Language is central to a person’s identity, culture and connection to country, and one Indigenous community in the Kimberely isn’t letting theirs disappear without a fight.
Only a handful of elderly people are still fluent in Miriwoong in the remote Western Australian town of Kununurra, where the language is currently listed as “critically endangered” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Kununurra's Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre, meaning 'Mirima place for talking', was founded by the Miriwoong people in the 1970s as a means of documenting and developing their native tongue. And now their newest initiative, the Miriwoong Language Nest, is breathing new life into the ancient language through a revival program aimed at those best able to learn – infants and children.
Every week, the program’s three Indigenous Language Engagement Officers together with a Language Facilitator travel to playgroups and primary schools within the community to deliver age targeted, immersive in-language classes.
30 minute-long sessions rely heavily on song, simple talk and storytelling to engage, educate and entertain their young students
The 20 to 30 minute-long sessions rely heavily on song, simple talk and storytelling to engage, educate and entertain their young students and according to Engagement Officer Rita Boombi, they are very well received.
“We get a good reaction from [the kids]. At the end when we finish singing, we give hugs and we get hugs from them. We get mobbed, they all come up to you,” she tells NITV.
“They want to learn and I think they’re proud too to learn [how to say] things around Kununurra in Miriwoong, and places in Miriwoong, they are learning. They’re good now, they can’t even make mistakes.”
The Language Nest team visit their students on a daily to weekly basis depending on their age, with Rita saying the work is an extremely rewarding experience.
“I’m very happy that they are learning from us,” she says.
“Culture and language they go together. The people, the Miriwoong people, they feel comfortable in their language. They talk about old times and all Dreamtime stories are in the language, and I don’t think that they want to lose that.”
Not just a language
The Miriwoong Language Nest is currently in its third formal year of operation, having started with children up to pre-primary age when they first began rolling out classes in 2014. They have followed that age group up each consecutive year since, and 300 students up to Year 2 level are now being taught by the program whose effects are being echoed throughout the community at large.
“We hear stories of children going back and teaching their parents, it’s like we’re not just teaching the kids we’re teaching the [whole family]”
“We hear stories of children going back and teaching their parents, it’s like we’re not just teaching the kids we’re teaching the [whole family],” Language Nest Facilitator Dorian Kelly explains.
“[The parents] feel great I think, I never had any parents make complaints,” adds Rita, “Some of them come to the [adult language] club we have every Tuesday.”
Former Language Nest Facilitator Stephanie Woerde, who first established the program tells NITV that the work they’re doing isn’t just about building linguistic skills.
“The revitalisation of native languages such as Miriwoong represents not only an outcome in itself, but also a tool with incredible power to generate a number of other important outcomes such as increases in pride, intercultural awareness, socio-emotional development and self-esteem, empathy and respect, and wider educational engagement and achievement potential for all involved,” she says.
Ms Woerde was invited to help establish the program after previously volunteering in the region and used her skills in language mentoring and passion for meaningful community development to help establish teaching strategies in consultation with Miriwoong Elders and senior speakers in the community for linguistic accuracy and cultural appropriateness.
Local Miriwoong women were recruited in teaching positions and worked to develop their own language skills and create culturally relevant and responsive educational resources before beginning to pass their knowledge onto the next generation. Dedicated to driving a strong future for the language, many of those hired remain employed by the organisation years later.
Starting with the earliest levels of education was a logical choice for the team who have based their model on research that suggests younger children are more receptive to language learning.
Despite still being in its infancy, the success the program has experienced has drawn the attention of neighbouring communities such as that of Giga, that are now in the process of establishing their own language revitalisation programs.
Language and culture
There are now just over 100 Indigenous languages that remain in common use with the large majority being highly endangered.
Faith Baisden from First Languages Australia says, "Australia is situated in one of the world’s linguistic hot spots."
"Australian languages are treasures of international significance. They are a bridge to rich and important information. When a language is lost a deep body of knowledge is lost with it."
"Australia will be a much better place when Indigenous language communities are strong and healthy and have the power to control their own destiny."
Ms Baisden also believes language is "key to Indigenous well-being in Australia," saying, "Australia will be a much better place when Indigenous language communities are strong and healthy and have the power to control their own destiny."
The Miriwoong Language Nest program was funded in its first year under a startup grant offered by Lotterywest and has since been financially underpinned by the support of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy and the Department of Social Services, as well as the Children and Family Centres of Save The Children Australia.
The Language and Cultural Centre are hoping to reduce their dependence on government funding however, and last month launched a crowd-funding effort to raise $10,000 to build on the success of their flagship programs.
On the accompanying website, senior linguist Dr Knut Olawsky and communications officer Matthew Keast explain, "The wisdom and culture of Miriwoong people can only truly be understood through the language that has been used for thousands of years to teach it.
"Therefore, if Miriwoong continues to be forced into further obscurity so too will the culture, knowledge and history of Miriwoong people."
This would result in Australia losing yet another piece of its rich Indigenous history, culture and knowledge and would have a striking affect on the Miriwoon people themselves.
"The loss of language and culture has already had profound and long-lasting effects for both Miriwoong communities and individuals; contributing significantly to the intergenerational trauma and hardships suffered since colonisation," they say. "It is particularly damaging to children who, in their early years, are developing the foundations of their sense of self and self-esteem."
Glennis Newry, Senior Language Worker at Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre is this weeks' IndigenousX host. Follow her and find out more about the centre and life in the Kimberly: @IndigenousX
The Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre has raised just over $6,000 of their $10,000 target with 15 days remaining.