Language revival preserving history
By Diana Plater9 March 2018 — 2:11pm
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A teacher chats to people who are fishing along the turquoise waters of Nalina Nalina, a beach in Broome, in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
She is speaking Yawuru, the local Indigenous language. The ‘‘excursion’’ is part of an adult immersion program, the Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga, which is revitalising the language, while linking it to culture and country.
In recent years, the remaining few speakers of Yawuru, including elders Doris Edgar, Thelma Saddler and Elsie Edgar, became concerned that their language was close to extinction.
This led in 2015 to it being taught in Broome primary schools.
According to Lola Jones, the Senior Consultant of Aboriginal Languages with the WA Department of Education, research has found that by increasing adult speakers of endangered languages, who use it in everyday contexts, you ‘‘reintroduce intergenerational transmission of language’’.
So the following year the two-year study program at Nyamba Buru Yawuru, which is the operating arm of the Yawuru Native Title holders’ member organisation, began for Yawuru adults, using Yawuru teachers.
Maya Shioji, the language centre’s co-ordinator, says there are 10 students presently enrolled, ranging in age from 19 to over 65 with the next intake in 2019. The aim is to have some also become language teachers.
‘‘By 2020 we’re hoping we’ll have 20 fluent Yawuru-speaking people,’’ Shioji says.
The program has been fortunate in that several linguists, including Komei Hosokawa who wrote his PhD thesis in 1991 on it, have studied it.
‘‘They did a lot of recordings ... and lucky for us we could listen to how the language is spoken, even the songs,’’ she says.
The 2014 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies report of the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS2) shows that of more than 250 at the time of colonisation there are now only 120 languages still spoken. Of these about 13 can be considered strong. About 100 languages are described as severely or critically endangered, but almost 30 are seeing significant increases in levels of use as a result of language programs.
Another survey is due to be completed this year.
And the learning of Indigenous languages nationally is on the rise, according to Michael Walsh, Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics at Sydney University, with more than 260 schools around the country teaching them.
In WA, says Jones, 16 are being taught in 41 schools.
The Yawuru students, who attend class Monday to Friday mornings, are taught the language in ‘‘domains’’, which cover areas such as the kitchen, cooking, going fishing, having a shower and the body, concentrating on particular ones in order to build confidence.
The students’ pride and passion is obvious. For example, Maree Edgar says her own children have been impressed by how much she has learnt and in turn is teaching them.
‘‘You learn heaps about the places, the lands, the plants, the seasons, how we relate to each other, our skin groups,’’ Edgar says.
Another student, Arnold Smith, describes it as ‘‘like being born again’’ as the language has reinforced his identity as a Yawuru person and his understanding of the environment.
‘‘It’s settled my liyan (the feeling within) more properly living in the Kimberleys,’’ Smith, who is a member of the Stolen Generations, says.
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