Topics: Australia, Native Affairs

Native Affairs - Language Matters

  • Australia

It wasn't so long ago that many of Australia's First Peoples were banned from and often punished for speaking their native language.

Now some schools in New South Wales are hoping to reverse the damage.

NITV's Rachael Hocking visited Woolgoolga High on the state's mid-north coast, where Gumbaynggirr is part of the curriculum.

In an ideal world, this is how most kids would start their school day, walking into a classroom, where the first words spoken are from the first language of that area.

Caitlin, Lachlan, Jaden and Izzy are taking their weekly Gumbaynggirr lesson.

They're among a handful of students who are the first to learn it as an HSC subject.

Caitlin has been learning Gumbaynggirr at Woolgoolga High School for two years, but her connection to the language goes back further.

Caitlin says, "The first time I ever heard Gumbaynggirr, it was when I first went to live with my mum after my dad passed away. And that's when I first met my Uncle Bing too. I didn’t know who he was. And he sat me around the fire and he started teaching me the words. The first words he taught me was 'wagai' and that means fire. It's helped me a lot to discover who I am and where I fit in my family."

She thinks having language lessons taught at her school has helped in an even broader community reconciliation.

"Before the language come in and that, there was a lot of like bullying and that, and not just to indigenous people, but the other way back. I guess bringing the language into the school, it's helped other people embrace it and not be so judgmental against it," says Caitlin.

Teacher Courtney Hine says, "That's one of the biggest things I noticed is that our whole school community has just become so ready to absorb anything about the culture of where we're actually living."

The language has already brought this school together, but for two best mates, it's done something more.

Lachlan is Gamilaroi and Jaden is Gumbaynggirr.

They are singing a song about initiation that Jaden's great, great, great uncle used to sing.

Lachlan Walsh says, "Ever since year three, we've been pretty much brothers, as close as brothers, that's how we count ourselves, don't even worry about blood. So to come up and learn the culture together, to start to play didge together, to learn the language, stories, to do the songs..."

It's no doubt had a positive effect, but for these students studying it as part of their HSC, there is one catch - it won't count towards their ATAR score.

Teachers, like Dhunghutti woman Courtney Hine, say it might just be a matter of time before that changes.

Courtney says, "We had to have so much support from the outside community, we had to have so much support from the Elders. Like it took a long time. It started off as a small group of Aboriginal kids and a teacher teaching when they got a chance - like outside of school hours, in the afternoons - and now it's in the curriculum. It's pretty cool".

While Gumbaynggirr is not yet taught to every year level, it is, impressively, a core subject for every year seven student.

This generation is proving how determined they are to keep the language alive.

Jaden Perkins says, "I wanna keep it in my blood so when I get older I can teach it to the younger generations as well, and so it just keeps passing on.

"The culture will be carried on for generations after this. It will be re-awakened, not taken away from us," says Caitlin.