Ernie Dingo traces the importance of languages to Indigenous culture
14 Nov 2014 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 20 Nov 2014 - 4:52 PM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that the following story contains the names of people who have died and the audio contains the voices of people who have died. 

Language is an integral part of our culture.

But did you know that Aboriginal languages are shaped by ancestral connections to the land, stars, water, sea and the air we breathe?

NITV's six-part series Talking Language with Ernie Dingo explores the complex and delicate balance between language, stories and relationship to country.

"I want to hear the Earth in the words, in the songs, in the voices of the past, the present and the future [than greetings in Aboriginal language]."

There are around 250 Aboriginal languages with 600 dialects spoken in Australia.

But it's thought only thirty of those languages are spoken each day, while over one hundred are critically endangered.

First stop on Ernie's trip is North East Arnhem Land to visit Bunduk Marika who's one of Australia's most important Indigenous artists.

A pioneer in making prints of her traditional works Bunduk is among seven thousand people who still speak one of the Yolngu languages.

She says speaking her traditional language was an important part of growing up and she wasn't exposed to much English until she went to school.

"I started school about nine or ten. Mission school. Mission school?  Hmm. I didn't speak my languages much, because there was more non-Indigenous people than Aboriginals. Hmm. So communicated in English most of the time....apparently I have an accent. AndI'vehad non-Indigenous, white people said to me where you went to school, what school did you go to? You've got an English accent. Well, yeah, I am a mission school person."

On the way to Port Bradshaw - originally called Yalangbara, the site of the creation of the Yolngu nation and the Yolngu language- Bunduk explains how her family walked from Yirrkala  to Yalangbara where they eventually set up the community.

“Bunduk awakens the ancestors, asks to enter country and tells about the Rirratjingu people.

She says speaking in Yolngu language flows a lot faster, especially when she's talking about heritage.

"You have a common language, you have a children's language, then you have religion language, and without having knowledges of the basis of those languages, the foundation of those languages which identifies you with your country, that's the whole point of being an Indigenous person in a country, where the language is still strong, where the language is spoken, participating in ceremony, that's all part of the language, that's all part of the passing down."

Ernie says that speaking the language voices the secrets that keep it strong.

Bunduk Marika agrees:

“Yes, some people say mother tongue, some people say a tongue originated from somewhere, and if you don't know the patterns and the journey of ancestors and why they make those journeys, where they stopped and started, all of those is traced through languages."

Ernie Dingo continues his journey to the Coorong along the south-east coast of South Australia to meet Ngarrindjeri Elder, Tom Trevorrow who welcomes him with a smoking ceremony.

"Lot of people, non-Aboriginal people wonder why Aboriginal people have smoking ceremonies. I say to them: look back in your churches in your religions. We Aboriginal people have our own religion. And it incorporates smoking, smoke to cleanse, cleanse ourselves."

Tom grew up along the Coorong on fringe campsites listening to his Elders. 

He traces the impact colonial history has had on the survival of the Ngarrindjeri language and culture.

Ngarrindjeri language is an endangered language that's being brought back with more than 250 speakers.

Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger from the University of Melbourne's Research Unit for Indigenous Language says currently there are several programs aiming to revive extinct languages.

"The role of Indigenous languages across Australia varies enormously, but there are a lot of communities still across Australia where the Indigenous language is still the language that everybody uses. So for those kids, and those youth, the Indigenous language is still their language. That's the language they think in, that's the language they speak to their friends in. I think there is a lot of interest among those people in Indigenous communities to try to maintain a connection to that language. All around Australia we engaged in language programs, language revitalisation programs, language maintenance programs to try to re-learn or maintain their Indigenous languages."

Tom Trevorrow says his people's Elders told their stories to local mission founder Reverend George Kaplan who compiled them into a published book.

Tom says sharing is integral to his community.

"You know in Ngarrindjeri culture, sharing is a part of our culture, very strong in our culture. So the old fellow sat down and they taught him. He wrote it down and recorded it. But he wouldn't have been able to do that if they didn't talk."

He says the book is a "bible of information" that's helped to maintain the Ngarrindjeri people's language and culture.

They've now published the first edition of the Ngarrindjeri dictionary.

"It leads us up to today, where Ngarrindjeri got together with the Elders and we recorded our own Ngarrindjeri dictionary, we've taken what was done by the Elders in the beginning and we built on it. And what language we know and some of the words we didn't know, we compiled them all together and come up with our own dictionary, we're putting them in place now for our future generations."

Associate Professor Nordlinger says languages are tied up with people's sense of identity and are particularly important for a child's sense of self-worth and belonging.

She says language is also important from a scientific perspective.

"Aboriginal languages are really interesting, fascinating languages and if we want to learn as much as we can about human beings across the world, and what human beings are capable of doing, then we want to know everything we can about all the languages that are out there including Aboriginal ones and we want them to be continued to be spoken."

She also says many Indigenous communities are embracing the digital world, on social media and other technologies.

"We have a project along these lines at the University of Melbourne, we're looking at creating apps and games and digital technologies in Indigenous languages for those people who don't have English as their first language, but have an Indigenous language instead. Digital technologies have also made it much easier and much more fun for languages, Indigenous languages to be taught to children and younger people at school. So there is a lot of work developing language learning tools using iPads and other form of new technology, so that can be used to teach language to children at school. So it's been embraced in that was as well."

She points out research has proven there's benefits to the brain from being bilingual.

"Those benefits are not just about the language that you are learning, but also all the sorts of neuropathways and things that get unlocked in the brain. So it's actually good for our brains to speak more than one language. Doesn't matter in that sense which language we're speaking just as long as we're speaking multiple languages. So there's been a lot of scientific research showing the benefit to the brain of speaking more than one language. So in that sense for all children it's really valuable and really important that they speak other languages and learn languages."

The First Contact Network Event premieres Tuesday 18 November, 8.30pm on SBS ONE and NITV and continues Wednesday and Thursday

To watch Talking Language with Ernie Dingo and other great programmes, head to