Honouring Indigenous Languages

by on Jul, Fri, 2017 in Articles | 1 comment

2017 National NAIDOC Theme – Our Languages Matter

The importance, resilience and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the focus of national celebrations marking NAIDOC Week 2017.

Celebrating NAIDOC Week. Our Languages Matter. 2-9 July 2017. Honouring Indigenous Languages.

The 2017 theme – Our Languages Matter – aims to emphasise and celebrate the unique and essential role that Indigenous languages play in cultural identity, linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.

Some 250 distinct Indigenous language groups covered the continent at first (significant) European contact in the late eighteenth century. Most of these languages would have had several dialects, so that the total number of named varieties would have run to many hundreds (Retrieved from http://www.naidoc.org.au ).

Nahra Nahra*  

The Stronger Smarter Institute celebrates 2017 NAIDOC week’s focus on Indigenous Languages with a look at the diversity of Indigenous language programs in schools across the country.   The short snapshot provided below is a precursor to a longer study on Indigenous languages that we will publish later in the year.

In the text to follow, language weaves have been bolded and italicised to highlight the Indigenous languages individually and signify the deeper meanings within these words. The ‘read more’ section provides reference links to stories about the highlighted schooling communities.

Happy NAIDOCs!!!!


John Davis, Manager, Research & Impact

(*Gubbi Gubbi language from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the Institute’s Headquarters. **Barrungam is the language from the western plains of the great Bunya Bunya mountains.)


Honouring Indigenous Languages

Since the inception of the Stronger Smarter Philosophy and Approach, heralded in the heartland of Wakka Wakka country at Cherbourg, the Stronger Smarter Institute has held an unassailable belief and commitment to speaking our voice, hearing our voice, and sharing our voice.  Languages are culture and identity. Language is country.  For the oldest surviving culture, reviving and celebrating our languages is essential to maintaining a positive cultural identity. There is no more positive, no more unique and no deeper connection to this country than through our languages.

Language is inseparable from culture, kinship, land and family and is the foundation upon which the capacity to learn, interact and to shape identity is built. (Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs 2012).

Before 1788, approximately 250 Indigenous languages were spoken across Australia.  In 2005 the number of Indigenous languages spoken was 145, and by 2012 this had dropped to 120.   Since then, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who speak an Indigenous language has stagnated at around 16% (see Stronger Smarter Reading Reviews, https://strongersmarter.com.au/reading-reviews/).

The most obvious way to combat language stagnation is through schools, where the curriculum can be enriched through Indigenous languages.  The Stronger Smarter Approach recognises that it is essential to promote a positive sense of student identity for Indigenous students in schools to support student success.  Learning to speak, read and write the local Indigenous language is one of the best ways to support this positive student identity.

Many schools adopting a Stronger Smarter Approach already have strong Indigenous language programs, and below we celebrate a snapshot of the diverse programs across the country.


Yugambeh Country

Yugambeh museumFollowing the path of Cabool (Carpet Snake) of South East Queensland, the headquarters of the Institute, this language study weaves its way from the South East Murri country and travels around the coast of Australia. We start at an urban school on land bordering the Gugugin and Wangeriburra river systems (known now as the Logan and Albert Rivers).  This is Yugambeh country where the Wangeriburra Language is being revived through the Waterford West State School’s cultural studies and LOTE programs.   The school has worked closely with the local Aboriginal community represented by Yugambeh Museum (http://yugambeh.com)  and in particular through Community Durithunga, a local Indigenous-led yarning circle of practice, to give the school’s Aboriginal students an opportunity to learn their local language.


Paakantji country

Menindee central schoolTravelling further south, we head into Koori country, and into the language region of the Paakantji. Here we land at beautiful Menindee, in Western New South Wales bordering the South Australian border. Menindee Central School is run by home grown Principal and Paakantji teacher Fiona Kelly.  The students at Menindee are from a predominately Indigenous background (approximately 70%) and the majority have lived in Menindee their entire life.   However, very few students speak Paakantji as their first language.  So, as at Waterford West, teaching language in school can help revive the language.

Initially the school brought in Paakantji lessons as after school classes, working with local elders and families to create Paakantji learning materials.  Since then, the school has brought Paakantji language into the regular curriculum from Kindergarten to Year 8. In 2016, the school began offering Paakanjti language at Years 11 and 12 for the first time.   The first class has included two senior students together with two adults also taking the opportunity to learn their local language.  The school’s Indigenous students have also been involved in delivering Paakanjti lessons in the local pre-school as part of a structured leadership program (Source:  Menindee Central School Annual report 2016).


The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands)

Indulkana Anangu SchoolFrom Paakantji country we travel through desert country, past Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre), and to the central country of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands).  Here, at Indulkana Anangu School, the majority (99%) of the students are Aboriginal and are mostly bilingual or multilingual with their first language being Pitjantjatjara or Yankunytjatjara.

At Indulkana, where the school’s values are Kunpu wanganara nintiringkupai (Strong, smart and respectful learners), all classes including preschool have regular in lessons in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara.   Here, it is not so much about keeping the spoken language alive, but about teaching students to read and write in their language.

