Indige­nous lan­guages.

As the first stu­dents grad­u­ate from a ground­break­ing Yawuru lan­guage course in Broome, there are high hopes the pro­gram will be­come a model for teach­ing Indige­nous lan­guages around the coun­try, writes Leah McLen­nan.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Leah McLen­nan

In the front-row seats on stage at the Univer­sity of

Notre Dame in Broome last Fri­day, grad­u­at­ing stu­dent Anita Dean’s tears run down her face, drop­ping onto her turquoise satin sash. The sash reads “Class of 2018”.

“I’ve learnt my mother’s and grand­mother’s lan­guage – now I can teach Yawuru to my six chil­dren,” Dean says.

Stage right, Stephen Pi­gram – the king of Kim­ber­ley song – plucks the au­di­ence’s heart­strings with his lyrics: “Coun­try’s in my veins / with blood I write my name / I’ll sing a song to say what I can see.”

Tis­sues are rushed to the stage. Dean wipes her eyes and shares the tis­sue box with her class­mates, one of whom is her sis­ter Natalie Dean.

From an ini­tial pool of 12, nine stu­dents have com­pleted the two-year pi­lot pro­gram, called Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga (“You are learn­ing Yawuru lan­guage”). De­scribed as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, Yawuru was once the com­mon lan­guage of peo­ple liv­ing around Broome in Western Aus­tralia’s Kim­ber­ley re­gion.

To grad­u­ate, the stu­dents had to speak in Yawuru for one hour and demon­strate pro­fi­ciency in the lan­guage across 50 dif­fer­ent do­mains of daily ac­tiv­ity. They at­tended classes from Mon­day to Fri­day for three hours each day for 40 weeks of the year. “Two years ago the class started with just one minute of scripted lan­guage con­ver­sa­tion and now they can ac­tively take part in an hour-long con­ver­sa­tion in Yawuru only,” says Lola Jones, the se­nior con­sul­tant of Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages with the Western Aus­tralian De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. The goal is to have 20 adult grad­u­ates by 2021 and to ex­pand the teach­ing of Yawuru to all Broome schools, says Jones.

Iso­bel Var­ney, the youngest of the grad­u­ates, may be in­stru­men­tal in real­is­ing that goal. The 20-year-old for­mer Broome Se­nior High School stu­dent is now study­ing to be­come a Yawuru lan­guage teacher through the Abo­rig­i­nal Lan­guages Teacher Train­ing course. “I re­ally want to share my lan­guage,” says Var­ney. “I’m re­ally proud that I can speak, write and un­der­stand my lan­guage.”

Anne-Janette Phillips, the sec­ond-youngest grad­u­ate, has dif­fer­ent plans for her newly ac­quired lan­guage skills. The 23-year-old dancer, who has un­der­taken train­ing at Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Is­lan­der

Skills De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion Dance Col­lege, wants to in­cor­po­rate the Yawuru lan­guage into her hip-hop and con­tem­po­rary work­shops and per­for­mances. She also aims to “grasp the roots of my Bardi and Nyik­ina an­ces­tors’ lan­guages and weave these into my dance work”.

At the op­po­site end of the age spec­trum is 75-yearold grad­u­ate Janet Cox. With more than five decades be­tween the youngest and old­est stu­dents, it would be un­der­stand­able if qual­i­fied Yawuru lan­guage teach­ers, Coco Yu and Hiroko Shioji, had braced them­selves for a chal­leng­ing two years in the class­room. But the diver­sity of ages seems to have been an un­ex­pected ben­e­fit to the group.

“The young ones were so good with all the tech­nol­ogy and could help the older ones,” says Yu, who taught Yawuru at St Mary’s Pri­mary School in Broome for many years. “The older stu­dents could help the young when they were out on coun­try, point­ing out the dif­fer­ent plants, trees and an­i­mals,” she says.

Em­ploy­ing the con­cept of “per­sonal do­mains”, the pro­gram en­cour­aged stu­dents to ear­mark ac­tiv­i­ties and des­ig­nate phys­i­cal spa­ces as Yawuru-only zones, for ex­am­ple mak­ing the car, the kitchen, or the beach a place to solely use their lan­guage. Else­where, ac­tiv­i­ties such as fish­ing, vis­it­ing grand­par­ents, be­ing on coun­try, or talk­ing about the sea­sons were set apart as times to speak Yawuru.

Dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the course, Jones trav­elled to Canada to re­search First Na­tion lan­guage pro­grams. She found that re­build­ing the adult speaker base is the key to re­vi­tal­is­ing en­dan­gered lan­guages. “Teach­ing lan­guages in schools is im­por­tant but alone it can­not re­vi­talise an en­dan­gered lan­guage,” she says. “If you re­build the num­ber of adult speak­ers you can re­ally es­tab­lish lan­guage as a fam­ily ac­tiv­ity. You have to re­claim the ev­ery­day use of your lan­guage. It con­nects you back to coun­try, to your heart, to fam­ily, to what you do in your en­vi­ron­ment, whether it’s fish­ing or cook­ing a cake.”

Yawuru el­der, the late Doris Edgar, knew this. Even be­fore the re­search pa­pers on the topic were writ­ten, Edgar was aware that teach­ing chil­dren in school was not enough to guar­an­tee the sur­vival of a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered lan­guage. Un­til the day she died in her mid-90s, she pressed upon her fam­ily and her peo­ple that Yawuru lan­guage ca­pac­ity build­ing was a mat­ter of ur­gency. “To­day’s grad­u­a­tion is the cul­mi­na­tion of many years of work in­spired by Mrs Edgar,” says Jones from be­hind the wooden lectern. “She was a lan­guage leg­end.”

