Linguists estimate that 120 Aboriginal languages have “fallen asleep” and are no longer spoken since Europeans arrived in Australia.
Many others that are still spoken are critically endangered.
A group of Indigenous Territorians is determined that Pertame Southern Arrernte – a Centralian language spoken fluently by only 10-20 people, who nearly all live in and around Alice Springs – will survive and thrive.
Pertame elders fought hard to keep their language strong growing up, making it even more important to pass it onto the next generations.
Christobel Swan says: “I remember when I was about 10 – we used to come into Alice Springs from Henbury station, and we’d be walking along the street, and people would say, ‘Don’t talk that language’.
“Even at school they used to give us a hiding in the playground. And I often used to think why should I speak English? That’s not my language!” –
The “language activists” are strongly supported by the Batchelor Institute and several generous philanthropists.
Vanessa Farrelly, who works for Batchelor institute’s Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics, is at the forefront of saving her family’s traditional language – she knows that the death of a language is not an academic point but the loss of a universe of culture, an ancient connection to people and the land.
She and other Aboriginal Territorians – Shania Armstrong, Auriel Swan and Leeanne Swan – are learning Pertame from Christobel.
Vanessa and her Pertame-speaking grandmother, Kathy Bradshaw, went on a life-changing trip to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Global Indigenous Language Training in New York.
They learnt about the methodology of master-apprentice language revival, which involves Indigenous learners immersing themselves in the language by spending a lot of time with a fluent speaker.
“Our family has been working for many years to record and teach Pertame to the younger generations,” says Vanessa. “But progress has been slow, and our elder speakers are getting older every year.
“Before this trip, I was looking for some guidance on how to teach language courses effectively. I was stressed because I didn’t know how to write proper lesson plans or a curriculum or teach syllables and grammar how I remember it being taught to me when I was in school.
“I was not a qualified teacher. This trip answered all my questions and simplified the massive task ahead of us: how to keep Pertame alive.
“The most important thing I learnt was that our language programs did not have to be like our schooling. Our schooling comes from a colonial western model. And we know it is not working for our children.
“When we were babies, we managed to learn our first language without knowing what a noun, transitive verb or relative clause was. We just listened to our parents speaking language to us and around us, and slowly we understood.”
Vanessa says Pertame children can learn their traditional language by being exposed to it for 10-20 hours a week.
The model has been used successfully by the Yuchi people in the United States.
But it takes determination – research shows that to learn a word in a new language you must hear and practice it 20 times in 20 different contexts, which adds up to 400 times.
“Our workshop teachers warned us that it takes a sustained and intense effort to create a new language speaker, and both the master and apprentice must be truly dedicated,” Vanessa says.
“They told us honestly that 95 percent of our community won’t have the time to become fluent speakers, but that is ok. We need to focus on the 5 percent who do have the time, the passion and the drive to keep going.
“The other 95 percent might want to join later when they start seeing the results.”
The Pertame apprentices have started teaching language at Bradshaw Primary as a part of the master-apprentice program – students of Pertame heritage are taken out of class and given special lessons in the language.
Vanessa says young Territorians can benefit greatly from learning their traditional tongue.
“It’s so much more than just learning. It raises their confidence, helps them understand their history, that they are the first people of Australia.
“It makes them strong in their own identity. It makes them feel good about themselves.”As Pertame elder speaker and qualified teacher Kathleen Bradshaw says: “When we keep our language alive, we know who we are, we know our identity. And when we know that, we become healthy people in our everyday living because family is really important.