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Resurrection of language is a labour of love

Tony Barrass -

Elders and linguists are bringing one of the oldest languages on earth, Miriwoong, back from the brink of extinction.

Only a handful of people can fluently speak the Aboriginal language that originated from the lands of Kununurra in WA's north and across the border into the Northern Territory.

But a language and cultural centre set up by elders is helping to preserve Miriwoong, with the help of an international linguist who specialises in endangered languages and has worked in the Amazon and Ghana.

The first Miriwoong dictionary has just been published and programs are underway to teach the language to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in local schools and to adults wanting to learn.

German linguist Knut J Olawsky, who manages the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring language and cultural centre, said Miriwoong was one of the most difficult languages he'd come across.

The dictionary of 1400 Miriwoong words took several years to compile and a second edition is already being planned.

"We have a lot of meetings with the elders and fluent and partial speakers and go through the whole dictionary word by word, discuss each entry and whether we have the right spelling and pronunciation, whether we have the right meaning, whether it is a noun or an adjective," Mr Olawsky said.

"We're already looking at the second edition, which will have a lot of modern words as well.

"It's easy to find a word for kangaroo and paperbark tree, but if someone asks you 'What's the word for computer?', then we have a problem because traditionally there were no computers.

"This is another project we are managing at the moment, coming up with a modern Miriwoong."

Mr Olawsky said his centre's early childhood programs were proving successful in teaching Miriwoong to very young children as they were learning to speak.

"It's based on what the Maori did in New Zealand but we've adapted it to our local needs," he said. "We're reaching about 400 kids a week. This makes us really hopeful that the situation will change because these kids find it easy to learn language and even though they might start at zero, after three years of learning, they are actually starting to speak it, which is encouraging."

He said the centre also hoped to develop a curriculum that would be adopted by the WA Education Department to offer Miriwoong as a school subject in Years 6-12.

"This is the language of Miriwoong land and the people here want to see it, like when you go to France, you've got to learn French," Mr Olawsky said.

"When you come to Miriwoong country, we want people to learn Miriwoong."

Mr Olawsky said colonisation had been the start of the decline of Miriwoong speakers.

"Colonisation was probably the trigger in Australia," he said.

"At certain times Aboriginal people were not even allowed to use their languages. Then of course, there was the Stolen Generation when children were taken away and didn't have the opportunity to learn their ancestral language.

"In general, with the dominance of English, it is difficult to keep a minority language alive."

The dictionaries are available from the centre for $12 plus postage. Inquiries to [email protected].

Wendy Caccetta


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