As the first students graduate from a groundbreaking Yawuru language course in Broome, there are high hopes the program will become a model for teaching Indigenous languages around the country. By Leah McLennan.

Yawuru Indigenous language course

From left: Isobel Varney (obscured), Janet Cox, Natalie Dean (with guitar), Arnold Smith and Anita Dean, at the Walalangga Yawuru  Ngan-ga graduation ceremony.
From left: Isobel Varney (obscured), Janet Cox, Natalie Dean (with guitar), Arnold Smith and Anita Dean, at the Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga graduation ceremony.
Credit: Leah McLennan

In the front-row seats on stage at the University of Notre Dame in Broome last Friday, graduating student Anita Dean’s tears run down her face, dropping onto her turquoise satin sash. The sash reads “Class of 2018”.

“I’ve learnt my mother’s and grandmother’s language – now I can teach Yawuru to my six children,” Dean says.

Stage right, Stephen Pigram – the king of Kimberley song – plucks the audience’s heartstrings with his lyrics: “Country’s in my veins / with blood I write my name / I’ll sing a song to say what I can see.”

Tissues are rushed to the stage. Dean wipes her eyes and shares the tissue box with her classmates, one of whom is her sister Natalie Dean.

From an initial pool of 12, nine students have completed the two-year pilot program, called Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga (“You are learning Yawuru language”). Described as critically endangered, Yawuru was once the common language of people living around Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.

To graduate, the students had to speak in Yawuru for one hour and demonstrate proficiency in the language across 50 different domains of daily activity. They attended classes from Monday to Friday for three hours each day for 40 weeks of the year. “Two years ago the class started with just one minute of scripted language conversation and now they can actively take part in an hour-long conversation in Yawuru only,” says Lola Jones, the senior consultant of Aboriginal languages with the Western Australian Department of Education. The goal is to have 20 adult graduates by 2021 and to expand the teaching of Yawuru to all Broome schools, says Jones.

Isobel Varney, the youngest of the graduates, may be instrumental in realising that goal. The 20-year-old former Broome Senior High School student is now studying to become a Yawuru language teacher through the Aboriginal Languages Teacher Training course. “I really want to share my language,” says Varney. “I’m really proud that I can speak, write and understand my language.”

Anne-Janette Phillips, the second-youngest graduate, has different plans for her newly acquired language skills. The 23-year-old dancer, who has undertaken training at National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association Dance College, wants to incorporate the Yawuru language into her hip-hop and contemporary workshops and performances. She also aims to “grasp the roots of my Bardi and Nyikina ancestors’ languages and weave these into my dance work”.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum is 75-year-old graduate Janet Cox. With more than five decades between the youngest and oldest students, it would be understandable if qualified Yawuru language teachers, Coco Yu and Hiroko Shioji, had braced themselves for a challenging two years in the classroom. But the diversity of ages seems to have been an unexpected benefit to the group.

“The young ones were so good with all the technology and could help the older ones,” says Yu, who taught Yawuru at St Mary’s Primary School in Broome for many years. “The older students could help the young when they were out on country, pointing out the different plants, trees and animals,” she says.

Employing the concept of “personal domains”, the program encouraged students to earmark activities and designate physical spaces as Yawuru-only zones, for example making the car, the kitchen, or the beach a place to solely use their language. Elsewhere, activities such as fishing, visiting grandparents, being on country, or talking about the seasons were set apart as times to speak Yawuru.

During the development of the course, Jones travelled to Canada to research First Nation language programs. She found that rebuilding the adult speaker base is the key to revitalising endangered languages. “Teaching languages in schools is important but alone it cannot revitalise an endangered language,” she says. “If you rebuild the number of adult speakers you can really establish language as a family activity. You have to reclaim the everyday use of your language. It connects you back to country, to your heart, to family, to what you do in your environment, whether it’s fishing or cooking a cake.”

