Why learn an Aboriginal language?

Learning an Aboriginal language has so many advantages that you could write a book about it. Sadly, because of the way the dominant culture views Aboriginal languages, many of them are dying out and we are losing powerful academic concepts from Aboriginal languages that have […]

Learning an Aboriginal language has so many advantages that you could write a book about it. Sadly, because of the way the dominant culture views Aboriginal languages, many of them are dying out and we are losing powerful academic concepts from Aboriginal languages that have never  been recorded. Learning an Aboriginal language is one of the most useful tools you can use to help close the gap, but people often have many questions about why it is important and how to go about it.

People have asked me the question: “You have talked about the importance of (learning) language, but is this possible considering the diversity and variability of the Aboriginal languages across Australia? How can we bridge this communication barrier?”

Yes, it is true there are many languages, and sometimes there can be several in the one community or region. In fact, many Aboriginal people now speak some form of English as a first language. For many, this Aboriginal English has a grammar structure like their original Aboriginal languages that they cannot speak any more, so it is quite different to mainstream English. However there are other groups of Aboriginal people in “isolated” areas that still speak and think in one of the Original Australian languages, and generally these Aboriginal people often understand several Aboriginal languages. For most of them, all forms of English are still a very foreign language. These people often have a common language that is understood across a large language region.

The fact is, if we are going to communicate effectively then we need to be able to speak to people in a language they understand. A fact not lost on the European Economic Community (EEC). Under the rules of the EEC doctors are not allowed to go and work in another county in Europe unless they can speak the language of the host country. And English is a related language to many of the EEC languages in Europe. But in Australia people come to work in Aboriginal communities with no such requirement, where English and the Original Australian languages have no commonality whatsoever. This is why I would suggest, that many of the health and other statistics for these communities do not change – in fact in some cases they even get worse – and it is also a major factor in why education and training fails. So we waste opportunities for good or better communication to occur and then  blame Aboriginal people for things not working.

I was forced to learn language when I arrived in Arnhem Land 40 years ago and I believe it should still be the policy today. In fact it was the one thing that has kept me here; once I knew a little bit of the language my relationships developed so fast with the people that I could not leave. Just the other day a medical doctor asked me could I explain in Yolŋu Matha (the language of Yolŋu people) what cancer was? My response was, “No problem”, as I had done it over the phone for a female Yolŋu patient just last week. That patient was beside herself in fear before the conversation. She did not understand what cancer was, what the DNA testing was about, or what the treatment options were and how they might work or not. And because there is a lot of confusion about this whole subject within her language group she was even being given misleading information by other Yolŋu. She was ready to go home and die. After a 20 minute conversation she had a clear picture right down to the DNA level. How? By us discussing her condition in an Australian language that she understood; Yolŋu Matha. We have no problem going down to a deep biomedical level in the original Australian languages. They are very powerful communication tools that are just being brushed aside because of what I believe is a neo-colonial mindset that is still very strong in modern day Australia.

Learn a language

So, start by looking at the area you want to do the most work in, and learn that language. Stop being a dominant culture nomad and work in one region. Even if you are working with Aboriginal people who speak an Aboriginal English, you need to learn some of their language if you want to have better communication.  Try and learn the language that has the most resources in a particular region. You don’t have to become an expert – very few English speaking people become truly proficient. But it would be great if more English first language people would learn an Aboriginal language adding to the skill pool in that particular language region. There is just so much more good communication work that needs to be done.

Many advantages in learning a language

There are many advantages to learning an Original Australian language or even Aboriginal English if that is the region you are in, or going to work in:
  • All Australians should learn an Aboriginal language, because as soon as you do, you also start to learn something about the Original Australian culture and worldview.
  • Attempting to learn also shows the people that you are different from most other dominant culture people. You will be seen as taking the peoples language and culture seriously and they will respond to you in a much more positive way. This can happen by just learning even a few words. From the people’s point of view you cross the line from being just one of the dominant culture mass out there imposing an imported European language and culture on them to someone that is interested in them.
  •  Straight away you will help to ‘bridge the gap’ from both sides, rather than expecting Aboriginal people to do all the hard work of communicating across the massive cultural communication divide. And along the way you will also probably teach them more English than the people who make no attempt to learning their language. You will also learn how hard it is to learn a language. This might stop you joining the course of mainstream English speakers out there that tell Aboriginal people all the time that they, “should just learn English”. You might even join us to push for good English learning programs and material for Aboriginal people to learn English efficiently and effectively. Even Aboriginal people who speak a form of Aboriginal English need well-constructed, open access, English learning programs. These people have no such resources in a wealthy country like ours.
  • Learning their language also gives you a great opportunity to empower Aboriginal people because you can become the student asking them to help you learn. When the English speaker asks for help it immediately empowers Aboriginal people, placing them in the role of teacher – something that does not happen very often. This has massive psychological benefits for people who usually have dominant culture people telling them how to suck eggs. Constantly being told what to do is very demoralising for anyone.
  • Lastly, when you know one of the Original Australian languages, you will find when you go to other Aboriginal language regions, you will then pick up their language much more quickly because of the corporate knowledge you have learnt from your first experience. This can occur even if you are just visiting for a few days, or even just hours, you will be picking up their language. This can give you a richer and more rewarding experience in a short time than if you had been there for years without learning the language. You will be told things that you would not otherwise hear, because you are now one of the small team of people who attempt to relate to the people on their terms. They will also find you can communicate better with them even if you cannot speak their language because you are beginning to see things from the perspective of an original Australian culture.

Resources to get started

For details about the official language centres around the country visit the Our Languages website. There are also many other organisations out there doing work in different language regions. Some include NGOs like Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS), Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages and also some universities like Charles Darwin University. Ask around to find the best language resources.

About Richard Trudgen

Born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner, Richard went to Arnhem Land in 1973 for one year voluntary work. He stayed 37 years, learnt language and trained in community development work. He wrote “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die” in 2000 and established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He was CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) Inc for 10 years, and during this time developed discovery education methodology. He runs ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars and training workshops, and speaks at conferences and events. Richard wants to build an e-learning school for Yolŋu people using both their own language and English so Yolŋu children/adults have an easily accessible schooling system that works for them. He is currently writing his next book “When a New World Drops in on You”.