In a high-school classroom in western Sydney, teacher Noeleen Lumby is asking her pupils to recall the Aboriginal name for animals that indigenous Wiradjuri people have used for hundreds of years.
As she holds up stuffed toys representing some of Australia’s native wildlife, including a kangaroo, an emu and a cockatoo, the class of about 25 — many from Vietnamese and Cambodian backgrounds — come to grips with the ancient tongue.
“I like this because you get to learn new skills and you can speak some indigenous language,” said 12-year-old Tien Nguyen.
Lumby, who oversees the students as they use their new knowledge to create projects on computers and iPads, is passionate about filling a gaping hole in Australian education — the study of Aboriginal languages.
“I think it’s important that the kids learn language and culture at the same time,” she told AFP.
“And because most of the students that I teach are non-Aboriginal, we look at culture across the whole of Australia and look at the diversity of culture.”
Only a small handful of the 1,110 students at St. John’s Park High School are indigenous, but for Lumby one of the joys of teaching is when students were “talking in language with me.”
Australia’s Aborigines once spoke 250 to 270 different languages but best estimates now suggest less than 70 are still being spoken on a daily basis, with even fewer passed on to younger generations.
“We’re losing languages as we speak because kids are increasingly not learning their parents’ language or languages; they are learning a form of Aboriginal English,” said Sydney University lecturer John Hobson.
“Australia is kind of close to holding the world record for the extinction of indigenous languages; we haven’t just wiped out the mammals, we’re doing pretty well on indigenous heritage as well.”
Hobson said that while a small number of schools in remote Aboriginal areas held classes in indigenous languages, by and large the language of instruction in Australia — settled by the British more than 200 years ago — is English.
Although indigenous language teaching is undergoing a revival, many Aboriginal communities are geographically isolated making it a struggle for those working to keep such languages alive.
A crucial problem is the lack of resources — both in terms of text books and resources as well as teachers.
Hobson, who in 2006 began a masters course instructing teachers how to teach their own indigenous languages in schools, said in many cases his students created the resources they needed for the classroom.
“Our gang have to start from scratch for pretty much everything. They have to produce their own,” he said, adding it was a far cry from the French or Mandarin teacher who could easily access dictionaries and other resources.
Hobson said his students were mostly teachers from an indigenous background who were involved in the revitalization movement.
“Some of them would have ambitions to restore those languages to vernacular use... but others would be simply working, at this stage anyway, on having language back as a badge of honor,” he said.
The revival movement is making some progress; some languages which would have once been referred to as “extinct” are now more likely to be seen as “sleeping.”
“We’d like to think that people could restore languages to full use,” Hobson said.
“But even if they do, one of the issues that invariably has to be dealt with is the fact that the records of the language either in living memory or in recordings or paper records... are not complete.
“So people would need to embrace the idea of reconstruction... which you might think of in terms of some language engineering.”
Hobson sees the course he offers, believed to be the only one of its kind in Australia, as a “kind of stop-gap measure” to try and build a supply of trained teachers to keep up with demand.
“The underlying issue is that Aboriginal people do want to bring their languages back ... people increasingly talk about how to reawaken their language,” he said.
Jodi Edwards, one of the masters students in Hobson’s class, is one such person.
“Your own language is a part of your soul, it’s a part of who you are and to not have your language is to not have your right arm,” she said.