Yawuru elder, the late Doris Edgar, knew this. Even before the research papers on the topic were written, Edgar was aware that teaching children in school was not enough to guarantee the survival of a critically endangered language. Until the day she died in her mid-90s, she pressed upon her family and her people that Yawuru language capacity building was a matter of urgency. “Today’s graduation is the culmination of many years of work inspired by Mrs Edgar,” says Jones from behind the wooden lectern. “She was a language legend.”

Despite adverse policies, Edgar did whatever she could to pass on her language and culture. The mother-of-nine taught Yawuru language to students at Broome primary schools every week for more than two decades with the aim of maintaining and preserving the clan’s history. By the time she gave evidence at the Yawuru native title hearings between 1994 and 2006, Edgar was one of only a few remaining fluent Yawuru speakers.

Today, her vision is coming to fruition after years of toil by qualified Yawuru teachers, linguists and staff at Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY), a non-profit company owned by the Yawuru native title holders.

“Today is a milestone achievement that once upon a time seemed impossible,” says Dianne Appleby, Edgar’s daughter and cultural coordinator at NBY. “I’m grateful for my mother. You are all witnesses to me saying, thanks Mum,” Appleby tells the 100-strong audience gathered at the cavernous hall on the humid November afternoon. The tissue box is passed around again.

Appleby was the first Yawuru language graduate from the Aboriginal Languages Teacher Training course and has spent her adult life continuing her mother’s work. “In the 1990s, my old mother told me it was great I was teaching the kids but that it wasn’t enough. She realised that the kids were going home and forgetting – they were only getting half-hour lessons, sometimes 20 minutes. ‘The language is going to die,’ she would say. ‘We are getting old, illnesses are coming. Do something now.’ ”

At that point, Appleby began to form the first Yawuru language team, comprising elders Elsie and Susan Edgar and the late Thelma Sadler. It was supported by two linguists from the Kimberley Language Resource Centre. The group’s first projects included recording Yawuru language stories told by Edgar and producing the first Yawuru language phrase book in 1998. “If you don’t have the language, you don’t have the skin groups, you don’t know your country, you don’t know what Dreamtime story is, you don’t know what your dancing is,” says Appleby.

It took another decade, and the process of the native title hearings culminating in the 2006 determination, for the voice of Yawuru elders to be heard. “They asked the old people, ‘What do you want?’ ” Appleby says. “They answered, ‘We want our culture and language.’ ” A few years later a language centre was established by NBY and after lengthy research Yawuru language teachers and linguists developed a unique training program. When the program received an Indigenous Languages and Arts grant from the Department of Communications, the two-year language program for Yawuru adults could begin in October 2016.

Labor senator Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru man, has just stepped off a plane from Timor-Leste. He takes to the lectern with a boarding pass covered in notes. “Being here today is a real privilege, to see one of the outcomes from the determination of Yawuru people – to undertake language learning.” Language can be utilised to “build the Yawuru people, build our strengths, build our values and our sensitivities of how we negotiate the many challenges we still face in our communities”, he says.

More than 90 per cent of Australia’s Indigenous languages are critically endangered. Myriad factors since colonisation – genocide, forced population removal, the Stolen Generations, government policies actively discouraging and repressing the use of Indigenous language – have all contributed to the precarious state of the languages today.

And despite the nine “new” adult speakers who will take Yawuru into their homes and into Broome’s primary schools – and perhaps in future its high schools – the language still remains critically endangered, says Lola Jones. “It will remain in danger while kids are not learning it as their first language at home.”

“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” says Coco Yu. A further dozen students are expected to graduate from the Walalangga Yawuru Ngan-ga program by 2021. And NBY staff are also committed to sharing their teaching practices with other Kimberley traditional owner groups who are seeking to revitalise their own language.

“I’m so very proud to speak Yawuru,” says Anita Dean before she steps off the stage to take part in cutting the huge graduation cake. “My children range in age from seven to 26. I’ll teach them. It will be my duty to pass it on to them. This has been a long time coming. Gala mabu (thank you).”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Strong language".

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Leah McLennan is a freelance writer based in Broome.

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