages and across at least seven tribal groups. Ancient connection Within a small study, 14-year-old Anton Whisputt chats to his grandmother Dulcie Nanala about his day at school. This timeless exchange feels particularly ancient given the language they are speaking is many thousands of years old. With nearly half of the world's 6,700 languages at risk of disappearing, this casual chat also has global consequences. Luis Miguel Rojas Berscia is recording the conversation for a research study by the University of Queensland, mapping the Kukatja language. Dr Berscia has come to the township on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert after conducting similar studies with Amazonian tribes in Peru. He believes Balgo could help explain how languages spread around the world. "You have [many different] ethnic groups and they all communicate using Kukatja as a lingua franca, as a contact language, and that is very unique," Dr Berscia said. "You find some of them in the Amazon, in western Africa, and you find some of them also here in Australia so these can tell us a lot about the formation of languages." Read more: ABC

Bringing back Languages from Scraps of Paper

May 29th, 2018 by In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. Mrs Bates (1859-1951) was something of an eccentric – wearing full Edwardian outfits even when living in small tents in Aboriginal camps – and she remains a controversial figure. But she was one of the few Europeans of the era who lived closely with Indigenous Australians and recorded their culture. Importantly, the responses to her questionnaire, preserved in 21,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescript, are immeasurably valuable; in some cases recording all we have left of many Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion. THE VALUE OF THE BATES PAPERS The papers are important not only for a general understanding of the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Aboriginal communities can not only reconnect to their languages through the papers, they can in some cases trace their named relatives. Some of the words listed have also been used in Native Title claims, establishing continuity of the language over time. But these papers aren’t just hugely valuable to interested linguistic researchers – even biologists trawl through them to understand the local plants and wildlife named in different Indigenous languages throughout. However, until now, they’ve been largely inaccessible. The pages themselves have been spread across three libraries in different states and territories – the Barr Smith Library in Adelaide, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Battye Library in Perth. Some have been published with English translations, but this work has not been linked back to the primary records in a way that is now possible with digital technology. Read more: University of Melbourne

Indigenous dictionary may save the Miriwoong language from extinction

September 10th, 2017 by Miriwoong is considered critically endangered — on the brink of completely disappearing — but a group in the remote Kimberley is making sure that does not happen. The first official Miriwoong dictionary has been published by Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg), a small language and cultural centre in Kununurra. "It's the language of the land and our people," MDWg senior language consultant David Newry said. The language is native to the Miriwoong people of the East Kimberley and Northern Territory. The remaining fluent speakers are elderly, so the dictionary is a critical step in ensuring the language survives. The linguists and consultants at MDWg consider language as synonymous with identity. They believe saving Miriwoong will help save their connection to land and culture. "We are just proud to be Miriwoong … we want to get our language back and teach it to other generations," Mr Newry said. "It describes the life around Miriwoong people and the way [we] communicate with each other, the connection that we have. "[It] is really important for family connection." Read more: ABC News

Indigenous verse in national anthem considered to preserve Aboriginal languages

May 24th, 2017 by The NSW Government's Aboriginal Affairs Department has been on a statewide roadshow consulting 14 different Indigenous communities on the draft Aboriginal Language Bill. The landmark legislation is the first of its kind and will set out to promote and protect Aboriginal languages as well as provide legal preservation. Places that have been consulted so far are Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Moruya, and Lightening Ridge. About a dozen stakeholders from the New England North West Aboriginal community attended the only consultation in the region in Tamworth. With at least 35 different Aboriginal languages in New South Wales alone, NSW Aboriginal Affairs senior project officer Reuben Robinson said his team were travelling around the state to get input from as many Indigenous people as possible. "It's about our mob providing the vital input and feedback necessary to give more substance and guts to this legislation," he said. "It's about ensuring our cultural integrity, as well as our intellectual, ownership and control rights." Read more: ABC News

