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The rewards of reviving languages



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.

Sydney Story Factory creative writing workshop at Gilgandra High with storytellers John Blair and Richard Short (Sheila Ngoc Pham)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 using Romanised script, and a language I'd never encountered much of in any form.


"There are many developmental and social benefits to learning additional languages, but in the case of Aboriginal languages it's also an act of social justice and reparation, as well as healing."


When I passed around the sign-on sheet soon after, most of the students wrote 'yes' in the column asking 'Language Background Other Than English'. It wasn't quite what we were asking, but it was affirming to see so many identify with the language they were learning.

I often think about Australia from the perspective of language, and what existed before my family arrived here in 1980 as resettled refugees. Prior to colonisation, this continent was home to over 250 Indigenous Australian language groups; we've already lost more than half of those, with many others in danger of extinction. There are, however, still languages native to young people growing up, particularly those living in more remote communities.

At SSF I was also a volunteer tutor to students who visited us in Redfern via the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy. During one particular creative writing workshop, I met two boys from Papunya in the Northern Territory. On our table was a printed aerial view of their town so they could point out to me where they lived. But the real revelation for me was learning that English was just one of a few languages they spoke, and the one they used the least in their day-to-day lives.

It’s been heartening in Australia to see more inclusion of Aboriginal languages in the arts, like in the TV series Cleverman and the celebrated music of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, sung in Yolngu. In the media, there's ABC’s Word Up podcast and SBS’s My Grandmother’s Lingo website, among others. Not to mention the tireless work of passionate educators and activists elevating Indigenous languages.

Schools continue to play a fundamental role in teaching Aboriginal languages, though it can be a challenge to sustain programs. In Bourke I heard about the Wangkumara language program that had been developed and taught at the local high school for five years. But by the time we visited it was no longer the language offered. One of the local radio stations (2CUZ FM) does, however, broadcast some programs in Wangkumara, as well as Barkindji and various other languages.

The many languages that have been and are still spoken in Bourke are an unintended consequence of the large-scale displacement of Aboriginal people into the missions. But the multilingual situation in Bourke may also be an asset for language revival, particularly in light of research suggesting that all Aboriginal languages descend from one common language. This means being able to fill in the gaps through borrowings from neighbouring languages.

Promoting Aboriginal languages is not only possible but vital work, with ongoing investment required at every level of government. Just look at how much it's taken to get Welsh to where it is — and that's just one language in a relatively small country, compared to the vastness and complexity of Australia. There are many developmental and social benefits to learning additional languages, but in the case of Aboriginal languages it's also an act of social justice and reparation, as well as healing.

As artist Beth Sometimes told the Alice Springs News, 'Everyone living here should have some knowledge of the language of this place. Australia has a very monolingual culture and we take a lot for granted about what is being understood.'

I dream of a future that is as far from monolingual as possible; where my children will speak not just the languages they've inherited but the languages of the land where they've been born.



Sheila PhamSheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and radio maker. She currently teaches public health ethics at Macquarie University and is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation. She tweets as @birdpham

Main image: Sydney Story Factory creative writing workshop at Gilgandra High with storytellers John Blair and Richard Short (Sheila Ngoc Pham)

Topic tags: Sheila Ngoc Pham, bilingualism, multiculturalism, Aboriginal languages



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Existing comments

I had a similar experience to that of Sheila's Welsh one when visiting Ireland. Both those who deprive them of it, and those who are the victims of such depredation, know keenly the indispensability of language to one's sense of identity and belonging. I'm reminded of lines from a popular song: "For the strangers came and tried to show us their way/And they scorned us for being what we are/ But they might as well go chasing after moonbeams/Or light a penny candle from a star."

John | 29 April 2018  

Well said. Leave us not forget that we so often have missionaries and Bible Societies to thank for helping to preserve Aboriginal languages in translation.

Peter Goers | 30 April 2018  

It is good to hear of the attempts made , no matter how small to promote the different indigenous languages in programs over Australia. In Wadeye dedicated Catholic sisters and the priest worked tirelessly to have bi lingual languages spoken and taught. Books were translated into Murinpatha ,Eucharist was celebrated in that language. In Bright Victoria exchange students work and study in the town( good coffee at "Dumu) and the language is taught in the school. It is bitter sweet to hear language spoken yet realize that some of our first people have been denied knowing and using their mother tongue.

Celia | 30 April 2018  

Thanks. I have listened to a man in my area as he has , with enormous determination, lifted half-remembered words and concepts from his First Nations tongue. My heart soars when he speaks of it. As a nation imposed on hundreds of nations, we can contribute to the reparations for the harm done by undertaking to learn and acknowledge the reviving language of the place where we live. My goal is to do that. Might help my 75-year-old brain to stave off dementia as well.

bev henwood | 09 May 2018  

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