Preserving Indigenous languages

Though there are still 13 Indigenous languages spoken by children around Australia, they are slowly fading as older generations pass on. Queensland educator, JULIE LEE DAVIDSON takes us through the importance of preserving Indigenous languages and suggests ways to incorporate them into early childhood curriculums. Exploring ways for children to learn Indigenous languages helps build awareness of different identities of traditional owners, and preserve the rich and diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

When children learn Australian Indigenous languages, they are benefitted in many ways, and the languages are preserved, strengthened and acknowledged. 2019 was The International Year of Indigenous Languages and many community organisations around the world contributed to raising awareness about reviving Indigenous languages and culture. The State Library of Queensland developed many events to celebrate Indigenous languages, such as introducing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander word each week to the local community.

In Australia, there are several cities, national parks, lakes, mountains, plants, birds, fishes named in Aboriginal Languages and have become an important part of Australian heritage. Yet according to the 2014 Second National Indigenous Languages Survey (Marmion, Obata, & Troy, 2014), only 13 of 250 traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still considered powerful, which means they are spoken by all age groups in Aboriginal communities particularly, in the Northern Territory. A total of 120 out of 250 traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are currently spoken, though some languages are considered to be powerful, they are still at risk of being critically endangered.

There are challenges that come with preserving Indigenous languages for the early learning services and schools teaching them, such as a lack of Indigenous teachers, variations in dialects, and language intensity. The release of the Australian Government Action Plan (as a part of The International Year of Indigenous Languages) supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups to participate in the development of various language programs to ensure the protection, conservation and survival of our first Indigenous languages. The goals in the action plan bring great opportunities to connect by working together, building relationships and developing and implementing innovative teaching platforms in rural areas and the wider Australian community. Introducing children to learn Indigenous languages will help them build awareness of different identities of traditional owners, and in turn, will preserve the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures. Additionally, children will get the cognitive benefits that come with learning a different language in the early years, explore ways educators can include Indigenous language and culture through the curriculum below.

How can early childhood educators encourage children to bond with Indigenous languages and culture through curriculum?

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) good practice fact sheets (SNAICC, 2012) provide educators with ideas on how to support Australian Indigenous languages while implementing EYLF values and practices. One approach it suggests is to explore the diversity in language groups in your area.

Here are further ways educators can introduce a daily cultural language activity:

  • Each room can create their own Acknowledgement to Country that is age-appropriate and easy for children to understand. Make it fun. Add clapping sticks or a didgeridoo.
  • Sing Indigenous songs. The following are easy to sing and can be found on YouTube:
  • Use puppets or natural materials to tell Dreamtime stories. (e.g. use feathers to represent birds in How the birds got their colours by Pamela Lofts and Mary Albert).
  • Display Aboriginal words that are meaningful to children, such as traditional names for classrooms, greeting words, animal names. The State Library of Queensland has a collection of words in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, with an added suggestion for pronunciation. (Check the chosen words spelling and pronunciation with local language custodians).
  • Read bilingual books such as Gubbi Gubbi animal friends and Gubi Gubbi, bush tucker girl. These are stories that feature elements and words of the Gubbi Gubbi people. See further resources on the ECA Shop.
  • Read books that reflect Indigenous life stories. (e.g. My home in Kakadu by Jane Christophersen and Desert lake: The story of Kati Thanda by Pamela Freeman.
  • Grow a ‘tucker garden’ and invite a local Indigenous person from the community to discuss the foods.

Integrating Indigenous languages into the curriculum inspires children’s pride and respect. It can also help children build a connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds—enabling them to succeed in both.

Preserving and reviving the Gubbi Gubbi language

Listen to this short podcast from the ABC, featuring Associate Professor Eve Fesl. A well-established Gubbi Gubbi elder committed to raising awareness of Aboriginal languages. Eve explains her concerns around the Indigenous languages not being recorded properly and what she did to document the Gubbi Gubbi language. As a result of her work in preserving and reviving the language, there are now several words that can be incorporated into the general vocabulary. For example, ‘Wunya’, which can be used as a greeting or a farewell.


ECA Recommends

Welcome to Country
By Aunty Joy Murphy and Illustrated by Lisa Kennedy

Welcome to the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri People. We are part of this land and the land is part of us. This is where we come from. Wominjeka Wurundjeri balluk yearmenn koondee bik. Welcome to Country. This multi-award-winning picture book is an expansive and generous Welcome to Country from a most respected Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy, beautifully given form by Indigenous artist Lisa Kennedy. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.

Julie Lee Davidson

Julie Lee Davidson is an educator, at Bella Grace Childcare Centre Aroona. Julie grew up living in a neighbourhood rich in many different cultures and nationalities. Languages have always been an interest of Julie's, she speaks fluent Spanish and enjoys teaching her background and language to children.

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