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Thornbury Primary School Runs Only Melbourne Indigenous Language Program

The boy beams in the classroom, it’s his birthday. “How old?” his teacher asks.


“Nine,” the boy responds. But the teacher looks puzzled. “I don’t understand this number.”

The boy stops and looks at a poster on the wall, carefully reading the words below the number “9” aloud. “Marnang ba bindjurru ba bindjirru.”

The circle of children then break into cheery song, the familiar tune of Happy Birthday, but in words not heard often enough in the land around Melbourne for the better part of 200 years.

The children at Thornbury Primary School are learning Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land there.

All Victorian primary schools must now teach a language other than English, but Thornbury runs the only Indigenous language program in Melbourne. The program is helping revive a language eroded by white settlement and broadening understanding of Aboriginal culture in Victoria.

“They love it, I’ve even heard parents use the class to get their kids out of bed,” says Phil Cooper, the school’s Woiwurrung educator.

Victoria has one of the fastest growing Indigenous communities in Australia, a fact often missed with the heavy government emphasis on Aboriginal communities in the outback.

But teaching a language once forbidden to be spoken in schools or on Aboriginal missions brings unique challenges. “You can’t get storybooks in Woiwurrung as easily as an Italian teacher could,” says Vaso Elefsiniotis, a linguist at the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association who has helped design the Thornbury program. Basic teaching tools, such as alphabet charts, have had to be created almost from scratch.

The “Indigenous room” at the school, with the colourful Aboriginal art murals, is also now covered by posters translating Woiwurrung into common English words and phrases.

The school won a small grant to create an interactive iPad app, released a few weeks ago, with the children recording three traditional stories in Woiwurrung.

“Balayang Wurrgarrabil-ut” tells Why Bats are Black, “Dulaiwurrung Mungka-nj-bulanj” How the Platypus was Made, and “Gurrborra Nguba-nj Ngabun Baanj” Why the Koala Doesn’t Drink Water.

Yet a lot of gaps remain in what has been recorded of the language. There are hopes the language program at Thornbury can eventually be replicated across the state, and even encourage generations of Indigenous Australians denied the chance to learn traditional language.

“There is a lot of grief around language loss, and that grief is still there,” says Elefsiniotis.

“There are lots of intense and mixed emotions felt when language is being revived and it can bring tears to Elders listening.”

“However, the school language program is a catalyst for revival and reconciliation.”

The Woiwurrung program was only possible after an agreement between the school, local Aboriginal community groups, and the traditional owners.

Regional schools, in Heywood in western Victoria, Swan Hill and Robinvale in the state’s north, have also gained permission to develop local Indigenous language programs.

Historically, Thornbury Primary has had a large proportion of Indigenous children because it’s located close to Aboriginal support organisations.

The language program has been embraced across the school community, the greeting “Womin jeka” welcoming children to school assembly and there are other Woiwurrung words that appear regularly in newsletters.

This article originally appears at:
Article taken from the following publication:
The Age
Article submitted by:
Daniel Flitton

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