Preserving our Aboriginal story: Why language has the power to restore and reconcile

Image credit: Michael Coghlan

Preserving our Aboriginal story: Why language has the power to restore and reconcile

January 26 is a day observed with mixed emotions by many Australians.

For many, the Australia Day public holiday has been a chance to gather with friends, listen to music, share some food and sunshine and give thanks for a land that “abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty, rich and rare”.

But for those of us who are Aboriginal – or who have Aboriginal people in our lives who we know and love – January 26 is also a day of mourning; for the languages, cultures and lives that have been lost as a direct result of European occupation.

In Australia, of the estimated original 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, only around 120 are still spoken. Of these, approximately 90% are endangered.

Uncle Ray McMinn stands facing the camera. He is smiling and proudly shows his RSL membership badge.

Uncle Ray McMinn

The loss of so many Indigenous languages around the world has prompted The United Nations General Assembly to declare 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) to raise awareness of the crucial role languages play in people’s daily lives.

At Uniting, we recognise that January 26 marks the survival of Australia’s first people, and each year we mark the day with respect and honour – a chance to express our pride in the 273 Aboriginal leaders who make a significant contribution to the richness of Uniting.

We spoke to Uniting Advocate for Aboriginal people, Uncle Ray McMinn, who believes language has the power to restore and reconcile, and that all Australians need to take pride in their heritage.

How many Aboriginal languages are there and how many have we lost?

Uncle Ray: There are around 270 Aboriginal languages in use today – less than half of the more than 600 that once existed.

Are they still in decline and if not, what changed?

Thankfully, the decline has levelled off with Australia’s recognition that we need to restore and retain what we have left. Now there are government grants available to fund research and documentation of Aboriginal languages.

These initiatives can help reach out to the elders, learn from them and document all they have to say so it can be passed on. This is especially important given that Indigenous languages were traditionally passed down from generation to generation in spoken-form only.

Are there additional benefits to learning traditional languages, apart from cultural appreciation and preservation?

Research has shown that young Aboriginal people who are learning their traditional language alongside English are achieving better results in their other studies than those who are not.

People desire to know where they came from and understand their background. It gives them a sense of belonging and heritage. It can help with their confidence and mental wellbeing.

All Australians need to take pride in their heritage. When you visit another country, language is often the first thing you learn about it. There are so many opportunities to do a similar thing here in Australia. Some states have dictionaries which translate from traditional languages into English. It would be fantastic if NSW did the same.

What is Uniting doing to help preserve traditional languages?

At Uniting, we work closely with local Aboriginal communities and we are inclusive of local knowledge and language wherever possible. We actively use the local languages to name things and we embrace their resurgence.

Celebrating Aboriginal languages

Uniting is also taking steps to preserve, restore and celebrate Aboriginal languages and culture in our early learning programs. Watch Uniting Preschool Grafton share their love for Bundjalung language in the video below.

We invite you to join us in celebrating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members, residents and clients that make up the Uniting family and to take steps to recognise our past and embrace our future together as Australians.

Get in touch

Uniting is deeply committed to working collaboratively and walking respectfully alongside Aboriginal communities as they seek a voice, justice, and prosperity. For more information, get in touch 1800 864 846 or email us.

Aboriginal flag image credit: Michael Coghlan

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