Did you know that in Victoria alone, there are over 3,000 places that bear Aboriginal names? Birrarung Marr, the town of Warrnambool, the Melbourne suburb Toorak – which means reedy swamp in Woiwurrung language. Aboriginal language reflects stories of the land, the geography, and the creatures that walked there – but over time, hundreds of dialects have slowly eroded.
From approximately 250 tribes and 500 dialects across Australia, most Aboriginal languages are now virtually extinct – lost as a consequence of colonisation and past government policies, which stamped out speaking language in public. Thankfully, historians, anthropologists and linguists have been undertaking detailed research, and many records of Aboriginal language remain. Their work is now the foundation for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) – an organisation that works to reclaim and revive Indigenous languages. “If they hadn’t kept records we would have very little information to work with” says Paul Paton, the CEO of VACL – himself a man of Aboriginal descent.
Paul and his team at the VACL help train the next generation of speakers and teachers – working closely with Aboriginal communities to identify their language aspirations and needs. They also provide special training for Aboriginal community members who want to relearn their language, but need help to interpret the often technical source material. “English is not the best language to translate or write Indigenous languages, as there are different sounds and spellings that don’t match up” explains Paul. “There are 13 sounds in our language that are not properly identified by the Roman alphabet”. The sheer detective work required to revive one language, let alone the 38 on VACL’s list may seem huge, but the rewards are well worth the effort. “I see people’s sense of identity strengthened, through having a greater understanding of their elders perspective, and interactions with their environment,” observes Paul.
In 2015, only 18 of the remaining languages were classed as ‘strong’ by the National Indigenous Language Survey, which means that they are still spoken and passed down through generations. Yolgnu is one such language – spoken by people from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This language is now taught through Charles Darwin University, as a unit that can be studied online through Open Universities Australia. Where elements of one language may be lost, well-maintained languages like Yolgnu are being used as a model, to help reconstruct the missing elements, such as structure and use of language within original kinship (community relationship) rules. Paul says that a deep connection to language “has flow on effects on confidence, connection to family, and for elders and young people to come together and talk about those stories through the common thread and theme around language.”
If you’re interested in learning about Aboriginal culture in depth, take a look at OUA’s Bachelor of Arts (Indigenous studies) provided by The University of South Australia. OUA also provides a selection of units on the subject of indigenous culture, which can be studied individually, to help you learn more about the history, the land and the people who walked it before you.
Other ways to connect to Aboriginal culture:
- Find your nearest Aboriginal or Koorie centre and take a tour of your area
- Go to a local museum with a focus on Australian history (Melbourne Museum has a great first peoples exhibition)
- Learn about the bigger picture through an Indigenous Studies course
- Read some biographies such as Sally Morgan’s My Place or Stan Grant Jr’s Talking to My Country.