It's International Mother Language day – Aboriginal leaders explain why language is so important

Tom Little, a Nyoongar man from Perth, is part of a group seeking to keep his Nyoongar language alive. The 2006 census recorded 232 speakers but, by 2016, there were 425 – although it has been suggested there is undercounting.

He uses the word “karganing” or “remembering” to describe what they are doing. It is a good description because, as he tells Bible Society’s Penny Mulvey, “the language was never lost but it was just simply the fact that most of our people, particularly during the Stolen Generation era, weren’t allowed to speak the language in public.

“If they got caught doing that, they got flogged.

“If we learn our culture and remember our culture, we are stronger by infinite degrees.”

“This is something that we can do on our terms and for our people.” – Tom Little

Little explains that language provides identity. “Because we have something that is ours alone. This is something that we can do on our terms and for our people. So that we can say to non-Indigenous people, ‘Look, we have something that is ours that we preserve and we keep and in the fullness of time, we will share.’

“As an English student in the University of Western Australia, I studied Australian literature. Part of the process of Aboriginal writers in the mainstream was colouring in the little gaps between knowledge of non-Indigenous and Indigenous people – and bringing them together to create more understanding.

“… Basically, we have been left out of the mainstream picture. So this is our way of putting ourselves back in that picture.”

Charmaine Councillor helps people rediscover lost language. “Somewhere at the back of someone’s brain there’s so much language that they’ve learned as a child. Particularly with the elders, there would have been a lot of language spoken among their parents and their grandparents and uncles and aunties.

“And so, when I speak to the elders in the community, I see that there’s like a little box in the back of your brain and I’ve got to find the right key.

“It may be a smell or a sound or a story or a particular Nyoongar word that they may have heard when they were a child and, all of a sudden, it just triggers a memory and then you start to see the little box start to open up and things start to pop out. They start to realise that they remember the word and it could be a story behind that word. There could have been an event around that word; it could be the last time they spoke to their parents using that word.

“So, my passion is to be able to bring that language back or to help them to revive that language. They are the ones that hold all that knowledge; I’m just sort of like the person that’s poking the stick to find what comes out.”

“Jesus is this person and he had his language too and he started telling his dreamtime stories and parables.” – Charmaine Councillor

Learning Nyoongar has strengthened Charmaine’s own Christianity. “I kept my Christian life separate but then I started really connecting how our culture and our language is actually woven into Christianity and I had to wait until the light bulb came on for myself,” she tells Mulvey. “And then I started looking at Jesus in a different way.

“I said ‘Jesus is this person and he had his language too and he started telling his dreamtime stories and parables and God was telling how the land was formed, just like our Nyoongar mob.

“We tell stories in parables … and there’s morals to that story and I started marrying up that I’m sure Jesus was Nyoongar in my mind. Then I started telling the story in Nyoongar ways to our friends and they were going ‘don’t tell me about Jesus because Christianity killed our language.’

“I said ‘No, it was always here. It was men’s perceptions of what God was that tainted our language.'”

“I had language flogged out of me by my mother.” – Aunty Margaret

Aunty Margaret tells the sad story of how she lost her language. In fear of her becoming part of a Stolen generation, “I had language flogged out of me by my mother. I don’t want to cry about it but … language [was] flogged out of me.

“They would just grab a strap or a piece of stick off the trees and give you a belting of your life. You never forgot it and you never went back and repeated the words again.”

Little is working to complete the Nyoongar Bible translation. The book of Ruth has just been finished and will join the Gospel of Luke, which has been published. The team plans to move on to another gospel,next. Readers can support the Nyoongar translation here.

Little thinks that non-Indigenous people should learn an Aboriginal language. He tells Mulvey: “Well, when you speak someone’s language, you carry a part of them with you.

“When you speak someone’s language, you carry a part of them with you.” – Tom Little

“I learned English at a very early age, almost at the same time as I learned Nyoongar. I can hold myself pretty well in the mainstream community.

“I can, if you like, if nobody saw my face and they heard me speak, they’d probably think I was a white man. But I’m not.

“That’s a source of pride to me because what it means is that I can cope in the mainstream. And I can understand a lot of mainstream issues, particularly to do with culture. And I can understand how non-Indigenous people approach that culture and approach that difference.

“I hope, touch wood, I can actually be part of the process of bringing the two cultures that much closer together.”

View Tom Little and other Nyoongar leaders on the Knowledge of the Heart video here.

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