Learning to communicate with the past

A REVIVAL is quietly taking place in classrooms across the south-west. 

Unknown to most outside the Aboriginal community, the region is home to at least 10 indigenous language groups, taking in Gadubanud in the Otways to Dauwurd Wurrung in the Glenelg region. 

Three weeks ago students at Brauer College finished a month-long pilot program studying local indigenous languages.

 Warrnambool College will launch a similar program in June. 

Pushed to the brink of extinction by colonisation, Aboriginal languages are making a strong comeback thanks to schools and a passionate campaigner. 

Joel Wright’s dining room table is covered with maps and phrasebooks. For the past 10 years he has worked to bring back languages like Dhauwurd Wurrung in the Glenelg region and Peek Woorroong in the Warrnambool region.

He works as the south-west co-ordinator for the Victorian Aboriginal Language Program — a Commonwealth-funded body.

“We’re only just scratching the surface with the program,” Mr Wright told The Standard. 

“Because Victoria is in a situation where all of the languages are revival languages. We’ve got four different categories of languages — living languages, endangered languages, revival languages and extinct languages.

“We’re in the third category so there’s a protocol that really needs to be achieved first and that is that the indigenous mob need to have the opportunity and support to be able to reclaim the language to revive it in the community.

“The last known fluent speakers of the language died approximately 110 years ago. And that’s pretty much the case with most of the 38 language groups right across Victoria.”

Mr Wright’s family came from Framlingham and Lake Condah where English was almost the only language spoken at home. Because of his pale skin, his mother — fearing her son would be taken by authorities under stolen generation-era policies — kept the family on the road. 

That travel first revealed to him the invaluable collection of indigenous languages spanning regions from Victoria to Western Australia. 

“It developed my ear and understanding at a very early age about how language sounds,” he said. 

“Language is a fantastic way of demonstrating how sophisticated Aboriginal ways of thinking and doing were and are.”

From his home in Kirkstall, Mr Wright is trying to revive millennia-old languages in local schools. 

In June students at Warrnambool College will be given the opportunity for the first time to learn local languages as part of a five-week pilot project. 

“We’ll be doing a revival and reclamation program that will be offered to the junior levels,” the college’s assistant principal Adam Matheson explained.

“If we don’t teach the students indigenous languages they will be lost. It’s been the biggest push from both colleges (Warrnambool and Brauer) as a joint program.” 

If the program goes well it will become a permanent part of the curriculum, alongside French and Japanese.

“We’d be looking to introduce local indigenous languages as a LOTE program in 2015,” Mr Matheson said. 

Heywood and District Secondary College has been one of a handful of schools in Victoria teaching language classes. Program co-ordinator Steph Tashkoff said it had been successful in years 7 and 8 for three years. 

“We feel very proud that we’re able to offer a language and culture program. They get a real sense of the country that they are on,” Ms Tashkoff said. 

The program has gone beyond language and students are immersed in the culture, visiting indigenous sites around the region. 

Meanwhile, OzChild has also been given funding to start language lessons with playgroups. 

However, Mr Wright said efforts to save languages would be held back unless the state government funded community programs. 

“If you look at community language schools, there’s 185 of them across Victoria that are funded through state government and not one of them is an Aboriginal language. They’re for every other language around the world. There really isn’t the support base there,” Mr Wright said. 

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