First languages lessons grow

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Advocacy body First Languages Australia (FLA) says a federal government commitment to funding research for the training of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language teachers has put a spotlight on career paths for teachers of first language studies in the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

FLA manager Faith Baisden says the growth of Indigenous language studies from Kindergarten to Year 12 could also offer Australian students pathways to new careers in justice, health, tourism, community, science and education over the next decade.

“Through the next year, we hope to be working with the federal Department of Education to identify national career paths and training strategies for language teachers and workers,” Baisden says.

FLA released its Nintiringanyi: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teaching and Employment Strategy last year. The strategy reflects the collective knowledge of educators in each state and territory.

“The teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools will see all Australians open their eyes to the true richness of the linguistic history and culture of Australia.

“It has been simply a blinkered oversight that everyone has not been taught the true story of this land. This will change as language helps people share the real connection with a place they have so far been tip-toeing over as visitors.”

Baisden says community language teachers have done the hard work for many years, “with completely inadequate pay and conditions for their contribution”.

“But they’ve done this because of their passion and commitment to their languages and to the wellbeing of their communities for whom languages are core to identity, history and strength.”

Old becomes new

All Australians should know “some” Aboriginal words, says students at Buxton Primary School in Victoria.

Chikita, a Year 6 student, says she knows about 12 words so far. While “it’s really hard to remember the words because some are very long and sound similar”, Chikita thinks Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages should be taught in more schools.

“The best thing about studying an Indigenous language is we get to learn the culture of the traditional owners of the land,” says Year 6 student, Jack.

Ollie, a Year 5 student, says: “The most interesting thing I have learnt about Aboriginal culture is that for newer words they use the same sound as English words.”

Principal Andrew Bagnall says the school, 100 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, saw the opportunity to teach its students about Aboriginal language and culture through the skills of local Taungurung woman and linguist Aunty Lee Healy in 2018. The students had been learning Indonesian.

“We have a Land for Wildlife area and outdoor classrooms, and the children are experiencing Indigenous species, the seasons, bushfoods that are growing naturally and plants that can be used for diet, medicine, weaponry (spears) and basket weaving,” says Bagnall.

The school does not have any students who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. But Bagnall says they are learning that Taungurung is a revived language and constantly growing.

“They are creating new words based on what they have learned and, in this way, they are helping to keep the Taungurung language alive and respectfully finding new ways to modernise the language.

“Their respect for Indigenous culture has grown and they have developed a strong understanding of social justice, fairness and human rights, and the importance of protecting and preserving the culture of our First Peoples.”

A social bond

Ti Tree School in the centre of the Northern Territory began supporting two Indigenous languages teachers 15 years ago. April Campbell and Seraphina Presley-Haines teach students Anmatyerr and Warlpiri, the two local languages.

NT Department of Education Indigenous languages and culture consultant, Dr Margaret Carew, says the program includes students’ first languages and has had a positive effect on the school community.

“It has created a space for leadership for local teachers (qualified and assistant teachers) and they have become role models and represent an important liaison point between external partners and school staff,” Carew says.

“It also raises the profile of local perspectives that are relevant to mainstream learning areas such as the astronomical knowledge held by family groups, knowledge of creation stories and totemic associations, links to family groups and knowledge of seasonal change marked by the passage of heavenly bodies.

“By linking this area of Western science to local knowledge, the new learning was made more accessible to students.”

Of the school’s 86 students, 84 have Indigenous backgrounds.

A deeper connection

Eidsvold School in south-eastern Queensland has been running a Wakka Wakka language reclamation program for almost three years.

Acting Principal Preston Parter says all 89 students from P-12 participate in the health and wellbeing program, called Yumbin, which means “all of us” or “everyone”.

“There were no fluent speakers of Wakka Wakka in the region, but we wanted to teach the language of this land, so we hired a linguistics specialist and, as the program gained momentum, we employed some local Wakka Wakka people as teacher’s aides.

“We had to research the language using recordings and archives from the State Library and a linguistic survey by Nils M Holmer. We began to group words together, and consequently sentences started to form as we better understood how the language connects,” Parter says.

Half of the school’s students are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait backgrounds.

Students stand tall

Mossman State School in Far North Queensland began consulting with the local Indigenous Elders from the five nations of the Kuku Yalanji peoples more than three years ago.

Principal Randal Smith says the school has developed strong cultural connections that have improved attendance, behaviour, achievement and enrolments.

About 60 per cent of the school’s 240 students are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait backgrounds. Students from P-Year 4 have been learning Kuku Yalanji for 12 months. “The kids that speak the language fluently are the ones who now walk the tallest and stand the proudest in our playground,” Smith says.

Interactive map

First Languages Australia has developed an interactive map to promote the diversity of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Teachers’ notes have been developed to help teach about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages across key subjects, including English, maths, science, history, geography and civics. The notes are linked to the national curriculum and cover each year level from foundation to Year 10.


The song Heads, shoulders, knees and toes has been translated into local languages, and is a resource from First Languages Australia, available on the Marrin Game website.


Patyegarang is an Indigenous Australian languages education website that answers teachers’ frequently asked questions, with a particular focus on language revival. Patyegarang offers original material and links to other resources.