Strengthening Indigenous languages in Mildura

Banner image: Languages of the Mildura region featured on the Riverfront Precinct. Image supplied.

Jill Vaughan and Debbie Loakes

Linguistics researchers at the Faculty of Arts are helping to strengthen Indigenous language education and usage in the rural communities of the Mildura region.

2019 is the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages. Around the globe this year, communities are celebrating the rich cultural diversity that Indigenous languages represent through concerts, exhibitions, capacity-building workshops and many other kinds of events.

UNESCO explains that Indigenous languages are vital repositories of knowledge and cultural history, as well as nuanced vehicles for expressing contemporary identities.

And yet in spite of the immense value of Indigenous language to humanity’s cultural heritage, we are currently facing an unprecedented crisis of global language loss.

Unfortunately, Australian languages feature strongly in this picture. The National Indigenous Languages Surveys found that of the more than 250 languages originally spoken in Australia:

  • More than 100 no longer have any fluent speakers at all
  • 110 are critically endangered
  • Only 15-20 are still being learned as a first language by children and spoken by communities as the main form of communication.
At risk languages map

But language loss may not be the end of the story: in communities around the country many languages which have fallen out of daily use are now in various stages of revival, with community members working to increase their languages’ vitality.

At the Faculty of Arts’ Research Unit for Indigenous Language (RUIL), our team of researchers work with communities across Australia to strengthen Indigenous language research, to support community efforts to maintain linguistic and cultural heritage, and to train people to document their own languages.

The Mildura Languages Project

In the north-west corner of Victoria on the banks of the Murray River, the community of Mildura is home to many languages. Among these are two Indigenous languages of the region, Latji Latji and Barkindji.

Latji Latji is the original language of Mildura. Although there are now no remaining ‘full’ speakers, there are still some ‘rememberers’ – people who recall parts of the language, like a few words or a song. Latji Latji is currently being revitalised by descendants of the language’s speakers.

The Barkindji homelands are to the north, but many Barkindji people now live in Mildura itself. This language is still spoken on a daily basis by a small number of people, and Barkindji is even taught in some schools. The language is nevertheless endangered, with few teaching resources and access to older language sources limited.

With generous funding from the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Melbourne Humanities Foundation, RUIL researchers Debbie Loakes, Brighde Collins and Jill Vaughan worked closely with Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS) and Chaffey Secondary College on the Strengthening Language, Strengthening Community: Showcasing Mildura’s Aboriginal Languagesproject.

Jill Vaughan, Crystal Kirby (Latji Latji/Barkindji), Ada Peterson (Barkindji) and Debbie Loakes with the Mildura Languages Project posters. Image supplied.
Jill Vaughan, Crystal Kirby (Latji Latji/Barkindji), Ada Peterson (Barkindji) and Debbie Loakes with the Mildura Languages Project posters. Image supplied.

The project aimed both to create new resources which would strengthen Latji Latji and Barkindji language learning, and to bring cultural and linguistic materials currently housed at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra back to the community.

The RUIL team worked with community to produce a range of language resources, and even enlisted the help of a small group of school students to create artworks for the project. Images of Barkindji and Latji Latji words and photographs of language-related sites around Mildura were used to create postcards, while colourful student artworks decorated a series of language posters which have proven to be a huge hit with the community. Requests for copies have flooded in from individuals, schools, and other organisations in Mildura and beyond.

Students from Chaffey Secondary College working on artwork for the languages project. Image supplied.
Students from Chaffey Secondary College working on artwork for the languages project. Image supplied.

The repatriation of linguistic materials from AIATSIS involved copying a selection of important recordings and documents onto USBs and distributing them to the community. Many people on the recordings are known to community members, and so for many they represent a special resource with a personal as well as a cultural connection.

Thanks to funding from the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Melbourne Humanities Foundation, the project has been able to produce truly meaningful resources for the Mildura Indigenous community, and to showcase and celebrate the linguistic heritage of this region for a wider audience.