Australia

Indigenous students work to keep traditional languages alive in the classroom

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Year 11 and 12 students at Peel High in the regional New South Wales city of Tamworth are the first at their school to study the local Gamilaraay language.

Communities around the world are losing their Indigenous tongues, but a rising number of students are now choosing to study Indigenous Australian languages in their final years of high school.

Year 12 Tamworth student Maene Trindall said  he elected to study the local Gamilaraay language so he can pass it on to future generations.

"It's important for us to learn it because it's our time to share," he told SBS News.

"Our fathers kept it for a long time, you know, they kept it going.

"Now it's our turn to keep it going, you know, pass it on. And to the people that have lost it, language can bring hope to them."

Peel High students learning Gamilaraay
Peel High students learning Gamilaraay.
SBS News

Maene says all schools in Australia should offer Indigenous languages.

"I don't run Australia, but if I did, then I'd be having classes and schools for Aboriginal kids and just teach language and culture all day."

Year 11 student Joanna Dunn said she chose the subject, not just to learn the language, but also the history behind it.

"You've just got to know about your ancestors, you know, your family and where they come from, and what they were doing before technology and everything," she said.

Students enrolled in the Indigenous Language subject are taught basic vocabulary and sentence structures, as well as the history of language in their local area.

Year 12 student Georgia Sands said the subject satisfied her curiosity to know more about her family's past.

"I want to know more about my culture, to know more about language and to actually bring it back alive and keep it going. Bring it down to our generation."

Georgia Sands, Year 12 student at Peel High.
Georgia Sands, Year 12 student at Peel High.
SBS News

Peel High School teacher Michelle Claire is fluent in Gamilaraay, and approached the school about offering the subject to her students.

She studied the necessary qualifications and now runs the language classes.

"It was a way that they could connect with family," Ms Claire said.

"It was a subject that they actually found interesting, like, 'I'm going to be at school, I may as well do something that I find interesting and that I'm really passionate about."

The number of students studying Indigenous Languages at High School is on the rise.
The number of students studying Indigenous Languages at High School is on the rise.
SBS News

On the rise

Last year, only five year 12 students in New South Wales completed the Indigenous Language subject.

In 2019, that number is expected to jump to 25.

Peel High School teacher Michelle Claire.
Peel High School teacher Michelle Claire.
SBS News

Principal at Tamworth's Peel High, Rod Jones, said facilitating the growing demand for Indigenous Languages may be a challenge for some schools.

"I think the greatest challenge to a school, for offering Aboriginal language, is having a teacher that has experience and is fluent in teaching the local language," Mr Jones said. 

"We are very thankful that we have Michelle at our school. She's a very fluent speaker and also our education worker, he also is very fluent and they were both very keen to offer the program and the school supported them."

Sheena Ruttley, Year 12 student at Peel High.
Sheena Ruttley, Year 12 student at Peel High.
SBS News

At risk of disappearing

Ninety per cent of Indigenous languages globally are  endangered, and in Australia, of hundreds, only a dozen are still widely spoken.

University of Sydney Indigenous research director Jakelin Troy said schools play an important role in keeping languages alive.

"There's a vital role for schools in renewing and reawakening our languages in Australia," Ms Troy said. 

"All the Aboriginal children who use the languages in the schools are also experiencing their own self-worth, the value of their own identification, as Aboriginal people, within a school system. This is remarkable." 

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