Meet the man saving his language from extinction

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In remote Western Australia, a small language and cultural centre is reviving an ancient Indigenous language.

Video: NSW schools learning Wiradjuri

Miriwoong is one of the oldest languages on Earth, but fewer than 12 people speak it fluently. It's considered critically endangered — on the brink of completely disappearing — but a group in WA's Kimberley is making sure that does not happen.

The remote town of Kununurra is nestled in Miriwoong country. The region has a brutal colonial history, with violence and the forced removal of children eroding culture and connection to country.

Colonisation stunted the passing down of the language to future generations. And, as was the case for hundreds of Indigenous languages in Australia, practices enforced during the Stolen Generation period meant many children were discouraged from speaking their native languages.

With only a handful of fluent speakers left, Miriwoong leaders - with the help of a German linguist - are tirelessly working to revive their language and strengthen Miriwoong culture.

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Miriwoong leader David Newry is saving his language.
Darren Clark

What is an endangered language?

UNESCO has six degrees of language endangerment:

Safe: language spoken by all generations and intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted

Vulnerable: most children speak the language but may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. the home)

Definitely endangered: children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered: language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while parents may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.

Critically endangered: the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently

Extinct: there are no speakers left

More than 250 languages, including 800 dialects, were spoken in Australia at the time of colonisation in 1788. More than 100 have since become extinct - or as some linguists say, " have gone to sleep."

Only 13 continue to be passed onto children.

About 100 are endangered and in recent decades, Indigenous people around Australia are fighting to save their languages from extinction - reclaiming the culture, connection to country and their identity colonisation has stolen.

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The community works together to encourage the inter-generational transmission of language.
Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language Centre

Fighting to save Miriwoong

 Kununurra is a remote town of about 6,000 people, with more than half identifying as Indigenous. Miriwoong people have been fighting to save their language for more than 50 years.

David Newry grew up speaking Miriwoong and is semi-fluent. Around the time of the 1967 referendum on Indigenous rights, Mr Newry worked as a stockman and was beckoned to town to help begin a process of language revival.

"It started with volunteers going to the school and teaching Miriwoong to the kids in their break," he said.

Now he's the director of the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring language and culture centre, a thriving community group in Kununurra. Slowly and steadily, the centre has created a phone app, published a dictionary and rolled out a program for the local primary school. Soon, they'll release an alphabet book, a bilingual book about Miriwoong seasons, and a bilingual cook-book.

Mr Newry said this progress is positive, but it's hard for him to be satisfied without all Miriwoong children learning their language.

"It should not have been taken away from us at all," he said.

"We need language. Now we are doing our best to help people learn it."

For those in Australia who take their native language for granted - whether it's English or otherwise - it can be hard to understand how closely linked language is with a sense of self and cultural identity.

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Passing down culture on MIriwoong country.
Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language Centre

"Without our language, we will be no-one," Mr Newry explains.

"Language is an essential part of our identity. When we go out bush, everything is related to our language. It's who we are."

Within the Miriwoong language there are significant protocols and rules. This intimate cultural knowledge increases people's connection to who they are, and overall well-being.

Knut J. Olawsky is the senior linguist at the centre. He has been working there for 15 years and is vehemently passionate about the importance of the centre's work.

"I grew up in Germany, I've been living in Australia for 20 years but I still speak German at home. My identity is related to my language, you can't shake that off," he said.

"I gave up my language to speak English during the day. But I made that choice. For Indigenous people, they weren't asked to give up their language."

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MIriwoong is being taught at the local schools.
Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language Centre

"I know for a fact when people relearn their language it makes them proud and this is what people need. Language is one very crucial solution to a lot of issues facing Indigenous people but it's often neglected by the mainstream ."

This year is the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, with NAIDOC week celebrating voice, treaty and truth. The weeklong event calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to be acknowledged and heard.

Mr Newry said the preservation of language is intrinsic to this process. He hopes all people in Australia make an effort to learn the language of the Indigenous country they are living on.

"It shows respect and it shows that you acknowledge the history of the land that you are on," he said.

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