When Charmaine Bennell (now Councillor) was about eight years old, her teacher showed her a picture of a goanna. ‘Oh, that’s a karda,’ said Charmaine.
Her teacher corrected her. ‘No, it’s a goanna.’
‘I didn’t know that I was speaking Noongar at that time,’ Charmaine reflects today. ‘See, we just grew up speaking these words and we thought we were speaking some strange slang, or incorrect English.’
Young Charmaine assumed she was wrong and the teacher was right. ‘That prevented me from speaking that word again for a while … I went home telling my parents that that’s a goanna, and they said, no, it’s a karda.’
She doesn’t blame the teacher, who also didn’t understand, but feels a regret that she wasn’t encouraged to express that word in the classroom. ‘You always felt that little bit of embarrassment about who you are,’ she says of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. ‘We couldn’t identify who we were in that situation.’
Noongar was once spoken across the southwestern corner of the continent, and is now considered one of Australia’s many endangered languages. Since the 1980s, a revival of the language has been underway, thanks to the efforts of elders and of people like Charmaine, who is a language teacher, musician, translator, and the CEO of Wardandi Miya-k Kaadadjiny Aboriginal Corporation (WMKAC), which exists to promote the Noongar language.
Australian Indigenous languages comprise 2 per cent of the world’s languages, but 9 per cent of its critically endangered languages.
Even the most widely spoken traditional Indigenous languages are very small in absolute numbers: Djambarrpuynu, a Yolnu language spoken in Arnhem Land, has fewer than 4000 speakers, as does Pitjantjatjara, a Western Desert language. But many Indigenous people are actively relearning their ancestral languages, and seeking to pass them on to the next generation.
In the 2016 census, around 450 people identified themselves as Noongar speakers. By 2021, that number jumped to more than 1400.
It’s a race against time. Australian Indigenous languages comprise 2 per cent of the world’s languages, but 9 per cent of its critically endangered languages.
Someone seeking to turn back the tide of language loss in Australia is Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Endangered Languages Professor at the University of Adelaide – ‘so endangered that I’m the only such professor in Australia’, he jokes.
An Israeli linguist, when Zuckermann arrived in Australia in 2004, he cast about for a way to contribute to his new home.
‘I characterised two main problems in Australia,’ he says. ‘The first one was heartless bureaucracy. The other problem was the Aboriginal plight.’
He couldn’t see that he could do anything about the first issue. As for the second, had he been a dentist, he says, or a psychologist, he would have put those skills at the service of Indigenous communities.
But as a linguist – and an expert on the revival of the Hebrew language a century earlier – he was ideally placed to do something towards reclaiming some part of the 97 per cent of Indigenous languages that have been lost or deliberately suppressed across 250 years of colonisation.
Zuckermann found a Barngarla dictionary and grammar written by a 19th-century German missionary called Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann. Barngarla was formerly spoken in the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, and Schürmann recorded 3500 words of the language. (With only 3000 English words, you can understand 90 per cent of everyday English.)
In 2011, Zuckermann invited five Barngarla people to his office to ask if he could be of service to them. ‘We have been waiting for you for 50 years,’ they told him.
Zuckermann outlines three significant reasons for pursuing language reclamation.
The first is a question of justice: these languages were killed, and it is the right thing to do to revive them. (‘This is why I do it,’ he explains.)
The second is a question of beauty: linguistic diversity, like ecological diversity, is a good thing in itself. ‘I contribute money to keeping the Tasmanian devil alive. But how many people care about the Tasmanian languages?’
The third reason is utilitarian. Language loss leads to poor health outcomes, mental and physical. Zuckermann argues that the empowerment that comes with language revival has positive ripple effects for issues as apparently disparate as depression, obesity, diabetes, and incarceration rates.
‘I would argue that language reclamation is not part of the arts or the humanities, but rather part of health,’ he says. ‘The moment I can convince governments that it’s part of health, that is a game changer.’
Charmaine Councillor backs this up. ‘It’s just everything to us,’ she says of Noongar. ‘It’s like our air that we breathe, it’s our identity. It gives healing back to our people.’
Reclamation looks like many different things. Charmaine runs language workshops and has been learning the language herself for many years now.
One focus is language immersion for Noongar kids. In contrast to Charmaine’s own experience as a child, local schools like Djidi Djidi Aboriginal School in Bunbury seek to recognise and value the learning Aboriginal children bring into the classroom from their homes and communities.
‘We try to use as much natural speech in the community as possible,’ says Charmaine. Sometimes that involves using a hybrid Aboriginal English, where Noongar words are mixed into English sentences, or the meaning of English words is modified. Charmaine gives ‘deadly’ as an example – meaning excellent or awesome, rather than lethal.
Charmaine also works on translating the Bible into Noongar. ‘Our Noongar people are spiritual people,’ she says. ‘We are faith people. We’ve always been that.’
‘God comes in all different languages and all different sizes,’ she says. ‘I believe Jesus is an Indigenous man. He used an Indigenous language and he used parables, and he understood how we were connected to country.
‘I met this old man from another language group and I said, Oh Uncle, how you found God? He said, what do you mean, found God? He’s always been here. He’s always been here on country.’
These days, Charmaine is working on praying in language. ‘Language should be everywhere,’ she says.
‘It’s like when you’re riding a bike for the first time, and you’ve got your training wheels on – then all of a sudden, you’ve taken off down the road and then you forget about how you’re riding the bike, you’re just riding it and enjoying it. That’s where I am at the moment.’
Natasha Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. These interviews appear in the Life & Faith podcast episode ‘How to Revive a Language’.
This article first appeared in Eureka Street.