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Town in Australia Aims for Bilingualism

The coastal tourist town of Broome, Australia is making efforts to be fully bilingual in the local Aboriginal language Yawuru and English. All five schools in the town now teach students Yawuru, ensuring that the next generation will speak the language that, even just ten years ago, was forbidden. Indigenous children of the “stolen generation” born from the 1930’s to the 1950’s who were forcibly taken from their indigenous families in an attempt to assimilate into non-Aboriginal society claimed, “It was forbidden for us to talk in our own language. If we had been able we would have retained it…we weren’t allowed to talk about anything that belonged to our tribal life.” In an area that has been rife with conflict between indigenous people and government, with the contextual background of slavery and exploitative acts (like forcing pregnant teenage Yawuru girls to dive for pearls in the 1880’s), news of Yawuru incorporation in the classroom elicits a cheer from indigenous residents.

According to the local development commission, “The Kimberley region where Broome is located is characterized by a unique demographic set that includes around 44% Aboriginal people,” with Broome sitting on traditional Yawuru land.

Along with Yawuru in the classroom, other aspects of the town have become bilingual including street signs. Yawuru cultural officer Dianne Appleby told ABC News Australia how the campaign for bilingualism was born: “When you think about the history, Aboriginal people were never allowed to use their language, so things have happened that had a negative impact on our culture with those acts and policies, but that did not deter the old people from keeping their law and culture within themselves.”

She went on to say that by the time the Yawuru people had their native land rights recognized by the federal court in 2006, the language was close to extinction. “But we heard the cries of the elders and said ‘look, we need to get this in the school, we need to get this language up and running, and we need a language centre, so that we can ensure all our people, our children and grandmothers, get this language back’.” Appleby says that there are 1,000 young people learning the Yawuru language right now—a figure that may be comforting to the Yawuru people who feared the language would disappear.


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