Hundreds gather at PULiiMA Conference in Darwin to preserve Australia’s Indigenous languages: ABC News

By Alicia Perera and Isabella Tolhurst
23 Aug, 2023
Read original story on ABC website here

The PULiiMA conference is on in Darwin this week, with hundreds of Indigenous language experts attending.

Key points:

  • The biennial PULiiMA conference brings experts together to preserve Australia’s more than 250 Indigenous languages
  • It includes delegates from around the world, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand
  • The federal arts minister has launched a national action plan in response to the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages

With about 90 per cent of Australia’s Indigenous languages considered endangered, hundreds of people have gathered at a major event to help save them.

The PULiiMA Indigenous Languages and Technology Conference is underway in Darwin this week.

It’s a biennial event bringing together hundreds of delegates who work to protect and preserve First Nations languages.

Director Daryn McKenny said this year’s conference features more than 100 presentations on topics such as new technologies, teaching methods, translation and language preservation.

He said over the years PULiiMA had grown into a global event that saw delegates from around Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand attending.

“With our Indigenous languages, not just here in Australia, but all around the world they are at risk of loss,” he said.

“We are losing them, and we need to stop that.

“PULiiMA itself is about … people coming together and really lighting that fire … because we can’t lose our voice.”

Two women talking in the crowd at a conference

Some 440 speakers will deliver more than 100 presentations at this year’s conference

This year’s PULiiMA conference — the first in four years due to disruptions fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic — comes after the United Nations declared 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to help increase support for their protection.

Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke on Wednesday gave a speech announcing the launch of a federal action plan to help communities around the country keep First Nations languages alive.

Its five pillars include stopping Australia’s high rates of language loss, more community-led partnerships and enhancing inter-generational language transmission.

“The decline that we have seen year after year, after year, must end, and it must be replaced with an increase in First Nations languages around the world being spoken, being lived, growing and thriving,” the minister said.

The conference highlighted Indigenous language preservation projects underway across the country, from using technology to working in classrooms.

Delegate Bill Forshaw, an Indigenous language academic specialist from the University of Melbourne, is working on the 50 Words Project, a website with the aim of of collecting and sharing at least 50 words from every Indigenous language in Australia.

“It allows people to learn about the language of their area, learn some words, listen to those words, [so they] can learn about the linguistic diversity of our country,” he said.

A man and woman talking at a stall set up at a conference.

Dr Bill Forshaw is working on the 50 Words Project.

Dr Forshaw said PULiiMA was a great opportunity for “activists and allies” of Indigenous languages to come together and learn from each in pursuit of a common goal.

“It’s really to increase that understanding, so that everybody can get behind language maintenance and language revival in this country,” he said.

Mr McKenny said momentum was building around protections for Australia’s Indigenous languages, with governments and businesses increasingly keen to listen and be involved.

But he said more work and investment was needed to adequately protect them for the future.

Man wits down at a table and points to a laptop in front of him with a lady standing above holding a booklet

The 2023 conference represents the official Australian launch of the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages.

“We need to also take these opportunities to really understand what language is about, what it does,” he said.

“This is the gateway to our knowledge systems, this is the gateway to our beliefs and our culture.

“And when you think about that, in that context, we start to understand more and more the importance of what language actually is.”