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Last fluent Ngandi speaker works to pass on endangered Indigenous language

Grant Mathumba Thompson and his great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels.
Grant Mathumba Thompson learns Ngandi from his great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels.

ABC News: Mitch Woolnough

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In the remote Northern Territory community of Ngukurr, the endangered Ngandi language is being passed on to a younger generation by its last fluent speaker.

Grant Mathumba Thompson did not have a chance to learn Ngandi growing up, despite it being the language of his mother and grandparents.

His great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels has started teaching him Ngandi and other traditional languages, so they can run classes at the local school.

"Knowing, learning the languages has saved my life in a way I couldn't think of," he said.

"It's given me responsibility. It's given me so much to look forward to."

'I've got to teach my children'

The main language spoken in Ngukurr is Kriol but there are at least seven endangered traditional languages in the region, including Ngandi, Marra, Wägilak/Ritharrngu, Ngalakgan, Rembarrnga, Nunggubuyu and Alawa.

Ms Daniels and Mr Thompson work at the Ngukurr Language Centre, a not-for-profit organisation trying to revitalise these languages.

Children learn Ngandi in class run by Ngukurr Language Centre.
Children learn Ngandi in a class run by Ngukurr Language Centre.

ABC News: Felicity James

As the last fluent Ngandi speaker, Ms Daniels said the responsibility to pass the language on was overwhelming.

"Sometimes I feel I can't teach anymore, but then it comes back to me, I've got to teach my children," she said.

"Who's going to be the next Cherry, to take over what I'm doing now?

"I do worry about the future, what will happen when I go."

'Language is like oxygen'

Learning Ngandi has helped with telling stories, understanding the land, the weather and the direction birds choose to fly, according to Mr Thompson

"You find yourself in the deep ocean and to get to the bottom, language, my Ngandi, is like an oxygen," he said.

"Before you get to the bottom, you realise how beautiful the ocean is — it's full of beautiful creatures, that's how beautiful Ngandi is to me, learning my language."

Grant Mathumba Thompson teaching Ngandi to school students in Ngukurr.
Grant Mathumba Thompson teaching Ngandi to school students in Ngukurr.

ABC News: Felicity James

The Ngukurr Language Centre has been running half-hour Ngandi lessons in each primary school class once a week.

The centre's not funded to run the school program, according to its coordinator Jackie van den Bos.

"It's all unfunded. All the preparation is unfunded," she said.

"The school doesn't have any money to pay us, so we're only able to run half our lessons from transition to Year 6.

"It's really taking a toll on us."

Ms Van den Bos said she was worried the centre would have to wind the school program back if the classes did not receive support from the Northern Territory's Education Department.

In a statement, the Education Department said it recognised the importance of students learning local languages and formal discussions about the program would take place between the school and the language centre this term.