New South Wales will become the first Australian state to introduce legislation to protect Aboriginal languages.
Laura Morelli

16 Nov 2016 - 5:09 PM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2016 - 5:46 PM

The landmark bill will recognise that Aboriginal people are the owners of their traditional tongues and give higher priority to government to support the saving of languages for future generations. 

What was once spoken in hushed and fearful tones, will now be recognised and protected in legislation.

"Our language is power and our language is our soul." 

NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Leslie Williams says this is the first act of its kind in Australia and that NSW is paving the way for the future.

"Aboriginal people who speak their language are healthier, Aboriginal children learning an Aboriginal language do better at school, and that language renewal strengthens communities."  

It's a move that has been applauded by many language leaders - including Wiradjuri elder Stan Grant Senior, who was brought up around native Wiradjuri speakers.

His grandfather Wilfred Johnson was arrested in the late 1940s after a policeman overheard him calling to his son in Wiradjuri as it was forbidden to use Aboriginal languages in public, so he was detained overnight in a cell.

From that day on, his grandfather refrained from speaking his native language in public.

"I think the rest of Australia should take notice now at what the Minister said there today and maybe they can all hop in and join us."

He was one of the lucky ones - learning his traditional Wiradjuri language from a young age and has become a champion of language ever since. 

"Language does not belong to people, it belongs to be the country we come from and gives us a deep and firmly seeded sense of pride in who we are - that's one of the main things that language can do for ya," he said.

Stan Grant Senior has been crucial to the reconstruction of the Wiradjuri language, helping rebuild the spoken and sung language among both urban and rural tribal members.

Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative CEO, Gary Williams says this move should inspire other states to follow.

"It's also an acknowledgement of all of the good work and the goodwill that have really become involved in Aboriginal languages in NSW and for us to be a role for the other states."

Ms Williams says the state government will work with Aboriginal language experts and the broader community to develop the bill before it is introduced to Parliament next year. 

"Those languages experts and the leaders in the community made it very clear to me that if government was serious about protecting language, about working with community to protect and revitalize language we would need to legislate... so that's what we're going to do."

Two hundred years ago there were more than 35 Aboriginal languages and about 100 dialects spoken in New South Wales. Today, all Aboriginal languages are critically endangered. 

Government policy including the removal of Aboriginal children from their families contributed significantly to the destruction of those languages. 

For Clark Webb, from the Bulari Muurlay Nynggan Aboriginal Corporation, language holds the power.

"It's a healing thing for our community, so language acquisition for me and be able to now speak my language makes me feel not just an Aboriginal man, I'm a Gumbayngirr man and that's a powerful thing for us. So our language is power and our language is our soul." 

The introduction of the new laws in addition to Aboriginal languages included in NSW schools and universities hope to stem the loss of language and strengthen them for generations to come.

Meet the 10 achievers of their Certificate III in Aboriginal Languages for Communities and Workplaces
The Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre in Kununurra, WA, is working hard to preserve and revitalise the Miriwoong language - the language of the traditional owners of this region.