How to revive a language

Can Australia’s “dreaming beauty” – our Indigenous languages – be reclaimed? Meet some people who say a joyful yes.

250 years ago, hundreds of languages were spoken across this continent; today, only about 3 percent survive.  

What happened in between is a familiar and harrowing story of dispossession – of land, lives, and culture – including a story of linguicide, or the deliberate killing of language.  

Is it possible to revive a language that has been long dormant – that has “gone to sleep on country”, as Charmaine Councillor, a Wardandi-Balladong woman heavily involved in the revival of the Noongar language of southwestern WA, puts it?  

In this bumper episode of Life & Faith, Charmaine and her Yamatji colleague Roslyn Khan describe what their language means to them, what the process of learning or relearning it has been like, and how they go about reviving Noongar – including by translating the Bible.  

“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’re taking 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, I’m getting to the part where I’m really enjoying it and start speaking it more.” 

We also hear from Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Professor of Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, an Israeli linguist who has been using the work of a 19th-century German missionary to help the Barngarla people of South Australia reclaim their language. 

“Aboriginal people who reconnect with their heritage tongue, they feel totally empowered … I would argue that language reclamation can improve the diabetes problem among Aboriginal people. We do need to change our understanding of Aboriginal culture; there are billions or if not trillions of dollars being wasted by the government on tangible things, and I think that there is a total overlook of the intangible. Language is intangible, you cannot touch it. But I think that this intangible element can have a huge benefit when it comes to tangible elements.”  



The Story of Ruth in Noongar 

Gospel of Luke in Noongar/English 

Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s book Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond