Preserving indigenous languages through story-telling.
Preserving indigenous languages through story-telling.

Indigenous languages matter

OVER the last few years there has been a major focus on reviving Aboriginal languages. In 2017 there were two significant events that highlighted Aboriginal languages, the first being "Our Languages Matter” being declared the NAIDOC theme for 2017. (Each year there is a different theme). The second event was the NSW Parliament passing language legislation in October. Under this new legislation a five-year strategic plan and a centre for Aboriginal languages of NSW will be established.

The new legislation will enhance the existing efforts of state government in establishing five Aboriginal Language and culture nests across the state. The language nests are based at Wilcania (Paakantji/Baakantji), Lightning Ridge (Gamilaraay), Dubbo (Wiradjuri), Coffs Harbour (Gumbaynggirr) and Lismore (Bundjalung).

These language nests enable Aboriginal languages to be taught at participating schools potentially from preschool to year 12. We are fortunate that two of the language nests focus on languages traditionally spoken in the Clarence Valley being Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung. Our local schools are currently engaging with the language nests to run programs in South Grafton and Grafton.

Although no official language nest has yet been set up for the Yaegl language, it is currently taught at Maclean Public school. Local elders and other language speakers also continue to revive the language amongst the local Aboriginal community.

All of these actions (declaring language as the 2017 NAIDOC theme, the passing of language legislation, the establishment of language nests and other initiatives) are timely as many languages are at risk of extinction, as Elders and other language speakers pass on. Today there is estimated to be only 120 Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia, when once there were more than 250. This decline is due to former government practices, which varied from actively discouraging to banning Aboriginal people, from speaking their language.

When considering language preservation, the efforts of Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Cultural Co-op based at Nambucca Heads must be acknowledged. If it wasn't for organisations like Muurrbay there probably wouldn't be the strong focus on Aboriginal languages today.

Muurrbay was set up in the 1980s, by Aunty Maggie Morris and other Elders from Nambucca Heads and Kempsey, originally to preserve the Gumbaynggirr language. The centre has since gone on to assist in the preservation of other Aboriginal languages including Bundjalung, and Yaegl. Muurrbay has produced a number of language books and dictionaries and also regularly runs language courses including here in the Clarence Valley.

So why is the restoration of Aboriginal languages so important? Cinnamon Jarrett, a Gumbaynggirr woman who teaches her language believes that learning their language gives Aboriginal people identity. "Language is the basis of understanding dream stories, art and history and gives younger generation an understanding of where they come from”. Cinnamon also believes that Aboriginal language being taught in schools will help break down the barriers between Aboriginal children and non-Aboriginal children.

For more information about Aboriginal languages or to purchase language resource Muurrbay can be contacted on 02 6569 4294.

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