A primary school in Melbourne’s outer west has taken a lead in supporting Indigenous language revival by employing a young Wurundjeri man to teach its prep students.
Mathew Gardiner has just finished teaching the first two terms of Woi Wurrung language at Melton West Primary School.
Like almost all Indigenous languages in south-eastern Australia, the language is no longer spoken fluently in Victoria.
Mr Gardiner only began learning the language last year through his aunt and other members of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Council in Melbourne.
“What really hooked me was trying to figure out how the words came about,” he said.
“It’s so much more than just the language and linguistics.
Photo: Students learn animal names in Woi Wurrung language. (ABC Local: Clare Rawlinson)
“I’m learning about culture, the land and hunting. You can’t have culture without the language.”
The connectedness between language and culture is the foundation for Mr Gardiner’s classes at the school.
He instructs students to use tennis balls as pretend spears and aim them at a large bouncing ball, symbolising a kangaroo.
As they aim, they use the Woi Wurrung word for kangaroo: marram.
The 26-year-old teacher said the opportunity to pass on Woi Wurrung through the school lessons gave him a strong sense of pride.
“It’s definitely that one thing that was missing in my life,” he said.
“Now I get to pass it on not only to these students but to my family, like my nephew.”
Student prompts search for Indigenous teacher
Principal Michelle Costa said employing an Indigenous teacher was crucial to the school’s commitment to Aboriginal children and culture.
The school has long run a Koorie Club for Indigenous students, but Ms Costa said until this year it was led by a non-Indigenous teacher.
“The issue we had was last year one [Koorie Club student] asked me if the teacher was Aboriginal, because she wasn’t really enjoying it,” Ms Costa said.
Mr Gardiner now leads the Koorie Club as well, and the student who raised her concerns is now the school captain.
“She loves it. She’s one of the people who is there gathering all the children and is very engaged with the program now,” Ms Costa said.
Name change follows language revival
For Mr Gardiner, the language lessons are part of the early stages of language revival in Victoria.
He hopes in a few years’ time he might be a fluent Woi Wurrung speaker.
The personal effect of learning language has extended to other parts of his life, and Mr Gardiner now plans to make a legal name change to reflect his culture.
“The name Mathew is Hebrew [for] gift of God,” he said.
“As much honour as I have for my parents giving me my name, I just never felt connected to my name, especially as an Aboriginal person.”
When he finds the right combination of Woi Wurrung words to represent “gift of God”, Mr Gardiner said he would make a legal name change.
“I think my parents will be proud of me.”
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- Clare Rawlinson