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Honouring Australia’s Indigenous Languages – Why and How You Should Be an Active Ally

Honouring Australia’s Indigenous Languages – Why and How You Should Be an Active Ally

What a great time to be a teacher!

Here’s the perfect opportunity to positively affect the education of the country and bring black and white Australians towards an understanding of each other. The United Nations has designated the 2022 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages – calling the world to ‘take urgent steps at the national and international levels’.

Across Australia, as we move into the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are continuing their tireless work toward a future where the languages of these great lands are strong, supported and used as much as their custodians wish.

At the same time, state and federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages curriculum frameworks have been developed as tools for communities and schools that wish to collaborate towards offering a local language curriculum. And, more and more, schools are working with their local language custodians to embed language and culture through the Australian Curriculum Cross-curriculum priorities.

Our educators are responsible for the presentation of these topics to our children, not only for Aboriginal communities who already speak their language but also in communities where language is no longer spoken. This will be the best history lesson ever taught.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are not quaint anachronisms. They are vital carriers of cultural knowledge with relevance for geography, history, the environment, health, literature and philosophy. The languages speak of Aboriginal grains which require little water, tubers adapted to Australian conditions and even recipes for the cooking of these foods. The languages are not relics of a dying society but have commercial information for the new.

Teachers can embrace these opportunities knowing that Aboriginal people have been involved in preparing these languages for the classroom and that teaching First Australian languages does not diminish the importance of Indonesian, Chinese or French because it is not a simple case of words and phrases which equip a student to communicate overseas, our languages teach about the land itself and are rich in philosophical reference and intimate knowledge of what it is like to be Australian on the Australian land.

How to tackle such profundities? Simple. A student’s first task might be to study a map of the school district and identify the local languages of the region. Gambay: First languages map is an excellent resource. Send the kids home to ask their families to find all the Aboriginal street and place names. The first task is to recognise one when you see it. As families sit around the table they can list the obvious ones like Woollongong, Bombala, Canberra, Brewarrina, Warrnambool, Kalbarri and Boorooloola but what about Kiama, Mandurah, Echuca, Caboolture and Taroona?

Now the task is to search for the meanings of these names. The most helpful resources are cheap. Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria is a great text, Shire Records of any district (surely the Shire would break their necks to provide good information to local school children), but teachers will be amazed at how many languages are being revived. Many of those communities have dictionaries which the community is happy to share with the Australian community; especially if the intention is to honour the language and not make it one more item of appropriation. Ask around and find out who the language custodians of your region are and how to make contact – there are notes here to help educators make these local connections.

Thirty percent of Aboriginal placenames in southern states have no certain meaning. Imagine the excitement if a kid in your classroom uncovers the answer. How did she do it? Found an old surveyor’s map with the meaning sketched in pencil beside it? Worked it out by comparing similar words and walking down the road to ask Aunty Mary who came to the school last year and told them she was born in the area before any house was built. ‘What does beenyak mean, Aunt?’ ‘I don’t know but my granny used to have a binak, basket, made it herself. I reckon that’s what it means.’

What a great moment in Australian education!

Now, with approval from your local custodians, you help the class prepare a presentation to the shire so that all known names have their meanings included in the street sign every time a sign has to be replaced. Of course we’re not recommending students graffiti signs in order to accelerate the process. That would be mischievous.

Young Australians have had no part in the destruction of these languages but they can have an enormous influence on their reclamation. Immersion in the language will teach students about a culture that many older Australians have tried to forget. The mere familiarity with the names of country is a huge step toward reconciliation.

The other great function of Aboriginal language tuition is for the survival of those languages in the mouths of the new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

So much damage has been done to these languages in the last decade by political zealots who thought knowledge of one’s own language and culture prevented progress in a world dominated by English. Those people singled out dual language education as the impediment faced by Aboriginal people as if poor educational provision, deplorable health facilities and the worst employment provision in the country were not the root cause of the gap in health, education, employment and longevity between Indigenous people and other Australians.

I urge all schools to embrace the opportunity being offered. Most Australians know so little about Aboriginal culture that presentation of such simple information is a transformative act in the national consciousness.

Imagine what else you could do. As far as education is concerned it is a Greenfields estate. Teachers excited, students excited, Aboriginal communities proud, Australians more in love with their country than ever.

This is a wonderful opportunity and must not be missed. It’s not an expensive innovation but it requires vision and that most electrifying of all educational pre-conditions … curiosity.

Article provided by Bruce Pascoe and First Languages Australia. Find out more at First Languages Australia.


©Bruce Pascoe

BrucePascoe’s most recent books were Dark Emu (Magabala) Convincing Ground (ASP) and Bloke (Penguin).



Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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