De­spite ad­verse poli­cies, Edgar did what­ever she could to pass on her lan­guage and cul­ture. The moth­erof-nine taught Yawuru lan­guage to stu­dents at Broome pri­mary schools ev­ery week for more than two decades with the aim of main­tain­ing and pre­serv­ing the clan’s his­tory. By the time she gave ev­i­dence at the Yawuru na­tive ti­tle hear­ings be­tween 1994 and 2006, Edgar was one of only a few re­main­ing flu­ent Yawuru speak­ers.

To­day, her vi­sion is com­ing to fruition after years of toil by qual­i­fied Yawuru teach­ers, lin­guists and staff at Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY), a non-profit com­pany owned by the Yawuru na­tive ti­tle hold­ers.

“To­day is a mile­stone achieve­ment that once upon a time seemed im­pos­si­ble,” says Di­anne Ap­pleby, Edgar’s daugh­ter and cul­tural co­or­di­na­tor at NBY. “I’m grate­ful for my mother. You are all wit­nesses to me say­ing, thanks Mum,” Ap­pleby tells the 100-strong au­di­ence gath­ered at the cav­ernous hall on the hu­mid Novem­ber af­ter­noon. The tis­sue box is passed around again.

Ap­pleby was the first Yawuru lan­guage grad­u­ate from the Abo­rig­i­nal Lan­guages Teacher Train­ing course and has spent her adult life con­tin­u­ing her mother’s work. “In the 1990s, my old mother told me it was great I was teach­ing the kids but that it wasn’t enough. She re­alised that the kids were go­ing home and for­get­ting – they were only get­ting half-hour lessons, some­times 20 min­utes. ‘The lan­guage is go­ing to die,’ she would say. ‘We are get­ting old, ill­nesses are com­ing. Do some­thing now.’”

At that point, Ap­pleby be­gan to form the first Yawuru lan­guage team, com­pris­ing el­ders Elsie and Su­san Edgar and the late Thelma Sadler. It was sup­ported by two lin­guists from the Kim­ber­ley Lan­guage Re­source Cen­tre. The group’s first pro­jects in­cluded record­ing Yawuru lan­guage sto­ries told by Edgar and pro­duc­ing the first Yawuru lan­guage phrase book in

1998. “If you don’t have the lan­guage, you don’t have the skin groups, you don’t know your coun­try, you don’t know what Dream­time story is, you don’t know what your danc­ing is,” says Ap­pleby.

It took an­other decade, and the process of the na­tive ti­tle hear­ings cul­mi­nat­ing in the 2006 de­ter­mi­na­tion, for the voice of Yawuru el­ders to be heard. “They asked the old peo­ple, ‘What do you want?’” Ap­pleby says. “They an­swered, ‘We want our cul­ture and lan­guage.’ ” A few years later a lan­guage cen­tre was es­tab­lished by NBY and after lengthy re­search Yawuru lan­guage teach­ers and lin­guists de­vel­oped a unique train­ing pro­gram. When the pro­gram re­ceived an Indige­nous Lan­guages and Arts grant from the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the two-year lan­guage pro­gram for Yawuru adults could be­gin in Oc­to­ber 2016.

La­bor sen­a­tor Pa­trick Dod­son, a Yawuru man, has just stepped off a plane from Ti­mor-Leste. He takes to the lectern with a board­ing pass cov­ered in notes. “Be­ing here to­day is a real priv­i­lege, to see one of the out­comes from the de­ter­mi­na­tion of Yawuru peo­ple – to un­der­take lan­guage learn­ing.” Lan­guage can be utilised to “build the Yawuru peo­ple, build our strengths, build our val­ues and our sen­si­tiv­i­ties of how we ne­go­ti­ate the many chal­lenges we still face in our com­mu­ni­ties”, he says.

More than 90 per cent of Aus­tralia’s Indige­nous lan­guages are crit­i­cally en­dan­gered. Myr­iad fac­tors since coloni­sa­tion – geno­cide, forced pop­u­la­tion re­moval, the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, gov­ern­ment poli­cies ac­tively dis­cour­ag­ing and re­press­ing the use of Indige­nous lan­guage – have all con­trib­uted to the pre­car­i­ous state of the lan­guages to­day.

And de­spite the nine “new” adult speak­ers who will take Yawuru into their homes and into Broome’s pri­mary schools – and per­haps in fu­ture its high schools – the lan­guage still re­mains crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, says Lola Jones. “It will re­main in dan­ger while kids are not learn­ing it as their first lan­guage at home.”

“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” says

Coco Yu. A fur­ther dozen stu­dents are ex­pected to grad­u­ate from the Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga pro­gram by 2021. And NBY staff are also com­mit­ted to shar­ing their teach­ing prac­tices with other Kim­ber­ley tra­di­tional owner groups who are seek­ing to re­vi­talise their own lan­guage.

“I’m so very proud to speak Yawuru,” says Anita Dean be­fore she steps off the stage to take part in cutting the huge grad­u­a­tion cake. “My chil­dren range in age from seven to 26. I’ll teach them. It will be my duty to pass it on to them. This has been a long time com­ing.

Gala mabu (thank you).”

From left: Iso­bel Var­ney (ob­scured), Janet Cox, Natalie Dean (with gui­tar), Arnold Smith and Anita Dean, at the Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

LEAH McLEN­NAN is a free­lance writer based in Broome.

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