• The first Gurang language classes were held at Tannum Sands this month. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A virtual classroom pilot program in central Queensland could provide a new model to allow First Nations languages to be more broadly included in the state teaching curriculum.
Ella Archibald-Binge

21 Feb 2018 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2018 - 10:38 AM

During Melinda Holden's high school years, she still remembers sitting in her social studies class, feeling embarrassed as the teachers spoke in derogatory terms about "the blacks". 

Now, the Bundaberg elder is the one doing the teaching - helping to overcome stereotypes with a breakthrough First Nations language program at Tannum Sands High School, just south of Gladstone in central Queensland.

"It’s the culture of this country, and the more that we promote it and talk about our particular region to these children, the more informed they’ll become," says Aunty Melinda, a language worker at the Gidarjil Central Queensland Language Centre, which devised the program.

"These programs are part of changing that sort of misinformation about Aboriginal culture."

Developed over two years in line with the national curriculum, the 10-week program will explore language and other aspects of Indigenous culture, such as kinship and country. It includes an excursion where students will visit cultural sites, experience a smoking ceremony, hold yarning circles and learn traditional cooking. 

Twenty-two Year 8 students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have signed up for the elective this term. Upon finishing the program, it's hoped they'll be able to read, write, speak and comprehend simple sentences in language. 

After dedicating 30 years to preserving First Nations languages, Aunty Melinda says she "felt like crying" when she was finally able to see the lessons in action. 

"To actually get it to an official stage where we can get in with the Education Department and maybe promote it a little bit further... this is how we can teach our languages," she says. 

The program was spearheaded by the Gidarjil Central Queensland Language Centre, an organisation tasked with revitalising more than 50 languages across their vast region. Following consultations with elders, students will learn Gurang, from the Bundaberg region, while the local traditional language, Toolooa, is still being documented.

In what's believed to be a Queensland first, the bulk of lessons will be taught via video link from the language centre in Bundaberg, two hours south of Tannum Sands. 

The language centre's coordinator, Stacie Saltner, says the model provides an innovative way to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture into the curriculum - particularly for regional and remote schools - without compromising departmental or cultural protocols.

"We’re covering barriers in regards to looking at community members teaching their own language once their fluent in it, [but] not having the qualifications to go into a classroom and teach it," Ms Saltner says.

"What this allows is for them to still teach it. You’ve got the [classroom] teacher in there, but they’ve both got access to the classroom."

'It makes them feel whole, that they’ve got their own culture and they can talk about it.' 

Aunty Melinda Holden says the program opens numerous pathways for students.

"They can follow this through and become linguists, they can become anthropologists because of the history and the culture, they can also become tourism guides – all of those things are available," she says. 

For the Aboriginal community more broadly, keeping languages alive is a matter of survival.

"Without your language, you can’t describe your culture, so that’s what’s very important for us... because while we’re teaching them their language, we’re teaching them all about their country, their kinship systems and all that sort of stuff," says Aunty Melinda. 

"It also gives our kids a sense of identity.

"Today’s kids, they’re very proud. With my grandkids, I know it makes them feel whole, that they’ve got their own culture and they can talk about it."

Following this year's trial, it's hoped the language program will become a core subject as part of the Languages Other Than English (LOTE) curriculum.