Last Wednesday (26 July) I went along to a ceremonial ribbon cutting on a bunch of books on Wiradjuri in the Parkes Shire Library (central west NSW). This prompted some thoughts on language revival, Wiradjuri, the German Saturday school I went to, and teaching language.
Wiradjuri is the language of much of central western New South Wales. Stan Grant Senior and John Rudder have been working since 1997 preparing language learning materials, available from:
PO Box 150
O'Connor ACT 2602
Much of the material comes from two large nineteenth century word-lists (John says one is 5,000 words, one 3,000 words, which are HUGE by nineteenth century Australian standards), although there are some sound recordings from the twentieth century.
Stan and John's work has been taken up in Forbes North Primary School, where Michele Herbert, a teacher, has been teaching Wiradjuri for several years, along with four Aboriginal tutors (they'd received a grant of $87,000 to pay them this year). She said she did this because she thought it was better to learn the culture of the land than an "outside language". I don't agree with the either-or-ness of this sentiment - nothing but class time and lack of teachers prevents kids from learning several languages at primary school. What can be taught of Wiradjuri is different from what can be taught of Chinese, and the two languages also differ in how they can be used. The teacher claimed that teaching the language has engendered greater respect and understanding of Aborigines and has dissolved racism in the playground. Having Aboriginal tutors accorded respect in the classroom is crucial for this.
Children from the Forbes North class took part in the launch, along with children from Peak Hill Primary School and Central West Christian School . One little girl gave a memorised welcome-to-country speech in Wiradjuri, and also a closing speech. Using traditional language for this kind of ceremonial purpose has proved important in the language revival movement elsewhere - as Rob Amery has documented for Kaurna in the Adelaide Plains. (Amery, Rob. 2000. Warrabarna Kaurna!: reclaiming an Australian language: Multilingualism and linguistic diversity. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.) The remainder of the children's performances took me straight back to the end-of-year performances of the German Saturday School that I took part in as a child (it's great to see that this Saturday School is still going - in the same building..). Instead of "O Tannenbaum", a Wiradjuri version of "Head and shoulders, knees and toes", and one that sounded like "Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree". Instead of a German folk dance, girls in black shorts and singlets with skirts of red and yellow ribbons, and boys in red and yellow laplaps with an assortment of clapsticks performed miming dances. And, just as German parents and grandparents clapped, and mostly refrained from telling us what we got wrong, so too the Wiradjuri applauded the children. "I love all things Koori " said Mrs Rita Keed, who helped organise a Wiradjuri language workshop nearly 20 years ago at Peak Hill, and has been working ever since on her Wiradjuri heritage.
All this is a start, it brings Aboriginal families and schools closer together, on terms of mutual respect and recognition of knowledge, in an area of Australia where for many years Aborigines have been invisible. Wiradjuri may not be fully revived - and judging by my diminishing knowledge of German, it's a big ask to expect the children to become fully bilingual in Wiradjuri. But if it dissolves racism in the playground as Michele Herbert claims, then that is a big thing to weigh against the present Federal Government's push to stop the teaching of Aboriginal languages and cultural concerns in schools.