Concerns over future for indigenous languages in Australia | Pacific Beat

Concerns over future for indigenous languages in Australia

Concerns over future for indigenous languages in Australia

Updated 26 July 2013, 10:50 AEST

When it comes to indigenous languages in Australia, the situation is grim, according to a leading linguistics professor.

It's one of the topics being discussed at an international conference in Adelaide starting today, focussing on loss and the revival of language. But all is not lost. Endangered languages are being reclaimed in parts of the country, while in others the native tongue has become the root to wellbeing.

Presenter: Caroline Winter

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann - chair of linguistics and endangered languages at Adelaide University

Barngarla man Stephen Atkinson

Geoff Anderson

Of the estimated 250 known Aboriginal languages - only 18 are actually spoken. "I think from many aspects, it is the lucky country but when it comes to language, when it comes to linguicide, it's one of the unluckiest countries on earth." Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann, chair of linguistics and endangered languages at Adelaide University, wants to change that grim statistic.

"It is of national benefit, of national importance, of social benefit to put efforts in assisting aboriginal people in reconnecting to their language, it's not only an ethical, moral righting the wrong issue, it is also a utilitarian benefit."

To right that wrong, he's set his sights on reviving the endangered Barngarla language - native to indigenous people across South Australia's eastern Eyre Peninsula.

In a case of strange bedfellows. This Israeli-Jewish migrant has teamed up with community elders who together are using a Barngarla dictionary written by a german Lutheran Missionary in the 1840s, to teach the next generation.

Barngarla man Stephen Atkinson is part of the program.

"My mother, she actually spoke the language fluently before she got taken into the missions, when my mother came out of the missions system she actually couldn't speak her language anymore so that's why for me it's a great honour to be involved in helping to revive that language."

Along with Professor Zuckermann, Stephen Atkinson holds workshops in Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Lincoln. And says they're doing more than just reclaiming the old language.

"We're actually even creating new words that hadn't been used before such as computer which is gabbiwah and internet which is eribeyanu, so we're slowly not only just reviving the old language but recreating the language."

Geoff Anderson understands the power of language. Fear of the stolen generation meant his family never spoke about his indigenous heritage. But he knew something was missing. Crippled with severe anxiety, he was unable to leave the house, until the opportunity to learn Wiradjuri came about.

"Just right at that point, something happened to me and I still can't work out what it was and I just jumped in the car and said let's go, so I just felt like I was being reborn again, learned a couple of words and the more I was learning the better I was getting."

That moment transformed Geoff Anderson's life, and also his hometown of Parkes in New South Wales. He now teaches indigenous and non-indigenous students Wiradjuri at three primary schools there. And is right behind Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann's plan to revitalise as many endangered indigenous languages Subjects: Human Interest;

as possible.


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