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How international programs are helping preserve Indigenous languages in Australia

A group of children sit on the floor in a classroom facing five language instructors leading them through an activity.
Children in Kununurra learn Miriwoong in a Language Nest session.

Supplied: Darren Clark

Language immersion programs from New Zealand and North America are proving to be a winning formula when it comes to preserving the Indigenous Miriwoong language in Kununurra, Western Australia.

When asked how she identifies herself, Rozanne Biliminga says, "I'm a woman that will never give up on myself and on my language and my culture. And I'm really proud to be who I am."

The Miriwoong woman from Goonoonoorrang — the Miriwoong word for the area most know as Kununurra — works at the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre (MDWg) and has joined their fight to preserve the local Miriwoong language.

Although she remembers older members of the community speaking Miriwoong, English was the first language she learnt. But over time, Rozanne began picking up Miriwoong from her parents.

"Every time we go finishing or do something, they speak in language and tell me in language: what that is in language, and this in language," she says.

Now Rozanne is passing on her knowledge to the next generation through the centre's Miriwoong Language Nest, an immersive language program for young children.

Members of the MDWg team. (L-R) Rita Boombi, Dianne Dingle, Rosemary Boombi, Rozanne Bilminga and Barbara Gallagher
Members of the MDWg team. (L-R) Rita Boombi, Dianne Dingle, Rosemary Boombi, Rozanne Bilminga and Barbara Gallagher.

Supplied: Darren Clark

Rozanne says that the grade three students are currently learning how to talk about people and family in Miriwoong, while the pre-primary kids are learning about bush tucker. But it seems the students' appetite for learning can't be sated.

"Every time we go there, they get really excited because they want to learn more."

The erosion of a language

Knut J. Olawsky, known to the locals as KJ, is the senior linguist and manager of MDWg. He says that the language is critically endangered.

"If we're talking about full fluency, meaning someone who can converse about anything fluently in the language … we're looking at less than a handful of people," he says.

The number of partial speakers is better, but still less than 100.

Dr Olawsky attributes the erosion of the language to several factors, such as the past prohibition of Indigenous languages on many pastoral stations, the impact of the stolen generation, and the general dominance of English in the region.

Another factor is the language's lack of words to describe new objects and concepts. The MDWg has aimed to address that by creating new words in Miriwoong. For example, "computer" — "goolarn ngerregoowoong wilmoorrbang," literally "big brain with wires."

But Dr Olawsky admits that these words may not survive if they don't enter local parlance.

Taking inspiration from abroad

The Language Nest model was developed in New Zealand to teach young children the Maori language.

In New Zealand, the program brings Maori-speaking members of the community into childcare centres, immersing the children in the language.

"The ability to learn language is strongest in young children," Dr Olawsky explains. "So we thought it good to take advantage of an immersion model that targets kids from a very early age."

In Kununurra, the MDWg have a mobile team of instructors who use simple conversation, games, songs and stories to introduce children to Miriwoong.

Dr Olawsky says the program, which they introduced in 2013, has been a "phenomenal" success.

He bases that success not just on language ability, but on the program's impact on attendance and general behaviour.

"Teachers were telling us that the Miriwoong sessions were the favourite class of the kids.

"They also reported that kids were a lot easier to manage during those sessions and they actually felt that it was fun to learn."

For adult learning, the centre turned to another indigenous group for inspiration: Native Americans. In 2009, the centre introduced a Master-Apprentice program, adopted from the organisation Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival in the United States.

"[It's] also immersion based," Dr Olawsky says. "There's one simple rule, and that is: no English.

"They can use their hands and feet, and they can use whatever limited words they have, but they can't use English.

"We had some great success rates with that."

An enduring impact

Although he acknowledges that New Zealand has the advantage of focussing on one language rather than the many Indigenous languages of Australia, Dr Olawsky thinks we could be doing more.

"The importance of languages other than English here is very low," he says.

"[Of] the roughly 500 languages in this country, there's now probably just a hundred left that's actively spoken, and most of those are very highly endangered.

"There are some programs that will support Indigenous language revitalisation. At the same time, I think that the amount being spent on Indigenous languages is very, very minor."

But he hopes that the MDWg's success will inspire others and lead to more funding in the future.

Four women pose for the camera with a children's book written in Miriwoong.
(L-R) Rozanne Bilminga, Rita Boombi, Stephanie Woerde (former Language Nest facilitator) and Rosemary Boombi with a book the children have written in Miriwoong.

Supplied: MDWg

In addition to improvements in children's behaviour, Dr Olawsky believes that learning the language helps the broader community.

"If someone loses their language, it will create an identity crisis. Especially if there's nothing else to fill that gap.

"Once they actually start speaking language, they very strongly identify with that, and with that identification comes a strength in personality and character."

It's also creating opportunities for the staff. Last year, Rozanne obtained a Certificate III in Aboriginal Languages for Communities and Workplaces, and this year she's undertaking Aboriginal languages teacher training, which will qualify her to participate as a teacher's aide in WA schools.

The work has also built her confidence.

"The first time when I joined in, I was really, really shy," she says. "But now I'm just getting confident every time I go.

"I want more of it."

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