According to Jacinta Tobin, a Darug woman from western Sydney, without even being aware we all speak at least a little of her traditional language.
“You say things like wombat, wallaby, corroboree, boomerang,” she says. “Place names, like Bondi.”
And now Tobin is on a mission to expand our knowledge beyond that rudimentary vocabulary, breathing fresh life into the ancient Darug language.
Along with Joel Davison, a Gadigal and Dunghutti man, she is gearing up for a second year teaching Darug at a Sydney Festival program called Bayala, after the Darug word for “speak”. The program includes classes, an exhibition of historical records and a singing ceremony.
“I believe our ancestors are walking with us and trying to bring the language out of our mouths,” Tobin says.
Last year, Bayala was a huge hit with festival-goers, with spots selling out within the first week. This year, the number of beginner places has been doubled and organisers have added a more advanced course focusing on grammar and language structure. Both will be run in Parramatta as well as in the CBD.
The enthusiastic students covered a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds and even included an Irish professor who was interested in how Australia’s language revitalisation efforts compared to those of Ireland.
Tobin and Davison have reconstructed the sounds of the language from written historical material.
“We don’t have native speakers any more who have learnt it since childhood, that we can just grab and say, hey, teach these classes,” Davison explains.
Language revival and reclamation has generated a host of startlingly diverse benefits for Indigenous communities.
“There have been studies that have shown that when you give an ethnic minority that have lost their language their language back, it results in a lot of health improvements and resolves a lot of issues they have with cultural and personal identity,” Davison says.
Ahmar Mahboob, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, agrees.
“There’s a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that empowering Indigenous languages empowers Indigenous communities and reduces economic, health and legal issues.”
There have been similar findings from indigenous communities around the world.
Researchers in Canada, where suicide rates in First Nations communities are up to 11 times the national average, found rates of language competence could be used to predict the suicide rate of a community more accurately than many other cultural factors.
In communities where most members could speak their language at a conversational level, the suicide rate dropped almost to zero – below the national average.
Closer to home, at the University of Adelaide, linguists and medical researchers are investigating how language revival in the Barngarla community correlates with incarceration rates, school performance and even the prevalence of diabetes.
Mahboob and Professor Jakelin Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney, are planning ambitious research with indigenous communities from Asia, Europe, South America and Australia to explore the relationship between health and wellbeing and indigenous language use.
While Mahboob calls the Bayala programs “a fantastic initiative”, he also stresses the need for an expanded approach to language revival that emphasises practical, real-life applications, “such as through mother tongue-based multilingual education and integrating Indigenous languages into the linguistic landscape of the communities”.
Tobin and Davison, who also work with schools throughout the year, have noticed that teachers themselves are among the keenest to learn.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that consistently in our classes there were educators, and they ranged from preschool educators, to K-6, to high school and university educators,” Davison says.
“Most everyone that has come [to the classes] sends the message to me that it gives them something to be proud of beyond 200 years of white Australian history,” he says. “In our eyes, 200 years is a very short period of time.”
The Bayala language courses will take place on January 10-12 and 23-25 in the CBD, and January 17-19 in Parramatta, while free one-hour language classes will be held on January 6, 13 and 20 in the CBD, and January 14 in Parramatta.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.