• Gamilaraay language teacher,Dr John Giacon, scores the national Patji-Dawes award. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Gamilaraay language teacher, Dr John Giacon, has won the Patji-Dawes award - Australia’s premier award for language teaching.
Laura Morelli

16 May 2017 - 6:35 PM  UPDATED 16 May 2017 - 6:46 PM

"Yaama. John Giacon ngaya. Dhiirrawaanha, dhiirraldanha ngaya Yuwaalaraay Gamilaraay."

(Hello. I am John Giacon. I study and teach Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay.)

If Dr John Giacon could have answered all questions in Gamilaraay he would have. He has a passion for languages, but more importantly he has a bambaban.gaan winangaylanha (an interest) for Gamilaraay.

Gamilaraay is an Indigenous Australian language spoken by several Aboriginal communities. Now they are working hard to have it revitalised. It is the traditional language over a large area of north central NSW and adjoining Queensland.

In 1994 Dr Giacon lived in the remote community of Walgett in northern NSW. More than 20 years ago, the academic and lecturer spent 12 years immersing himself in the remote community and familiarising himself with Elders, aunties, uncles and town locals.

It was there where he discovered a passion for Yuwaalaraay, and the closely related Gamilaraay , as Elders worked to again use the language they had heard in their younger years and young people joined them in rebuilding their languages. 

“I met Uncle Ted Fields, who was very keen to maintain language to pass on to the young ones. It was something the people in Walgett, other remote towns and many Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay people in towns and cities wanted to do, so I worked hard to help make that happen.”

"There were many people who used Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay words and a few who used short sentences and phrases, but a major challenge was working on a language with no-one who spoke more than that." 

Together their mission was to reuse and revitalise these languages for generations yet to come.

"One task was to analyse the languages – to work out the shape and meaning of words, and then to work out how to use the words in sentences – the grammar of the languages. Once this was done we could begin to teach people to say what had been recorded," he said.

“As well, it’s clear the languages need to develop. Speakers need to be able to say many things that they currently can’t because the words may not have existed, or been recorded,” he said.

Dr Giacon helped developed simple words in Gamilaraay so the language can be continued. The first word developed was wiyayl, which means pen. This word originally meant ‘echidna quill’ - the spines, it now also means pen.

"The suggestion came in a class with younger Gamilaraay adults. We wanted to talk about things we know and so new words were needed. After discussions, the suggestion to use Wiyayl was put to Uncle Ted and others working in language and they strongly endorsed it," he said.

"Years ealier Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay people had developed words like dhimba 'sheep', yarraaman 'horse and gandjibal 'police'."

"Some elders have elements of the language, but even those who have little language have an important roles. Their enthusiasm for the language and culture encourages the younger people, who often have more education and technical skills, to take up the tasks of rebuilding and reusing language." 

Born in Italy but raised on the beaches of Wollongong, Dr Giacon, a Christian Brother is fluent in English, tries to maintain his italian, has studied French, Latin, Wangaaybuwan, Wayilwan and Pitjantjatjara, Yuwaalaraay [and then Gamilaraay] was the first language he had researched from historical sources. 

"There were many people who used Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay words and a few who used short sentences and phrases, but a major challenge was working on a language with no-one who spoke more than that." 

Working with 50 hours of tapes from the 1970s, Dr Giacon learnt more Yuwaalaraay, which is very similar to Gamilaraay. While there are some historical Gamilaraay documents much of the current knowledge of Gamilaraay is based on Yuwaalaraay. 

“There’s a finite amount recorded of these languages, much less than we could find in fully used language, but more than is recorded for most NSW languages.”

In 2006, Dr Giacon began work on his PhD, studying Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay. He also taught Gamilaraay at theUniversity of Sydney and since 2012 has also taught it at the Australian National University. 

An array of language teachers with an expertise in French, German, Mandarin, Italian and Indonesian were nominated by students. But it was one ANU student, Bonnie McLean’s recollection of Dr Giacon’s teaching efforts that help judges select the top spot.

Bonnie says Dr Giacon would help students utilise historic tapes to uncover particular aspects of the language.

“I spend as much time as I can with the archival material because the more time I spend with it, the more things I begin to uncover about the language. It is very exciting.”

The Patji-Dawes award recognises outstanding achievements in language teaching.

It was inspired by Aboriginal woman Patyegarang and her Eora language student, First Fleet Lieutenant William Dawes. They shared a special relationship that saw Lt Dawes master the Sydney-region language in the earliest documented instance of a settler learning an Indigenous language.

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at ANU Professor Nick Evans, said Dr Giacon’s ability to learn and teach Gamilaraay is commendable.

“John gradually came to realise how much growing back the language is part of healing the terrible wounds of the past… He has also been ingenious in filling in gaps in our knowledge by drawing on the closely-related language Yuwaalaraay material.”

His work has led to a Gamilaraay grammar, a learner’s guide, dictionary, picture dictionary, teachers’ resource books, and song books. Professor Evans says John continues to inspire Gamilaraay teachers.

“Gamilaraay’s revitalisation has been a significant part of his life’s work…He has helped pass the language on to the next generation.”

“Yaluu means goodbye or we’ll speak again, so Yalluu.”

Just before hanging up the phone, Dr Giacon was insistent on explaining one more very important thing.

“There’s a lot of talk about continuing languages so let’s make that happen. Before we say bye, I want you to repeat after me, it will be your first Gamilaraay word:

“Yaluu,” he said.

“Yaluu means goodbye or we’ll speak again, so Yalluu.”

John Giacon’s PhD thesis can be downloaded here:

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