The reconciling power of language

In Australia many Indigenous languages have been lost forever. But some Elders are fighting to keep their language alive. A community in the East Kimberley is educating the next generation and creating a sense of reconciliation and connection in the process. Australian Ethical is proud to be supporting the program through a 2018 Community Grant.

The Miriwoong Language Nest teaches over 400 children in early learning centres and schools each week connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, building reconciliation and a sense of connection to the land they live on. It’s an outcome the Elders who set up the program over 30 years ago could only ever have dreamt of.

The dying languages of our Indigenous communities

Before European settlement, there were over 250 languages and 800 dialects spoken across the continent of Australia. Today, 90% are endangered.

“Miriwoong is a critically endangered language in the East Kimberley,” explains Dr Knut J. Olawsky, a senior linguist at the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre (MDWg). “We don’t have many fluent speakers left. It started with colonisation and the Stolen Generation. People were not able to transfer the language to subsequent generations.”

It is estimated that less than 12 people can fluently speak Miriwoong. One impact from people losing languages is a loss of identity. Language and culture are closely related, and the loss of language impacts people’s cultural identity.

“Unfortunately we have to say that Kununurra and the East Kimberley are probably in a difficult state. There’s a lot of dysfunction in the community,” explains Knut.

From a shortage of housing, unemployment and substance abuse, life for Indigenous people here can be extremely difficult.

“We believe that the loss of language has contributed to these situations. We’re talking about the next generation of trauma here.”

And there’s hard evidence to show the link between language and wellbeing.

“There was a government report done a few years ago that links wellbeing and success in life for Indigenous people, to learning or speaking their traditional language,” says Knut. “People are less likely to get into trouble if they’re learning or speaking the language. And they’re more likely to suffer from hardship in life if they don’t have the language. There is some hard evidence about that.”

The start of reconciliation

The Language Centre began in the 1980s when Elders started to realise that their language was dying out and English was more dominant. People from the Stolen Generation came back to their communities and couldn’t speak their language.

“The Elders founded the Language Centre to make sure that future generations can learn to speak the language,” Knut explains. “It’s probably one of the last things that people have of their traditional heritage. The land was taken away and culture was lost. And language was strongly discouraged through colonisation. So for the Elders it’s really important to see young people learn the language again.”

The Language Centre

The Mirima Language Centre manages a number of initiatives, including their early childhood program, the Miriwoong Language Nest. The Language Nest runs 32 throughout the week, reaching the local communities and beyond. The Centre also provides language classes for the general public, programs for disengaged kids, a bilingual radio program and a small library of bilingual books. The Language Nest, which Australian Ethical was proud to support last year through a Community Grant, is one of the most important and successful programs.

“The Language Nest started with 30 kids and last year we had 400 kids that we are able to reach each week,” says Knut. “In a town like Kununurra with a population of 5,000, that’s a massive scale.”

And it’s not just the local Indigenous residents who are learning the language. Many non-Indigenous people are also connecting with the Indigenous community and learning to speak the language.

“If you moved to Italy, you would want to learn Italian,” explains Knut. “And these people feel they have moved to Miriwoong country and they should learn the language of the people. It’s something highly appreciated by the local Indigenous population. And a lot of the white kids really enjoy the lessons at the schools. For many it’s the only language program in the school.

“The program does a lot for reconciliation,” continues Knut. “You can see some of the Indigenous kids, who might not perform so well at school, finally think ‘oh, this is me!’ You can see them blossom. They find it easier to pronounce the words and it’s something that relates to them.”

Schools are also reporting an increase in attendance from students who are normally absent when the language program is on.

“These programs make the Elders really proud. The fact that they see non-Indigenous people starting to use the language gives them a sense of belonging and authority again. They’ve been stripped of their authority but they can say ‘we’re the language authority’. It gives them a lot of strength and pride.

“Our big vision is to carry these education programs all the way through to Year 12,” says Knut. “So when they finish school, they’re language speakers. We have few fluent speakers; we need a new generation of speakers.”

To find out more about the work of Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre (MDWg) you can visit their website.

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