Efforts to make the Kimberley resort town of Broome bilingual are progressing, with the local Aboriginal language being incorporated into all new housing developments and every school in the town.
Ten years ago, when the Yawuru families had their native title recognised, their language had dwindled to just a handful of speakers.
But Yawuru cultural officer Dianne Appleby said a decade of hard work to revive the dialect was now paying off.
“We have a figure of 1,000 young people learning the language right now, so that’s a massive thing for Yawuru, and what we need to do is now is balance that off with having adult speakers learning too,” she said.
“We want to show people that when they land in Broome, they don’t just see Cable Beach, or the beautiful wharf … what they see is the Yawuru nation, the Yawuru culture, the Yawuru language greeting them.”
One of the program’s priorities is making the language more visible around town, with Yawuru words incorporated into new housing estates, aged care facilities, childcare centres and parks.
It has been a deeply personal journey for Yawuru people like Ms Appleby, who grew up in a time when speaking the language was forbidden.
“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,” she said.
“But that did not deter the old people from keeping their law and culture within themselves.”
She said that by the time the Yawuru people had their native title recognised by the federal court in 2006, the language was precariously 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’.”
The result was an agreement reached in 2015 to roll out Yawuru language in all five primary schools in Broome.
Stolen Generation fears see language abandoned
The biggest challenge has been recruiting a younger generation of Yawuru people to train as specialist teachers.
Dalisa Pigram, an accomplished dancer whose solo show is currently touring internationally, was among those to put her hand up.
“Unfortunately because of past policies, I wasn’t taught [the Yawuru] language as a first language from the beginning and my elders were encouraged not to speak language, to learn English because of the Stolen Generation, so that had quite an impact,” she said.
“I’m told my great-grandmother was a full speaker, but didn’t teach my grandmother the language because of the fears of what might happen, that your child might be taken or disadvantaged.
“So I guess that’s what put the fire in my belly to make sure I learnt the language as quickly as possible.”
Now Ms Pigram runs a full schedule of classes at Cable Beach Primary School. The walls are adorned with native plants, weather maps, animal shapes, and numbers, all labelled in the distinctive Yawuru vocabulary.
“I think learning the language gives the students a greater connection to the place they are, be it whether they’re Yawuru or not,” she said.
“It gives them an understanding of their surroundings. It gives them the confidence that they can read the signs of the seasons and that’s the kind of connection you often don’t really get taught unless you’re part of a culture that values that.
“It’s one of our aims to revive Yawuru so people are using it on a daily basis, and that’s actually starting to happen.”
Cable Beach Primary School principal Suzanne Temple said the response from parents had been “extremely strong”.
“They are very proud to hear the children singing in Yawuru, speaking in Yawuru,” she said.
“We really feel strongly that we’re helping the language stay alive in Broome and that makes the children feel proud, and it makes us feel proud.”
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- ABC News
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- Erin Parke