Shark Bay community joins efforts to keep Malgana Aboriginal language alive: ABC

ABC Pilbara  / By Rosemary Murphy

Posted Oct 22, 2023

Click here to read the original story on ABC

In a hall in the West Australian coastal town of Shark Bay, a call and response is underway.

Participants in a Malgana language workshop, some as young as five or six, are learning how to pronounce new words.

There is a warmth in the room, with some laughter and applause for those brave enough to step up to the microphone and have a go at speaking the language.

Among them is Malgana/Yinggarda elder Bob Dorey who was prevented from learning his language as a child.

“When I was young I asked my mum to teach me language and Mum said, ‘I can’t teach you because I’m not allowed to’,” Mr Dorey says.

“She said, ‘If I teach you they will take you away and the rest of the kids, and we will never see you again and we’ll go to jail’.

“That’s why I didn’t learn the language, but I’m learning now.”

A medium shot of a man sitting on the left and a woman sitting on the right.
Bob Dorey says his mother was told her children would be taken away if she spoke the language. (ABC Pilbara: Rosemary Murphy)

Teaching the younger generation

About 30 people, some travelling more than 800 kilometres from Perth, have turned out for the workshop.

It is the third time they have been held on country through the support of the Bundiyarra Irra Wangga Language Centre.

Facilitator Kym Oakley’s great-grandmother was one of the last fluent speakers of the Malgana language, and there are recordings of her and other elders speaking it.

“Because Gran was such an important part of my life it was just important that I carried on her legacy, and to make sure that our younger ones can actually speak language,” she says.

A close shot of a woman in a blue shirt standing in front of the ocean
Kym Oakley says she is teaching the language to carry on her great-grandmother’s legacy. (ABC Pilbara: Rosemary Murphy)

Ms Oakley says she had to teach herself through reading the Malgana dictionary and listening to the tapes.

“So once I got over that initial shock of hearing her, because she had passed three years beforehand, so to hear her voice again was a little bit confronting, but I knew that I had to push through it to hear exactly how to say the words correctly,” she says.

“Then through my work with the Yamaji Language Centre, and Irra Wangga, I was able to work with Wajarri speakers as well, so really asking them how they would pronounce words, but also going back to the tapes and hearing it.”

A close shot of a sign with a welcome to Shark Bay in English and Malgana
Malgana language has been taught in the Shark Bay school. (ABC Pilbara: Rosemary Murphy)

Language showcased locally

Ms Oakley’s interest led her to start the Malgana language program at the local school.

“It were the best seven years of my life, getting to teach the younger ones and see them use it,” Ms Oakley says.

“I come into town and the kids they shout out Malgana words and some of them sing ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ in language, so it’s just amazing.”

Local resident Pat Oakley started learning the language, along with her family, several years ago and used it to perform a song, written by her brother, commemorating Shark Bay’s history.

“He wrote ‘Yandani’ using a Noongar woman’s melody, but we translated it and put Malgana words to it,” she says.

“We performed that for the first time here, which for us was telling people Malgana people were the first people here, and we’re still here, and we’re still trying to keep culture alive.

A close up shot of woman in a colourful shirt
Pat Oakley began learning the language with her family. (ABC Pilbara: Rosemary Murphy)

“Since losing my mum and my brother, who was strong in leading culture and cultural knowledge transfer, I feel like I have now been left this legacy to continue, I feel it’s my obligation.”

Workshop organiser Kym Oakley says it is important for the language to continue being used.

“I just thought it was about time to come back and do some language revitalisation and work with community to really get it back in the community and restore it, because it’s so important that we continue to use language or we do lose it,” she says.

“It’s a part of our culture, it’s embedded through everything that we do, when sit and we look around here in this beautiful country.”

A close shot of woman writing next to a teenager, both seated at a desk.
Participants travelled up from Perth and Geraldton to take part in the weekend’s events. (ABC Pilbara: Rosemary Murphy)

Kym Oakley also hopes people will take away an appreciation of Aboriginal culture and language from the workshops.

“People have these misconceptions about Aboriginal culture and it’s important that we get those positive messages out there and to squash those racist comments that we do hear in our society,” she said.

“My hope really is to change that perception.”