Revival Languages Dr Christina Eira PDF Print E-mail

The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) is engaged in an exciting project called 'Meeting Point' which will raise knowledge and understanding of 'revival' languages as they are in the present day. Below, VACL Linguist Dr Christina Eira explains some of the achievements and the challenges of the project. For more information about this project visit

Revival languages are different from other types of Aboriginal languages. People learn them differently, there are 'bits missing' that people have to decide what to do about, and writing the language is much more important, which in turn can affect how people pronounce it. In fact, revival languages are different from any other type of language. They are unique, because people research their language first, then learn it, and then develop new ways to speak and structure it - all at the same time! What this means is that we have to think about and work with these languages in new ways.

The 'Meeting Point' project will give communities and academics some better tools for this challenge, and a better understanding of the different patterns that language revival can take.

The research part of this project is also moving into new territory. We are using a model that puts Aboriginal people's ways of thinking about their language first.

To work out how to study the languages from a community development perspective, Vicki Couzens and I did interviews with many Aboriginal people from 4 states and asked them about their experiences with reviving their languages. Listening to all of these interviews and reading as much as possible about other experiences across the world, we have developed a new model to work with revival languages. The model combines Aboriginal ways of knowing with standard linguistic approaches. We use these joined ideas, as illustrated in our 'tree diagram' to show how they can be used together to give us the best of both worlds.

The interviews we did highlighted a number of themes that came up again and again as people talked about their language. It is these themes that we have transformed into questions for studying the languages.

For example, one recurring theme was 'doing it properly'. 'Properly' means different things for different people, but it can include correct pronunciation, appropriate cultural authority, traditional word orders and word endings, the correct origin of words, and alternative meanings for words. How you define 'properly' also depends on whom you look to as the authority on the language. Is it a particular Elder? Is it a trusted linguist? Is it someone the community trusts? Is it an authorised language reference group? Revival languages will develop differently depending on how the community defines 'doing it properly'.

Now, with our new partner Tonya Stebbins of La Trobe University, we are embarking on the next stage – the study of the languages themselves. The plan is to engage six communities who are following different pathways of language revival. The project will employ a researcher and cultural protocols officer from each community who will collect records of language use, past and present, in each community. These language records stay in the communities as an historical record, and with the correct permissions and cultural approvals, the community workers facilitate the use of these records as part of our project.

The important thing is to look at how language is actually used by people today. This can come in many forms, including notices about meetings, songs, posters, signboards, names of organizations, names of buildings or events, materials for teaching, language used in art, emails or text messages, cards, stickers, letterheads,welcome to country, greetings and talking to children at home.

We hope to study written and spoken language, formal and informal, and language mixed into English. As part of the project we will address many questions that we were asked in the interviews; such as, how does the language relate to cultural reclamation? How are people dealing with the need for new words? What effect does writing and technology have on the language? In what ways are the sounds, words and grammar the same as historical records, and in what ways are they different? What stages does language revival go through? What difference does it make if there is a linguist involved?

The first community to take part in the project was the Wiradjuri group at Parkes. Vicki and I visited Parkes in October, 2010, and were taken on a whirlwind tour of schools, community meetings, choir performances, formal welcomes to country and more.

In the Parkes schools, everyone learns the Wiradjuri language, no matter what their heritage is. In some classes, Wiradjuri cultural concepts are also integrated into the curriculum, so that Aboriginal ways of thinking

about history, art, social development and the world, are part and parcel of everything the students study. The Wiradjuri students take on responsibilities such as welcoming teachers and other students to their country in language, in a formal weekly ceremony.

Wiradjuri people involved in these programs, as well as the teachers and the principal, tell us there has been a significant drop in racism in the school since the Wiradjuri have been recognised in this way. This case study highlights the benefits of language reclamation in the Aboriginal and wider communities, and the way pathways for the development of respect can lead to a better understanding of the importance of culture to Aboriginal people.

During the interview phase of this project it became clear that each community and each language needs to do things their own way, according to the wishes of their Elders. Some of the comments by Elders that we interviewed included:

 Proper language revival process needs that cultural knowledge, the cultural context and the underpinning knowledge, to make it make sense. There's no point in talking about that tree unless you really understand what that tree means. Doris Paton 

Language is culture is language, language is land, land is language, family, language, family, if you can understand what I am saying, it's that spiritual stuff can't live without the I keep saying, it's part of one another. David Tournier

By the end of the project, we plan to have resources targeted to both communities and linguists. For linguists, a broad-based 'typology' of revival languages, and for communities, a 'tool kit' of possibilities, pathways, issues, and useful ideas for the journey, that will give people clearer views of the challenges as they move more powerfully along their chosen path.




Meeting Point
Meeting Point
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