Meet the young people helping to preserve Australia’s Indigenous languages: ABC News

By Kyle Dowling 25 Aug 2023

Read the original story here on ABC

Thomas Watson is attempting to revive the language of the Gangulu people. ABC News – Dane Hirst

The language of Thomas Watson’s people is no longer spoken.

He’s a Gangulu man whose family are from Central Queensland.

Raised in Katherine and now living in Melbourne, Mr Watson didn’t grow up speaking the Gangulu language.

But in 2018 when he met with family around Rockhampton hoping to learn Gangulu from his elders, he discovered the language hasn’t been spoken fluently for decades.

Now he’s on a mission to not only learn the language fluently, but also document it by working with the University of Melbourne to create a Gangulu dictionary.

“It kind of snowballed,” he said.

“I got a linguist involved, he taught me the foundations of linguistics, and now I’m working at Melbourne uni, at the Research Unit for Indigenous Language, to revive my language.”

Mr Watson is among a group of young language learners attending the PULiiMA Indigenous Languages and Technology Conference in Darwin this week, a major biennial event bringing together experts in preserving Australia’s vast array of Indigenous languages.

He’s one of nine people taking part in the event’s Young Champions program, which supports young language learners involved in projects varying from creating traditional language databases to teaching future generations.

People sit down on tables with computer a computer montior facing away with people standing next to it talking

Indigenous language experts from across Australia and the world have come to Darwin for the conference. ABC News – Dane Hirst

Mr Watson said while working to revive the Gangulu language had been “hard at times”, it had also been a special process.

“It’s disheartening, you know, not having any fluent speakers … But it’s also rewarding when you come across some stuff – some old audio, for example, or manuscripts, with our language in it,” he said.

“Plenty of tears along the way – happy ones and sad ones.

“It’s special [and] frustrating, but I think mostly it’s rewarding.”

‘The future is exciting’

Dylan Collard, a Wadjak and Balardong Noongar man from Perth, was raised in a culturally strong environment where he learnt some words in language – mainly phrases and words for animals and plants.

Man puts left arm on tree and looks forward to smile

Dylan Collard has been teaching Noongar language for over five years. ABC News – Dane Hirst

But six years ago, when an aunty who taught the language brought him along to a class, it marked the start of a journey to becoming a Noongar language teacher.

Now Mr Collard teaches in schools, runs community-based classes open to members of the public, and this year started his own education program.

Mr Collard said it was empowering to teach the Noongar language to future generations.

“Kids love it, whether they’re Noongar kids or non-Indigenous kids – they all love the language and find it enjoyable, and really see the value in learning it,” he said.

Mr Collard said he had noticed growing interest in learning Indigenous languages in the wider community.

“I always tell the kids, ‘we’re on Noongar country, what language should we be speaking?’ And they say ‘Noongar’.”

“I think the future is quite exciting.”

Modern technology helping share language

For Lelarnie Hatfield, a Darumbal woman from Rockhampton, language and culture have always been a vital part of her life, having learnt both from family at a young age.

“Language to me is who I am,” she said.

“It’s my relationship with country, it’s my relationship with my family, it’s my relationship with my mum and my relationship with other mobs.

“It’s a part of our identity and it connects all of us — it’s a part of our story and it will always be a part of our story.”

In her role as a cultural coordinator, she organises cultural ceremonies on country, works with organisations and community around culture and language, and teaches Darumbal at local schools.

Woman hands a hat to another woman near a lake

Lelarnie Hatfield is passionate about sharing the language of the Darumbal people. ABC News – Suzie George

Ms Hatfield said sharing her language and culture with others was an indescribable experience, and she noticed the impact it had on people.

“With the little fellas, the baby ones, they grow up and they have this first interaction with black fellas that’s positive, and it’s them learning about their country that they grow up on, that they live on,” she said.

“For adults, teaching them culture and language, it’s a big eye-opener and it’s also life-changing.”

The PULiiMA conference brought together close to 1,000 delegates.

Some of the presentations and workshops focused around the sharing and preservation of language through technology, such as early learning apps.

Ms Hatfield said modern technology was opening new doors for Indigenous language learning.

“There’s no limits as to what all of us can do with our language and sharing it with everyone.”

“With what we’re doing now, our language won’t die, and it won’t be lost, it will never be forgotten,” she said.