It is widely known that at time of colonisation, there were over 250 languages and dialects being spoken across First Nations countries. Sadly, today there are only around 60 known languages still in use.
Language is intrinsic to understanding and expressing culture; loss of language inherently means loss of culture and identity.
- For Indigenous children, being able to connect in early childhood with an Indigenous language helps strengthen their sense of belonging and identity.
- For non-Indigenous children, bringing Indigenous languages into their early learning helps broaden their understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity across Indigenous Australia, whilst also providing them with a tangible connection to the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community in their local area.
Across the country, there are many schools, community services and organisations working hard to revive their local languages in order to share them with children and future generations.
How educators can contribute to Indigenous language revitalisation
Educators can contribute towards this revitalisation of language through working with their local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to bring their local language into their classrooms.
The overall rationale for learning Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australian schools is that they are the original languages of this country. Through learning them, all students gain access to knowledge and understanding of Australia that can only come from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective. The languages by their nature embed this perspective. Learning to use these unique languages can play an important part in the development of a strong sense of identity, pride and self-esteem for all Australian students.
(Source: Australian Curriculum)
I recently spoke with Clare Schoeller, Assistant Principal of Alyangula Area School, who shared with me how they incorporate language into their school.
“At Alyangula Area School we run an Indigenous Languages and Culture teaching and learning program as part of the curriculum for all students. This is also reported on to parents. Inclusion and integration of Indigenous language is not limited to this program alone," Clare told me.
"This program focuses on the local Anindilaykwa language and culture and is guided by a topic wheel that was developed by Elders and has a large input from our School Cultural Liaison Officers. It integrates the Learning on Country program along with collaborating with various community organisations such as Bush Medijina, Groote Eylandt Language Centre, Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Rangers, Anindilyakwa Art Centre and many more.”
There is no doubt that connecting with your local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community for their guidance into bringing local language into your early education space or classroom should be your first step into doing so respectfully. This can be a challenging space to navigate, and one which may take time in building that connection.
Other ways you can bring language into your classroom could be in actively seeking out bilingual books, in which you can share stories with your children in both English and an Indigenous language.
You might also like to bring Indigenous songs into your music lessons. There are many songs that can be easily accessed on YouTube. Incorporating your local language into your daily Acknowledgement to Country is also a beautiful way to regularly include Aboriginal language; guidance from your local community on the correct pronunciation of words is important.
For older children, researching the origins of some commonly used Australian words can also be an interesting learning exercise. The word ‘kangaroo’ for example, comes from the Aboriginal word "gangarru", from the Guugu Yimithirr language, which is spoken in far north Queensland. There are many other words like this that originate from an Aboriginal word.
Bringing Indigenous language into your classroom not only helps contribute towards preserving and revitalising Indigenous languages, but provides all children with a unique opportunity to learn about cultural identity. Because the teaching of Indigenous languages needs to be undertaken with the support of Aboriginal teachers, Elders and communities, it also provides services with a wonderful platform on which to grow their relationships and connections to their local Indigenous Community.
The deep connection between language and culture
Language is a critical foundation in a child’s academic learning, but for Indigenous Australians, it is also deeply connected to culture. As more and more educators recognise this and take active steps to support the learning and celebration of Indigenous language in their classrooms, we will continue to see not only the development of strong, confident learners, proud in their local Indigenous culture, but widespread revitalisations of languages once on the verge of being lost.
References and further reading
First Languages Australia
Map of Indigenous Australia - AIATSIS
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander word lists - State Library of Queensland
Discover your language by map - Rediscovering Indigenous Languages
Aboriginal English recognition in schools critical for improving student outcomes for Indigenous Australians - ABC News
Darawal language app – Gujaga