• Around 300 children in Kununurra are learning the native Miriwoong language. (Supplied/Mirima Dawang Woorlab-Gerring Language & Culture Centre)Source: Supplied/Mirima Dawang Woorlab-Gerring Language & Culture Centre
There are fewer than 12 fluent speakers of the Miriwoong language in the east Kimberley, most elderly and frail. The community hopes a crowd-funding campaign will help keep the language alive.
Ella Archibald-Binge

14 Jul 2016 - 1:52 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2016 - 1:52 PM

Key points:

  • Community aims to raise $10,000 
  • Language key to cultural identity & emotional wellbeing
  • 300 kids now learning Miriwoong 

For Rosemary Boombi, language has always been a way of life. 

Her parents knew little English, speaking instead in their native Miriwoong tongue. Before Rosemary's mother passed away, she implored her to keep the language alive for future generations.

Today, Rosemary is fulfilling that wish, teaching Miriwoong to around 300 children - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - in the remote WA town of Kununurra. 

She's one of a handful of remaining fluent speakers. 

"Our language is going strong by us teaching those kids," she says. 

"It makes me happy to see them learn the language, and carry it on."

Rosemary's nephew, Keith Boombi, is among the students.

"It makes you feel proud... like you get that adrenaline feeling. It makes you want to learn more," he says. 

The lessons are part of the Language Nest program - an immersion program based on a model developed for Maori language, where only Miriwoong is spoken during class. 

It's one of many language preservation initiatives run by the local Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre.

Meaning 'Mirima place for talking', Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring was established in 1970, after elders realised their mother tongue was under threat of extinction. 

But despite the centre's success, the language is still critically endangered, with the few remaining fluent speakers becoming elderly and frail. 

A 'life and death situation'

The language centre has turned to crowd-funding in a bit to raise $10,000 to fund a series of short videos to help keep the language alive. 

"It's like a life and death situation really, that's how we see it," says David Newry, a senior language consultant. 

"If Miriwoong people don't have language, an individual don't have language, then he's a lost soul really.

"He don't know where he is, who he is, where he come from - he's just a nobody, and that's a dreadful thing."

Research supports this theory. A 2007 report into suicide among First Nations youth in Canada found links between cultural preservation and emotional wellbeing. 

It concluded: "...youth suicide rates effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own 'Native' language.".

For First Nations people, language, country and culture are inextricably linked.

Linguist KJ Olawsky describes the Miriwoong language as "fascinating" and "complex". 

"A language is unique in that it can describe the environment where it's spoken, so you might have certain plants, or certain animals that cannot be correctly named in another language," he says.

"An Indigenous language has words that are not easy to translate into English. If you lose that word, the Miriwoong people will lose the ability to talk about their culture and to express their culture in the way they've always done."

Bringing language back into the home

Matthew Keast, the language centre's marketing and communications coordinator, says the next step for the Miriwoong community is to get native language back into everyday conversation. 

"One of the main focuses of our revitalisation strategy is to really get it back into the home," he says.

"Also with the non-Indigenous community, getting them to firstly just become aware that there was an Indigenous language of this area... and it's still used today.

"Just like if they went to France or Germany and they wanted to learn how to speak the language there, they can do the same here... it's a great way to show respect for the local Indigenous people."

However, Indigenous languages are difficult for native English speakers to grasp. 

The verb system is starkly different to English, with more than 2000 verb forms in Miriwoong - presenting a major challenge for adult learners. The language also has different word sounds that aren't often produced in English. 

"It's something you need to grow up with - and that's where our immersion-based programs come in, where we use as little English as possible," says Mr Keast.

The language centre is primarily funded by the federal government's Indigenous Languages and Arts Program, but Mr Keast says the centre hopes to reduce its dependence on government funding. 

"Crowd-funding seems like a great way of pursuing that and really putting our faith in the people and seeing if they can help support us."

Launched on June 30, the campaign has raised almost $3,000 of its $10,000 target. 

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