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Australia's story in Indigenous languages

  • 13 February 2012

'Where is the parish priest?' I asked the young girl sitting on the ground with her friends outside the parish house. I had just arrived in a remote Aboriginal community along with a colleague and was not sure where we were staying.

I will never forget the look that came upon her face. She seemed stunned as my question registered. I had asked her in her local language. Just a simple question. But that a white person, a visitor, might address her in her own language seemed the last thing she had expected.

As she paused and then went off to find the priest, I was reminded of the power of language. No matter how poorly I actually know Indigenous languages and how easily I manage to mangle them, I was reminded, once again, how important it is to keep trying to learn and speak the languages of our Indigenous peoples.

I am no expert of any Indigenous language in this country. But I have managed to learn some key expressions, particularly forms of greeting or farewell. Instead of people saying 'hello' and 'goodbye', they often use expressions that express something like 'Where are you going?' and 'I am going along now'. Even in simple exchanges, different values and meanings are communicated.

I have even managed to pronounce some of those sounds that we do not have in English, particularly at the beginning of words. My tongue has had to exercise, be stretched and learn some new behaviour. Still I cannot say that I can speak any Indigenous language well. I wish I could speak more and with a deeper understanding.

Within the Jesuit family one is encouraged, particularly in the early years of training, to learn another language. Some Jesuits, especially those who have grown up in Africa, Asia or Europe, and in the midst of many other languages, can speak a number. As Jesuits, we belong to an international society where we can be asked to work in places where our native language is not the local one.

I have lived in Indigenous communities within Australia, and also overseas, where English is not, for most, their first language. For some, it can be a