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The rewards of reviving languages

  • 27 April 2018


On the train ride from Anglesea to Llandudno in northern Wales, some unexpected sounds arose from the seats in front of ours. On the face of it, it was nothing out of the ordinary, just three teenagers talking to each other and laughing. But I was surprised because the language they were using was Welsh.

Of course, we were in Wales, and if I was going to hear Welsh spoken anywhere then this was the right part of the country. But to actually hear the language used by young people in such a natural way demonstrated how Welsh language revival was in full swing. Leaning back in my seat and listening to their lilting speech, I felt an enormous sense of hope.

As someone who has a language background which will in all likelihood not make it past one more generation in my family here in Australia — and even that will require a huge effort on my part since my children will have mixed heritage — I've long understood the way language loss can occur as a result of migration, to say nothing of acts like colonisation. These are great forces that are difficult to resist — but not impossible.

For many centuries under English rule, Welsh was banned from official use and stigmatised. Over much of the 20th century its use continued to decline but, through the efforts of generations of activists, the situation eventually turned around. Now it's a thriving language and shares official co-language status with English in Wales, with concerted efforts to continue the push into schools, among other formal settings.

A few years later, as I was travelling throughout regional NSW, Welsh came back to my mind in an unexpected way.

In 2016 I was managing a statewide project for Sydney Story Factory (SSF) called State of Mind, which involved us travelling to different parts of rural and regional NSW to conduct creative writing workshops. Spending time in these parts of the country was an enriching and eye-opening experience. Up until my time with SSF I'd had limited contact with non-urban Aboriginal populations, though I'd worked on some Aboriginal health projects since my first job out of university.

Chief among the inspirations I took away from those trips was learning about the Aboriginal language programs. At Gilgandra High School, for example, I recall walking into a classroom one day and seeing a list of words written on the whiteboard. It was Wiradjuri