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Remote Gulf school says sayonara to Japanese lessons to teach Aboriginal language

Tjabadungah Yanner holding the Gangalidda to English dictionary, standing in front of a NAIDOC sign.
Having a Gangalidda to English dictionary is helping Burketown State School with the transition to Indigenous language lessons.

ABC North West Queensland: Harriet Tatham

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Students at a remote school in Queensland's Gulf of Carpentaria are saying "sayonara" to Japanese lessons and "gayi", or hello, to Gangalidda Indigenous language lessons in a move to preserve the local language.

Burketown State School, 2,115 kilometres north west of Brisbane, is 97 per cent Indigenous, with majority of the students being Gangalidda people.

With little international tourism or exposure to Japanese culture, students themselves began questioning why they were required to learn the language and encouraged staff to advocate for change.

"It's interesting when the students ask us, 'why are we learning Japanese', so what we are trying to do at the moment is talk with our community, talk to the elders, also the parents to make a program that is more realistic to the area that we actually live in," Principal Chris Ford said.

This led Mr Ford begin the transition to switch the schools Language Other Than English (LOTE) subject to Gangalidda.

Three people standing out the front of the 'Burketown State School' sign.
Burketown State School has only 27 students, 97 per cent of which are Indigenous.

ABC North West Queensland: Harriet Tatham

Employing local teachers

Burketown students are taught Japanese through the Charters Towers School of the Air, which some say is difficult to engage with.

"It's really hard to understand our teacher and we never do face-to-face conferences with them. We just watch them on the computer," 12-year-old Burketown student Tjabadungah Yanner said.

Unlike other Indigenous languages, Gangalidda has a dictionary — making the transition to formal schooling an easier process.

Mr Ford said the move to fully integrate the language into curriculum could take up to three years and hoped a version of the program would start in 2018.

"We don't have assessable items in it to start with — the students just get to learn the language, and get to understand more about the area and culture that goes on in Burketown," he said.

"Maybe in the future we look at moving to the next level, where the students get tested and assessed as they move through the Gangalidda dictionary."

Tjabadungah Yanner looking over the dictionary, dressed in his yellow school uniform.
Tjabadungah Yanner hopes that introducing Gangalidda into the formal curriculum will help other kids be proud of their language.

ABC North West Queensland: Harriet Tatham

Starting young to help the community

Mangubadijarri Yanner, the project's community consultant, has been learning Gangalidda from birth and said while he was proud of the decision to change the school's LOTE curriculum, teaching an Indigenous language would require some changes.

"The process is very different because with the indigenous language you're working backwards — trying to work out from what the English words are and then how to translate it into Gangalidda," he said.

"And then we also go with the problem of trying to work out the grammar and the pronunciation."

But despite the small changes, Mr Yanner said he believed it would have a positive impact on the community on a broader level.

"So I'm really happy that the future generation and current students now will have the opportunity to learn our language in the school setting and now just at home or out bush."