Reviving First Nations Languages

Australia is home to a diverse range of First Nations languages. Unfortunately, a large number of them have been lost, and many are endangered due to speakers passing away before language is being taught to the next generation. However, there is currently a movement to revitalise many of these Indigenous languages. Language plays a significant part within Indigenous communities; and it is how they have kept knowledge of culture and country alive for millennia without a written language (NAA, 2021).

Image by David Foster. Courtesy of Australian Geographic, 2016. 

Before colonisation, over 250 languages and 800 dialects were spoken in Australia. Colonisation led to the displacement of First Nations peoples through the Stolen Generation and a number of awful government policies. Many Indigenous languages and dialects became extinct because their speakers were forbidden to use native language over many years (NAA, 2021). Traditionally, young children would grow up speaking several dialects so that they could communicate with other tribes within their region. They would then go on to become the caretakers of their mother tongue for the next generation. With children being removed from their parents across several generations, the continuation of language and culture became difficult to maintain. It is for this reason that the revival of these languages is so important (Port Macquarie News, 2016). 

There are many First Nations communities, initiatives, non-profit organisations and people across the nation working hard to keep First Languages alive. One person involved in this process is Rhonda Radley: an Indigenous language-revival-activist and proud Indigenous woman with ties to the Birrbay and Dhanggati nations. Radley is recognised for her significant contributions to the longevity and maintenance of First Languages, and for giving Indigenous women a strong voice. In 2016, Rhonda Radley’s community chose her as one of the Heroines of the Hastings. In the same year, her work was acknowledged through becoming a finalist in the NSW Premier’s Aboriginal Woman of Year Award 2016. Recently, Radley’s work bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous women together at the Nyiirun Djiyagan Wakulda Women’s Festival in Port Macquarie was accredited in the NSW Parliamentary Records (NAIDOC, 2021).

Melanie Horrigan, Rhonda Radley, Arly McInherney, Angela Martin and Connie Smith prepare for the Nyiirun Djiyagan Wakulda Women’s Festival. Melanie Horrigan (far left) wears Yarn’s Yalingbila Balgany Fashion Top. Photo by Laura Telford. Courtesy of Port Macquarie News, 2018. 

 With a Masters in Indigenous Language Education under her belt, Radley has been teaching First Language via TAFE lectures and her involvement with the Aboriginal women’s group Djiyagan Dhanbaan (strong sister). In her teachings, Radley predominantly focuses upon the revival of Gathang language, the language of the Birrbay, Warrimay and Guringay peoples of the Port Macquarie area. Since, Gathang language has been lying dormant, Radley has been working on a digital Gathang dictionary. This 10-years-in-the-making resource provides an important permanent record of the language that people can learn from (Port Macquarie News, 2016). 

ALNF’s Living First Language Program. Courtesy of ALNF, 2021. 

Not only are communities and non-profits working hard to revitalise First Languages, they are pushing for the integration of language into educational contexts. This is so that a broader Australian audience can gain an understanding of not only Indigenous languages and culture, but also untold history. The non-profit organisation First Languages Australia has created educational tools such as the 50 Words Project and the Gambay First Languages Map so that everyone nation-wide has access to Indigenous languages. Both of these online tools provide a map showing where each of the languages are from, and they allow you to learn some everyday words (First Languages Australia, 2021). Other organisations, such as The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation work hard at carrying out programs and initiatives which assist communities in the revitalisation of languages and provide First Language education for young Indigenous people.

50 Words Project Interactive Map. Courtesy of 50 Words Project, 2021. 

The revitalisation of First Languages is beneficial for Indigenous communities in a number of different ways. For example, it has been seen to improve mental health, and it helps to strengthen peoples' connection to culture and country - this can be through simple things such as learning how to deliver Welcome to Country greetings in language. Learning First Nations languages is also important for non-Indigenous Australians, as languages help everyone gather a more in-depth understanding of the First People of this country (Creative Spirits, 2021). We hope that the revitalisation of Indigenous languages continues and that these languages can become an integral part of education entities such as schools and universities.