School helps students keep Indigenous language alive for Queensland community
The school says the program has brought the whole community together. (ABC News: Dom Vukovic)
A school has incorporated a local Indigenous language into its curriculum in a bid to “resurrect” it and ensure it is preserved in the community forever.
Mossman State School, north of Cairns in far north Queensland, is one of a handful of schools that will teach Indigenous language classes to all of its students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in accordance with the Australian Government’s official framework.
It is hoped all children in years one to six will be able to speak Kuku Yalanji fluently and prevent the language, which is native to Indigenous people in the region, being lost forever due state government policies in past decades that were designed eradicate it.
Kuku Yalanji teacher Tahlia O’Brien said she was amazed by the progress the students had made in the weeks the language had been taught.
“If you think back 50 years, 100 years, even beyond, language was forbidden in this country for a lot of our elders and my ancestors,” Ms O’Brien said.
“To be in a time where we can introduce it into a school environment where it’s welcomed from a community level, a school level , elders level, all round, it’s just so huge.
“To see such a change from walking through the front gates in school and being greeted in Yalanji and not in English — and then to hear them talking to each other in language words rather than in English, that’s amazing.”
It is hoped all children in years one to six will be able to speak Kuku Yalanji fluently. (ABC News: Dom Vukovic)
Classes mark new chapter
In a statement, the Queensland Department of Education said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the region were historically denied the right to speak their traditional language, and enforced removals to institutions and other settlements further reduced their use.
Local elder Ray Pierce said he had long been worried about the impact of that “dark part” of history and that it would see the Kuku Yalanji language eventually disappear, with an increasing number of people in communities no longer speaking it.
He said many elders were at first sceptical about participating in the school program when first approached about it 18 months ago because of negative experiences they had with institutions in past decades.
“They were threatened to be removed from homelands to somewhere else, to an area they weren’t familiar with [if they spoke the language],” Mr Pierce said.
“I think they, a lot of them, have lost the language.”
Mr Pierce said had been afraid previous policies banning the language would have see it forgotten. (ABC News: Dom Vukovic)
However elders said they also saw the inclusion of Kuku Yalanji in the school’s curriculum as a new chapter, which convinced them to get on board.
“When the principal and vice principal came up and told me of their intentions here, it gave me a great deal of relief in my heart and opened my spirit up,” Mr Pierce said.
“It will be a blessing for all of the community, and children will be able to learn our language and keep it alive for the rest of our lives.”
Language breaking down barriers in playground
School principal Randal Smith said the over past 18 months local elders and the Indigenous community had been instrumental in directing the course and the way it was taught, including oversight of the content and ensuring the manner of teaching was culturally appropriate.
He said the process had brought everyone much closer together.
“The community is embracing the notion that they’re having a voice in our school,” he said.
“The attendance is going through the roof, our behaviour issues are dropping away and our academics though our NAPLAN data, through our A to E data, we’re doing well, and we’re improving.”
An end-of-year concert to celebrate the inclusion of the language in the school curriculum was attended by several hundred parents, teachers, students and community members involved in achieving the milestone.
Children and parents all put hand prints on a giant flag to symbolise the communities coming together for the project, and Mr Smith said the turnout at the event was testament to the changing attitudes of many Indigenous parents who had had negative experiences in their own schooling days.
He said he had already seen the teaching of the language breaking down barriers in the playground.
“We had a big storm coming through the other day and our Indigenous kids are talking about the lightening and the thunder, and the non-Indigenous kids are picking up those words,” he said.
“Those kids that speak language walk the tallest and walk the proudest in the classroom … and if they can share that information with our non-Indigenous kids, they’re walking even taller.”
Language boosting ‘confidence in their culture’
Juan Walker, who comes from a large Kuku Yalanji family, said his children were also learning the language at the school.
“It gives them more self identity and confidence in their culture,” Mr Walker said.
“Being Kuku Yalanji, I grew up learning the language … but it went missing for a while.
“The media and the movies … a lot of kids weren’t speaking language or even hanging out with the old people to learn the language, and that’s where I think it was disintegrating and that connection breaking down.”
Parent Juan Walker says media and modern life have left young Indigenous people less interested in learning the language. (ABC News: Dom Vukovic)
Non-Indigenous parent Erica Mast said the classes provided non-Indigenous children, including her daughter, with a special opportunity.
“It’s an impressive idea that they can learn a second language at such a young age and a language that is going to be possibly obsolete if we don’t keep it alive,” Ms Mast said.
“I’m really proud that they’re taking part, that they’re learning.”
Non-Indigenous parent Erica Mast says learning Kuku Yalanji is a gift for her daughter. (ABC News: Dom Vukovic)