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Palawa children from the Cape Barren Island Primary School
palawa kani mapali [ Tasmania ]
At least eight and maybe as many as sixteen languages were spoken on the island now known as Tasmania.

RIGHT: Emerenna and Warena Burgess, Freda Spotswood and Jack Spotswood McDonald, and Joshua Summers - palawa children from the Cape Barren Island Primary School spell out katina (beach) on the sand.

Lynne Spotswood, teacher's aide at the school, uses language with the children every day, usually in natural settings outdoors. In twelve months they have progressed from saying single words to writing full sentences and stories, singing their own songs and counting, all in palawa kani.

Lynne Spotswood was a Tasmanian Aboriginal delegate to the World Indigenous People's Conference in Hawaii in July 1999. She tells of how proud and emotional she was to hear palawa kani spoken there in a presentation given by another palawa delegate.

Some language was still being used in the early years of this century among family groups on the smaller offshore islands in Bass Strait, and in another family on mainland Tasmania.

THE assimilation policies after WW2 that forced many families to move off these smaller islands onto mainland also contributed to the decline of the use of remaining language. But some is still remembered by elders in our community today, and a handful of words have stayed in use 'right through'.

So it was fitting that when our community took its annual 'Back to the Islands' boat trip in January 1999 that the first words to be revived by the palawa kani Languages Program came back into use on those islands.

palawa kani, meaning Tassie blackfellas talk, is the name of our language, and the name of the Languages Program run by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

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Extract from Counting in palawa kani produced by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc.
Language workers Theresa Sainty and Jenny Longey painstakingly retrieved over 100 words for things to do with the sea and islands — shells, fish, marine animals and plants — all important resources for our community then and now. A story book and tape with the words was distributed. Many of those words were still used in 1910.

`That's not that long ago', says Theresa:One part of our work is to show people the connections between their families and the language. For every word we retrieve we make a word history. This document shows when and where the word was used, and who by, and all the linguistic work we've done on it. Community people can browse through these in the TAC's three regional offices, or take copies home to study at leisure' Jenny and Theresa also retrieved numbers from I to 10 (what a job!) and built a numbers system that can count to a million, using grammatical features from the original languages.Then they produced a counting book.

Throughout 1999 palawa kani workers have been trialling simple, natural, enjoyable and effective ways for people to learn and use language.

We know it's important to find projects people want to be involved in. Language learning activities for adults and children have been blended into community events and school holiday programs, and language groups have started up across the state.

We introduce spoken language embedded in familiar activities using physical objects and movements. Books, tapes, wall charts and picture cards are provided as follow up resources for school, workshops and homes. Two full time and two part time Aboriginal workers have been involved in the work.

Our main but not only focus is on children, involving their parents and other family members as much as possible. Theresa says, `Language is for everyone, but our best strategy for its continued future use is for our children to grow up comfortable and familiar with it'

The small primary school on Cape Barren Island, with six pupils, has built palawa kani into the school's daily life all this year, and is now seeing it spread from there into families. Lynne Spotswood, Aboriginal teachers aide at the school now also visits lungtalanana, a nearby island, to bring palawa kani to the youth and family involved in an Alternative to Prison scheme run there by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre on Aboriginal land.

Staff at the Aboriginal Children Centre in Hobart on mainland Tasmania also use palawa kani daily with 40 children, from infants to age 11. They believe it's vital that children don't see language acquisition as another 'lesson' or `school experience.' For Alison Overeem, Dianne Cook and the other dedicated staff, `Language is not just as a skill to be learned but an essential part of hands-on everyday life. So parents' commitment is necessary, to bring our languages back to life.

palawa kani workers agree that while schools and both formal and informal language sessions are essential in the process, the key to language revival is its daily use in the family and social life of our community.

ATSIC Commissioner for Tasmania, Leonie Dickson, told us that giving the welcoming address with words of language to national and international delegates at the National Indigenous Sea Rights Conference held in Hobart in September was a very moving experience for her.

Our most challenging work is yet to come. Says Theresa Sainty, `Our message to our community is that it's great to be proud and keen, but that's not enough. To bring the language back to life from where we are now, it's not a matter of how much language we've got to use, but how much we use what we've got. In practice this means that wherever we have a palawa kani word for something, we make a conscious effort to use it instead of an English word. This is one simple way to reduce the dominance of English. At least it seems simple ....'

 So we're looking forward to palawa kani mapali (plenty) in payaku (2000)!