Starting from scratch: Aboriginal group reclaims lost language

With the help of a linguistics professor, Barngarla, which has not been spoken for 60 years, is being pieced together.

Aboriginals are learning Barngarla with the help of professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann, left [John Power/Al Jazeera]
Aboriginals are learning Barngarla with the help of professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann, left [John Power/Al Jazeera]

Melbourne, Australia – Harry Dare remembers how, as a young man travelling around regional Australia in search of his roots, he would feel shame whenever he met an Aboriginal person who could speak in his or her native tongue. 

Taken from his family and placed into an orphanage as an infant, Dare never had a chance to know the language of his own people, the Barngarla of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

“When I was in the boys’ home, there were no other Aboriginal people around me, so I didn’t have any clue about what I had to do to be Aboriginal,” says Dare, who counts himself among the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginals taken into care under assimilation policies that continued until 1970.

“I was just doing what every other white kid did in the home.”

Today, the 64-year-old social worker is making up for lost time. As a member of the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee (BLAC), he’s helping to reclaim the language of his forefathers – not just for himself but his community.


“You ask any Barngarla person, and they’ll tell you that they feel a sense of identity now, knowing that they have a language to go along with our tribal boundaries,” he says.

“Spiritually, it’s going to give us another connection to our country.”

More than 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken in Australia before British settlement in the 18th century, of which all but 13 are today considered “highly endangered.”

Like an estimated 93 percent of the languages that once thrived on the continent, Barngarla is officially regarded as extinct or, as native Australians prefer to describe it, “sleeping”. Its last known fluent speaker, Moonie Davies, died in the 1960s. 

BLAC began in 2012.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, professor of linguistics and endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, approached members of the Barngarla community with a proposal to help them reclaim their dormant tongue.

“They told me, and I quote, ‘We have been waiting for you from 1960, for 50 years,'” says Zuckermann, an expert of language revival. “So when they said that, I decided to start.”

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, in the red shirt, is helping the community revive the Barngarla language [John Power/Al Jazeera]

Since then, Zuckermann, who sees Australia as the global capital for linguicide“, has worked with BLAC to hold periodic language workshops across South Australia. 

With no teaching material to hand, he turned to one of the few known written sources – a 2,500-word Barngarla dictionarycompiled by a Lutheran missionary, Clamor Wilhelm Schurmann, in 1844.

You ask any Barngarla person, and they'll tell you that they feel a sense of identity now, knowing that they have a language to go along with our tribal boundaries.

Harry Dare, Australian Aboriginal student of Barngarla

With the dictionary as a guide, Zuckermann started crafting simple lessons using children’s songs, such as “Head, shoulders knees and toes”, and everyday words used to describe family members and the landscape.

The experience has been affirming and eye-opening for participants, who have numbered in the hundreds, from the very young to the elderly.


“Now we can start to reclaim not only our language, but our landscape by renaming and naming things in our language in our own country,” says BLAC chairman Stephen Atkinson, whose mother spoke Barngarla as a child before being sent to a Christian mission. “I can’t say how important and how proud that makes us feel as Barngarla people.”

To his amazement, Dare realised that there were words he had picked up throughout his life without knowing they were Barngarla and not another Aboriginal language.

“I believe it did come through our family and we didn’t even realise that we were speaking our own language, because we grew with so many different other Aboriginal groups,” says Dare, who reconnected with his biological family as an adolescent.

Mental health benefits

Beyond providing a sense of identity, Zuckermann believes that language revival may have tangible benefits for the mental health of Aboriginals, who are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as non-indigenous people.

In 2016, Zuckermann and medical researcher Alex Brown won a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council to investigate the possible link between language reclamation and emotional well-being.

I think that if a person feels acknowledged, connected, then he feels happier, and if he feels happier, it's better for the society at large.

Ghil'ad Zuckermann, professor of linguistics

In Canada, research has suggested a link between youth suicide and language loss in Indigenous communities. 

“Most people believe that they should just learn English and if they speak it well, all their problems will disappear,” says the linguist, of attitudes towards Indigenous Australians. “This is a very common thought in Australia.”

Although the five-year study has only passed the one-year mark, Zuckermann is confident that he and his partner will find evidence of improved well-being among those who reconnect with their language.

“Personally, I think that if a person feels acknowledged, connected, then he feels happier, and if he feels happier, it’s better for the society at large,” he says.

Despite his efforts, Dare admits that it’s a struggle to memorise anything more than words and phrases at his age. His greatest hope, however, is for his children, grandchildren and the generations that follow.

“There are young people in the group who are now giving a welcome to country and are speaking sentences of our language,” he says, referring to a ceremony in which traditional owners welcome visitors to their land. “And it is so beautiful to hear the young people speaking our language.

“I believe if you are Aboriginal and you haven’t got a language, you’re really not Aboriginal. I know that sounds harsh, but I grew up with nothing and now that I have this Barngarla language I’m very passionate about, not getting myself to speak it, but getting our young people to be able to utilise our language in their everyday life.”

The students hope younger generations will be able to speak the language fluently [John Power/Al Jazeera]
Source : Al Jazeera

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