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
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
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
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.