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Indigenous languages face erasure as advocates call for legislative protection

Joseph Guenzler -

Mirning, an Aboriginal language of the Nullarbor coast, faces the threat of extinction, with no speakers learning it as their mother tongue.

Australia, once home to more than 300 Indigenous languages, now grapples with one of the world's highest language loss rates, leaving less than 30 Indigenous languages spoken as first languages today.

David Wolgar told the ABC: "It makes me feel very sad, I should have learned it off my grandmother."

"Those days are gone. If I knew the language, I could pass it on."

David Wolgar wishes he learned his mothers native language (Image: Mirning Traditional Lands Aboriginal Corporation)

In an effort to reverse this trend, Mirning representatives sought assistance from the Goldfields Language Centre in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, 600 kilometres east of Perth.

However, funding constraints limit the center's revival efforts to the West Australian side of the border, despite Mirning Country, language, and song lines extending into South Australia's Nullarbor Plain.

Advocates argue that such restrictions hinder language revival.

Sue Hanson, the Language Centre's CEO, emphasises the need for legislative support to ensure flexible allocation of funding and resources, irrespective of the ruling government.

Ms Hanson suggests that enshrining linguistic rights in legislation, as done in New South Wales, is crucial for language revival in Western Australia.

Sue Hanson states, "Recognition of one's language is a deserving right for people in their own country." (Image: ABC Goldfields/Giulia Bertoglio)

"We are working against time because most speakers are elderly," she said.

"It can be very difficult in an environment where funding only comes annually or every three years, but you have to commit for 20 years to the families to make sure the language is preserved."

Over the past 12 years, the Language Centre has collaborated with Mirning families, delving into historical records and spending hours on ancestral land.

Though, Ms Hanson estimates that it will take another three or four years before a Mirning language dictionary can be produced.

She notes the importance of linguistic legislation, as seen in New South Wales, highlighting the challenge faced by Indigenous children forced to switch to English in schools, disadvantaging them from the start.

"One of the biggest things we can do to help close the gap is recognise First Nations languages, give them place, legitimate place to be used in wider society, and provide the resourcing," she told the ABC.

"In Western Australia, there's just an ignoring of First Nations languages, and an ignoring of the consequential outcomes of that."

Peter Yu emphasises that safeguarding traditional languages is pivotal to the rights of Indigenous communities. (Image: ABC Goldfiels/Giulia Bertoglio)

Professor Peter Yu, a Yawuru man from the Kimberley in WA's north, views language revival as a political awakening, capable of addressing the power imbalance imposed by colonisation.

"Language was, and always will be, about politics and power," he told the ABC.

"Preserving language sustains the integrity of our native title rights and interests."

He deems the current funds allocated for Indigenous language preservation insufficient and points to the recent referendum results, emphasising the urgency for Indigenous Australians to safeguard their languages independently of government initiatives.

Despite calls for legislative support, the state's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Tony Buti, remains silent on potential law changes, according to the ABC.

While expressing the government's commitment to preserving Aboriginal languages through education, Dr Buti left the broadcaster's questions about legislative measures unanswered.

In this landscape, Mr Wolgar, eager to revive his grandmother's language, stands ready to transition from student to teacher.

He anticipates the release of a Mirning language dictionary, highlighting the significance of preserving cultural heritage against the backdrop of linguistic loss.

"If I can learn it at my age now, for the next 10 to 20 years, my grandkids coming behind, they are going to ask me about this language, I can tell them about it and pass it on," he said to the ABC.

"I'd give it a crack."

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