Saving first languages a mission to preserve cultures

Rudi Maxwell |

Uncle Rod O’Brien is an elder who devotes his time to reclaiming Kaurna language and culture.
Uncle Rod O’Brien is an elder who devotes his time to reclaiming Kaurna language and culture.

Kaurna elder Rod O’Brien wants everyone who lives on the Adelaide Plains to be able to understand and speak at least a couple of phrases in the language of the region.

When Uncle Rod was a boy his gran taught him a few words, but he was far from fluent.

He now devotes his time to reclaiming Kaurna warra (language) and culture.

“Learning the language gives you back a bit of your identity, where you come from and who you belong to,” Uncle Rod said.

“Language tells you about the culture and about the landscape and the country.

“Through learning of the language, I developed a better connection with my country and … if you care for your country, as our old people said, the country will care for you too, because everything’s reciprocal.”

Kaurna language revival only began in the late 1980s after decades of being suppressed by colonial forces and practices that banned Aboriginal people speaking in their own words.

Independent not-for-profit Kaurna Warra Karrpanthi helps ensure the language’s continuation, and therefore Kaurna cultural continuation, for future generations through workshops and critical resources.

Australia has one of the fastest rates of language loss in the world.

But First Languages Australia is working with language groups across the country on protecting and reawakening Indigenous tongues.

“We have 800 Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia and all of them are considered to be highly endangered,” First Languages Australia senior adviser Annalee Little told AAP, and that even languages that do have speakers are still critically endangered.

As part of an ongoing project, First Languages Australia has developed an interactive map called Gambay that showcases nearly 800 traditional languages.

The word ‘gambay’ means ‘together’ in the Butchulla language of the Hervey Bay region in Queensland.

Ms Little, a Wakka Wakka woman from central Queensland, said having a connection to your language is a connection to who you are.

According to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, between eight and 16 separate languages could have been spoken in lutruwita (Tasmania) before the brutal and devastating effects of invasion and colonisation.

Since the early 1990s, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has been working to restore their spoken words.

The only Aboriginal language in lutruwita today is palawa kani, which means ‘Tasmanian Aborigines speak’.

There are no living speakers of the original Tasmanian languages and spoken records of the original sounds are limited to a few sounds spoken by Fanny Cochrane Smith on an 1899 record, on which she sang traditional songs.

Remnants of some original Tasmanian languages were written down in wordlists by more than 20 different European recorders, including speakers of different regional dialects of English, a Scot, a Dane and many French, making working out pronunciation a challenge.

Dance performers during the Stone Country Festival at Gunbalanya
Endangered Indigenous languages and thereby culture are being preserved for future generations. (Esther Linder/AAP PHOTOS)

Adelaide University associate professor Rob Amery is a linguist who specialises in the revitalisation of endangered languages, and has been key in the reclamation of Kaurna warra.

He said they faced similar issues regarding pronunciation, in part because many wordlists and old recordings were compiled by native German speakers.

“We started actually writing songs … you don’t need to know and understand the language well to be able to sing a song and to be able to use the song in school to teach little kids to sing it,” Professor Amery said.

Songs and word games like Wordle are tools that many language groups are using.

“Without those language revitalisation programs, those languages will continue to be sleeping,” Ms Little said.

“If a language stops being spoken, you’re losing a way to see the world through those people’s eyes.

“And in our languages, there’s things that can’t just be translated into English, it’s not just the words, it’s a wealth of knowledge that is at risk of being lost.”

On Tuesday, Adelaide University is holding Kaurna Day, a free public event that aims to recognise and celebrate the traditional owners of the Adelaide Plains through keynote talks, forums, culture, food and music.

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria has been calling for governments, institutions, and community groups to embrace Indigenous languages and implement dual naming policies. 

Assembly co-chair Ngarra Murray said despite historical attempts to eradicate First Peoples languages, including bans and punitive measures, communities have persevered, safeguarding their languages for future generations. 

“Language is fundamental to our identity, communication, and storytelling,” she said.

“Incorporating First Peoples’ languages into the fabric of our society is not just about linguistic diversity, it’s about respecting and celebrating the rich heritage of First Peoples.”

Ms Murray wants to see more public spaces with names that recognise and celebrate the oldest living culture in the world.

“I believe it would help people connect with our cultures, it’s sort of like an invitation to be part of it or at least learn more,” she said. 

“Every name carries a story, a connection to the land and its custodians.

“Dual naming policies are a small and simple gesture, but the benefits would continue to flow over the generations, they’ll help bring us all closer together, giving us something to share in and celebrate.”

Teacher and student.
Elders and experts agree that say teaching kids early is key to helping languages thrive. (Neda Vanovac/AAP PHOTOS)

Uncle Rod, Prof Amery and Ms Little all say teaching kids early is key to helping languages thrive – but it’s inconsistent apart from the need for more support in all states and territories.

Bilingual education is well established in the Northern Territory, with 2024 Senior Australian of the Year Yalmay Yunupingu having taught at the Yirrkala Bilingual School in northeast Arnhem Land for four decades, retiring in March 2023.

The Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School in Coffs Harbour is the first bilingual School of an Aboriginal language in NSW.

“Bilingual education is so important in the NT, a lot of children grow up speaking language so when they go to school, it’s often the first time they hear English,” Ms Little said.

“Then for other places where it’s not really spoken much at home because the language is in the revitalisation stage.

“Children having connection to their language connects them to so much more than just language itself.”

Uncle Rod and Prof Amery are keen to promote Kaurna warra, but, now that the language is recognised as an official school subject by the SA government, they also see a need for standardised teacher training and resources.

“We believe that the language belongs to us, the Kaurna people, and so it should be taught the way we want it taught,” Uncle Rod said.

“We also want people living in our country, non-Aboriginal, Kaurna, non-Kaurna people to learn our language as well, because we believe that the language belongs to the country.

“People should speak our language if they live on our country, that’s just displaying mutual respect.”