Last fluent Ngandi speaker works to pass on endangered Indigenous language

April 16th, 2017 by Grant Mathumba Thompson did not have a chance to learn Ngandi growing up, despite it being the language of his mother and grandparents. His great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels has started teaching him Ngandi and other traditional languages, so they can run classes at the local school. "Knowing, learning the languages has saved my life in a way I couldn't think of," he said. "It's given me responsibility. It's given me so much to look forward to." The main language spoken in Ngukurr is Kriol but there are at least seven endangered traditional languages in the region, including Ngandi, Marra, Wägilak/Ritharrngu, Ngalakgan, Rembarrnga, Nunggubuyu and Alawa. Ms Daniels and Mr Thompson work at the Ngukurr Language Centre, a not-for-profit organisation trying to revitalise these languages. Read more: ABC News

Reviving Indigenous languages – not as easy as it seems

November 21st, 2016 by The NSW government has announced it will propose legislation for protecting and reviving NSW Aboriginal languages. NSW Aboriginal languages are part of the heritage of NSW Aboriginal people, and part of Australia’s heritage. Recognising this should lead to greater understanding of the people and history of different parts of NSW, to greater respect for Aboriginal people, and, in turn more reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But protecting and reviving languages is no easy task. Here are a few things to consider. Read more: The Conversation

School uses robot to revive ancient language

November 13th, 2016 by A conference held last month, called the Australian Conference for Computers in Education, unveiled research into the impact of humanoid robots on students’ computational thinking. The aim of the study was to understand the impact of humanoid NAO robots on student learning, the integration of the robots into the curriculum and the pedagogical approaches that enhance and extend student learning. NAO robots, developed by Aldebaran Robotics, a French robotics company, have been used for research and education purposes in schools and universities worldwide. As of 2015, over 5,000 NAO robots are in use in over 50 countries. One of these robots, called ‘Pink’, is part of a collaborative research project between the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology, Swinburne University in Melbourne and the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA). The students and teachers at Maitland Lutheran School have been using Pink to embed the language of the traditional owners of the land – the Narungga people, into the school’s new Digital Technologies subject. About 23% of the school’s students are Aboriginal. Read more: The Educator

Revival of endangered aboriginal language empowers speakers in Yukon

October 16th, 2016 by Riley Vance is perched on a wooden horse in his Whitehorse-area daycare when he starts singing about tidying up in Southern Tutchone, an aboriginal language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers left. The three-year-old’s ditty is the fruit of an effort in Yukon’s Kwanlin Dun First Nation to teach dozens of children words and phrases in the endangered language daily at a local head-start program. They now have the first ever children’s book in the language. “We’re at a critical stage with our language with only a few fluent speakers left, so it’s been exciting to have them singing nursery rhymes,” said Erin Pauls, who runs the Dusk’a Head Start program. The Kwanlin Dun’s work has received royal attention. Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sat down in Whitehorse in late September with 25 children, an elder and the Southern Tutchone children’s book, which tells the story of William the moose searching for his son George. (The characters were named in honour of the royal visit.) It is all part of an unprecedented effort by First Nations across Canada to save their struggling languages as fluent elders die off, the legacy of the residential school system’s attempt to suppress indigenous culture. First Nations leaders say that with forecasts that half of their elders will be gone within six years, the added sense of urgency has been channelled into children’s books, grade-school programs, smartphone apps and other initiatives. Read more: The Globe and Mail

Reviving Indigenous languages through old novels, dictionaries and documents

March 4th, 2016 by Professor Jane Simpson loves dictionaries and the gateway to the past that they can unlock. She is part of the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at Australian National University (ANU), which is currently documenting Indigenous languages in the Pacific region. Indigenous languages in Australia could number between 300 and 700, depending on the definition of language versus dialect, she said. However, only 13 languages are believed to be still spoken by children. "If a language isn't spoken by children, then its chances of surviving are pretty grave," Professor Simpson said. Read more: ABC News‎