Lorraine Injie smiles as she remembers the rich patchwork of Aboriginal languages used during her childhood in Australia’s remote Pilbara region.
“In my community, it was common to speak 10 languages. Speaking three wasn’t that impressive,” she says.
However, use of native tongues has declined at an alarming rate, from hundreds just 200 years ago – the time of European settlement – to about 20 now.
“There would be less than 50 speakers of Banyjima, less than 10 still speaking Yinhawangka. As it was forbidden to use our own languages, they have disappeared. It is very upsetting,” Ms Injie says.
Ms Injie, 48, is part of a programme which is trying to stop languages dying out by training teachers, who can pass them on to schoolchildren.
Six times a year she leaves Port Hedland, in Western Australia, and flies thousands of kilometres for a week at Sydney University’s Koori Centre, where she joins three other indigenous women.
In a room with maps of the languages’ spread covering the walls, the women study for a Master of Indigenous languages education. After their graduation, all of them plan to introduce classes in local schools.
Ms Injie knows Banyjima and Yinhawangka, which she spoke as a child with her parents. English was learnt when she was older.
At the end of the 18th century, when settlers started arriving from Britain, about 250 distinct languages were spoken, along with 500 to 600 dialects.
But the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families to assimilate with white Australians, creating the “Stolen Generations”, devastated native languages and culture in the last century.
In many cases, children were barred from speaking their mother tongue at school or in Christian missions.
“Sometimes Aboriginal parents also thought that their language would hold their kids back, so they wouldn’t use it,” Michael Walsh, a professor and expert on indigenous languages, said.
“Then there was a missing generation where the parents would still speak in their language with their own parents, but not with their kids.”
Sydney University’s Koori Centre is at the forefront of efforts to reverse the tide, along with initiatives like “Waabiny Time”, a National Indigenous TV programme with simple language lessons for children.
In New South Wales, the most populous state, 5,000 children learn an Aboriginal language at school, while there are similar courses in indigenous language and culture in South Australia and Victoria.
There are even examples where a language thought to have completely disappeared has been revived, like Kaurna, in South Australia.
“The last time it was spoken daily was in the 1860s,” estimates Robert Amery, linguist at Adelaide University.
Working from a few old documents, the community, along with indigenous language experts, has found a renewed interest in its language. Now, it is used in ceremonies and political speeches, and the Kaurna people are creating new expressions adapted to modern society.
“There are workshops to develop new words, for instance expressions parents need with their kids,” Prof. Amery says. “‘Nappy’ has been translated to ‘Wornubalta’, from ‘wornu’ which means ‘bum’ and ‘balta’ for ‘covering’.
“Similarly, some words have been created for telephone, television and computer.”
However, Prof. Walsh says language is often not a priority for Aboriginal people, who make up about two per cent of the Australian population and are its most disadvantaged group.
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