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Language reconstruction, revival and reclamation


Why do we need to revive, reconstruct and reclaim Aboriginal Languages?

Colonisation rapidly changed Australian Aboriginal Languages and Cultures. In less than 200 years, 150 Languages were lost, and today all Aboriginal Languages are endangered, with fewer speakers than ever and a decline in multilingualism.

In the last 15 years many Victorian Aboriginal communities have focused on reviving and reclaiming their Languages. Some have Community Language Programs in place. Schools can support the work that communities are doing by nurturing Language speakers and providing resources. Please note that cultural and intellectual copyright remains with the local Aboriginal communities when any material contributed by a member of the community is used in developing resources to support the delivery of the Project. Please note that cultural and intellectual copyright remains with the local Aboriginal communities when any material contributed by a member of the community is used in developing resources to support the delivery of the school Language program. Material contributed by Aboriginal community members for the purposes of the school Language program must not be used by schools, teachers or consultants involved in the school Language program for any other purpose, without express permission of the community.

Language revival is not an easy task. It requires dedication and commitment from all involved, including  Aboriginal Community members, Traditional Custodians, teachers, students and principals; acknowledgement that teachers and students are learning together; understanding that Culture, Land, people and Language are implicitly bound; and higher levels of active  community involvement than other languages.

Reviving and reclaiming an Aboriginal Language is a very rewarding task for those involved. It can:

  • Provide a link to their Culture and the worldview that their ancestors held.
  • Help people to form a stronger cultural identity, especially when a lot of their Culture and Language has been lost.
  • Promote reconciliation, when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people work together to support Traditional Custodians to regain their Languages.
  • Improve people’s knowledge of English due to the complexity of Aboriginal Languages. They have a more complex pronoun system, and different grammatical structures etc.
  • Improve self esteem and performance in educational pursuits.

Language Revival

There are three types of Language revival programs that are utilised for Aboriginal Languages that are no longer spoken as everyday languages within their communities. All have the same goal: to hear the Language spoken once again.

Language revitalisation takes place when Language is still spoken by older generations, but less so by younger community members. In this case, Language needs special support to ensure that younger people learn it fully.

Language renewal – occurs when there is still some Language in the community, but it is not used for everyday purposes.

Language reclamation – depends on historical written sources, and sometimes audio tapes, as the Language is no longer spoken. Some people might remember and use some words, but revival will require more than referring to Elders’ knowledge. People with special skills for Language revival and reclamation , like linguists, can help communities to reconstruct the Language from these sources, and to develop new words.

It is important that Communities have realistic goals for their Language programs. Languages with many historical sources might be able to develop enough words and grammar to be able to speak in sentences, but keep in mind that this would take many, many years to do. Languages that don’t have a lot of historical sources might only be able to reclaim words and phrases for use in ceremonies or on signs.

Language Awareness - Sometimes there is not enough information about a Language to support a Language revival program. However, what information there is about the Language can be incorporated into an area of study related to the material available, for example, information about plants and animals could be used in science.

Skills for revival and reclamation

Aboriginal community members, such as Elders, who have some knowledge of the Language and Culture, and perhaps some knowledge of the context in which Language and Culture were taught traditionally, are key assets in the revival and reclamation of a Language.

Languages Other Than English (LOTE) teachers also play an important part in the Language Team, as they can advise on appropriate teaching methodologies and resource development because they understand the complexities of learning a different language.

Classroom teachers are essential, as they know their students and how their school works. They can help both in the classroom and at important school meetings.

Linguists have skills vital to the process of reconstruction, revival and reclamation of Aboriginal Languages. These skills include:

  • how to reconstruct words and grammar from historical sources
  • knowledge of the relationships between Aboriginal Languages, in particular, between Victorian Aboriginal Languages
  • how to interpret the information in historical sources
  • knowledge of the shared linguistic features of Australian Aboriginal Languages, such as sounds and grammar.
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