The Australians keeping their Indigenous languages alive

More than 250 Indigenous languages exist in Australia, but only 13 are believed to be being taught to the next generation. In the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, elders are urging state and federal governments to do more.

Tjupan Elder Edie Ulrich has spent most of her life by her mother’s side.

Living in Western Australia’s Goldfields region, Ms Ulrich learned the old ways of her people, catching honey ants, painting and understanding the changing seasons.

But the most valuable gift she received from her mother, was the gift of language.

“Our language group is the Tjupan language group. It is severely endangered. There are only a couple of elders who are fluent,” Ms Ulrich told SBS News.  

“My siblings and I, we learnt it living out bush with our grandparents and my mum. We were born in the bush and we mainly spoke the Tjupan language.”

Edie Ulrich
Tjupan Elder Edie Ulrich wants her mother’s language to reach a new generation. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

Ms Ulrich’s mother died in 2016 and left behind a treasure trove of language materials.

“Just talking to mum, it was easier to talk in Tjupan than English,” Ms Ulrich says.

“Mum was always proud of the language. Not long before she passed away, she did a lot of work with the linguist.

“Whenever we sat around the table working on the language, she was really happy. You could see it on her face.”

Today, Ms Ulrich is making sure her mother’s language reaches a new generation. She has written songs in Tjupan for high school-aged girls to sing – which she says helps them memorise grammar and vocabulary.

“It's one way of helping cement the language. They’re learning the words, the Djuban words. And it’s really easy for these girls to pick up the words when you’re teaching them to sing it.”

States and Commonwealth urged to do more

Brian Champion is a Gulamai-Guberin man who, after being taken to a mission as a young man, has rediscovered his connection to the Kaalamaya language.

“Those were the conditions that were put on you. You were an immigrant in your own land,” Mr Champion says.

He is one of the elders connected to language through the Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre.

But while the push to preserve Indigenous languages in Australia has grown in recent years – with 2019 marked as the United Nations’s International Year of Indigenous Languages – not everyone is convinced that enough is being done to avoid some languages becoming extinct.

Brian Champion
Brian Champion has rediscovered his connection to the Kaalamaya language. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

“The difficulty in Western Australia is that we don't have state government support for Aboriginal languages,” Sue Hansen, senior linguist at the Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre said.

“We need a very clear policy that recognises the Aboriginal Languages of Western Australia, and we certainly need very clear outcomes that are going to be achieved towards the preservation and use of those languages.”

The Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre is funded under a Commonwealth Programme, The Indigenous Language and Arts Programme.

“It's the only source of funding that's available for Aboriginal language preservation and for the operation of language centres,” Ms Hansen says.       

Ms Hansen says funds available from the Commonwealth Government are not sufficient to undertake the work that is needed to be done.

“The other difficulty with the Commonwealth funds is that they are provided for a short period of time, and language work can take anything from 10 to 20 years to ensure that a language is adequately recorded, linguistically analysed and documented,” she says.

“But funding is largely on a year to year basis. We’re fortunate to currently be on a three-year funding cycle, but once that is open, the Goldfields Language centre may go back to being funded year to year.

“It takes much longer than that to save a language”.

Government response

The federal government recently announced $2 million in funding to encourage more Australians to learn a language other than English. And the focus is also on growing the number of Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous languages.

"Our government is investing in Indigenous language because we understand the important role language plays for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity,” Minister for Education Dan Tehan said.

"We also need to encourage more students to study a second language. The development of a national strategy will include collecting data on the teaching of language in our schools and investigating the teaching materials being used.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education declined to confirm how the money would be spent, or if the intent of the announcement was to see Indigenous languages taught in Australian public schools. But the announcement was welcomed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

“Any announcement to support efforts to protect and promote Australia’s Indigenous languages is a welcome one,” AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie says.

Craig Ritchie
AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie says not enough Indigenous languages are being acquired. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

“It is also great to see that part of the announcement includes the development of Indigenous language teachers and the teaching of Indigenous languages.

“Hopefully the announcement encourages more Indigenous language teachers into the profession.”

Mr Ritchie says at present, only 13 of the more than 250 Australian Indigenous languages are being acquired by children today.

He said Australia needs to empower the study of Indigenous languages in school curricula and in popular media, as well as consider the New Zealand example and legislate the protection of Indigenous languages.

“Australia’s Indigenous languages contain the 65,000-year story of Australia,” Mr Ritchie says.

“It’s a vibrant and multicultural story with over 250 language groups making up this continent.

“For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, knowledge of one’s ancestral language helps strengthen cultural identity and improves health and wellbeing”.

Moving forward

While state and federal governments continue to consider options for policy and legislative arrangements, the future security of Indigenous languages will continue to rest in the hands of elders.

In the community of Mt Margaret in WA’s Goldfields, Josie Boyle is the author of three books and tells stories in her native Wongatha to children across Western Australia.

“We’re listening to a dreamtime story today,” she told SBS News from the front of a crowded classroom.

Josie Boyle
Author Josie Boyle. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

After decades teaching the Wongatha language, Ms Boyle says the demand for her services is growing among a new generation.

“They’re coming and asking ‘what is this word, how do you say this word?’ Which is very thrilling, because I can see the fruits of my work from the seventies to now developing,” she says.

“We just want to make sure this language survives. The way my mum and aunties taught me, we want to see the new generation learn it too”. 

6 min read
Published 9 August 2019 at 4:33pm
By Aaron Fernandes