AEWs plan and deliver these lessons, supported by Ingrid Kenny the Hub Languages Coordinator.  The school has a strong focus on empowering their Anangu staff.  In 2016, all Anangu staff undertook training that provides staff with a Certificate IV in Language and Literacy learning.  This provided staff with practical strategies to use in the classroom to support learning in both English and First Language.

Two AEWs, Daisy Henry and Priscilla Singer, are now running Pitjantjatjara language classes for the pirinpa (non-Indigenous) teaching staff.


Yawuru Country

Cable Beach Primary SchoolHeading to the red soil sea country, the most westerly tip of this reflection, takes us to the lands of the Yawuru. We land at the serene environ of Broome, the home of the pearling industry in Australia.

Ten years ago, the Yawuru families in Broome had their native title recognised, but at that time the Yawuru language had dwindled to a handful of speakers.  Since that time, much work has been done in efforts to make Broome a bilingual town, where visitors don’t just see the beaches, but also see the Yawuru nation, Yawuru culture and Yawuru language greeting them.

Broome’s primary schools are an important part of these efforts.  At Cable Beach, a Yawuru LOTE program was set up about 20 years ago to ensure the language would not die out.   In 2016, this involved all students and staff from years K-6 participating in weekly Yawuru Language sessions.  The school also uses Yawuru greetings in assemblies and other areas.  An agreement reached in 2015 means that Yawuru language programs have now been rolled out across all Broome’s primary schools with over 1,000 young people now learning the Yawuru language (Parke, 2016).

Kunwinjku country

Gunbalanya Community School

From Broome we head north around the coast, across the East Alligator River and into Kunwinjku country.  Here Gunbalanya sits on the floodplain surrounded by Stone Country and the three hills of the Arnhem Land escarpment – Wurrkarbal – the fresh water Gar-Fish, Ngalmarniyi – the long next turtle, and Arrguluk – the Magpie goose. (Source: https://remotengagetoedu.com.au/communities/gunbalanya/ )

At Gunbalanya school, 100% of the students are Indigenous and most speak the local Kunwinjku language as their first language. In 2011, Gunbalanya set up the 3 domain approach to provide an integrated education that engages parents and community.  This approach identifies three interdependent areas, each equally important and resourced collectively – Class, Culture and Crew. The class domain is the English language domain of teaching through the Australian Curriculum. The Culture domain provides equal time and space for the local Kunwinjku culture to be part of learning in school each day and delivered through the local Indigenous Associate Teachers. The Crew domain allows for a high standard of rich, diverse and extensive extra curricula activities where all families and community members can engage in after school activities that are relevant and useful for community. The interconnection of the three domains produces the platform for this unique school model.

The local language and community knowledge of the Associate Teachers is integral to this model.  The Associate Teachers develop relevant curriculum, support students to learn how to code switch from their language to standard Australian English, and provide the cultural awareness program for new staff.

Kunwinjku Seasonal Calendar

Kunwinjku Seasonal Calendar

A deeply embedded approach to Indigenous Language of the area was a joint project with the CSIRO to document the Kunwinjku way of life and knowledge of the environment through their seasonal calendar. The development of the calendar came from a desire to record Indigenous ecological knowledge in a way that helped students learn ‘both ways’. For senior Kunbarlanja Traditional Owner, Julie Narndal, the seasonal calendar is a valuable cultural learning aid to help share Aboriginal knowledge with the next generation (Source: CSIRO website).


Our challenge to you

Most teachers across Australia are likely to interact with Indigenous students at some time, and understanding Indigenous cultures and how to establish strong relationship with Indigenous students is important for all teachers (Productivity Commission, 2016 p.87).  At the Stronger Smarter Institute, we challenge all educators to celebrate NAIDOC week by learning something about the local language of their area.

What can you or your school do to embrace and celebrate our diversity of Indigenous Languages? It might be as simple as highlighting of a few words … Jingeri for hello, gullabi for toilet or yinundee for goodbye. It can be engagement through developing responses to the ACARA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Framework. Many communities around Australia are embracing their local Indigenous languages.  However, the challenge remains within our education system of embedding and footprinting Languages as a core part of the teaching and learning of Indigenous culture across our country.

Languages are never lost they are just asleep. Let us all herald a new day and new ways in education where we speak up, and speak out our Indigenous Languages through education!

Yinundee Yinundee


Read more

Read more about Waterford West at

Read more about Menindee at

Read more about Daisy and Priscilla at Indulkana Anangu School at

Read more about Cable Beach at

Read more about Gunbalanya at


Productivity Commission. (2016). Indigenous Primary School Achievement, Commission Research Paper, Canberra.

Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. (2012).  Our Land Our Languages: Language learning in Indigenous Communities.  House of Representatives, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.


One Comment

  1. Leaving a special shout out to bandji Gary Crosby!

    His work at Waterford West is planned to be highlighted in fuller article, however his name was not woven in the short piece… There’s greater reference to him & his amazing colleagues highlighted here from around the country in the ‘Read More’ sections at the end…

    Gumera gumera bandji… Gumera gumera to all highlighted alumni schools & communities!!!

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