Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Linguist revives lost Aboriginal language

GAMO, Bama, Jambon - forgotten words from a lost language. But Japanese linguist Professor Tasaku Tsunoda hopes to change that.

Professor Tsunoda travelled to the Aboriginal community of Palm Island this week to re-establish a severed link with the past.

As surprising as it may seem, he's the last living speaker of the Worrongo language, a native tongue of Aboriginal clans living around Townsville and Palm Island.

While visiting Palm Island in the 1970s as a linguistics student, Professor Tsunoda met a local elder named Alf Palmer who, fearing that his language would die with him, passed on his knowledge of Worrongo to the young Japanese man.

From his recordings of Mr Palmer, Professor Tsunoda was able to create a 1500-word dictionary and 900-word grammar guide for Worrongo.

He returned to the island as part of a program established by the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) to teach traditional languages to Aboriginal children.

With Professor Tsunoda's help the foundation is producing reading and teaching material to help local children learn the language.

He has even provided translations of classic children's books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and recorded a Worrongo version of Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, to help Palm Island kids learn the language.

ALNF founder Mary-Ruth Mendel said Professor Tsunoda received a "magical" reception.

"The children were just drawn to him, boys walked up and hugged him and parents brought their kids up to receive a Worrongo name," she said.

"It is quite remarkable, he is the children's professor."

During his brief visits, Professor Tsunoda was able to teach children a few simple words including: Gamo (water), Bama (man) and Jambon (witchetty grub), and hopes his learning materials will lead to the revival of the Worrongo language.

"Language is a very important part of a people's identity and you could see how important it was when we were on Palm Island," he said.

While on the island he visited Mr Palmer's grave to tell his friend, in Worrongo, that he was bringing his language back.

"I said I am your friend, I have brought these people here to talk to you, we want to learn your language, we are making books for your language," he said.

He considered it "very special" to be able to visit Palm Island again and hopefully revive his friend's language.

Ms Mendel said helping indigenous children to become fluent in traditional languages not only boosted their self esteem and established a link to their heritage, but also helped them to learn English.

Children in Aboriginal communities typically fall well below the national average for literacy levels but Ms Mendel said the structural similarities between aboriginal languages and Latin made it easier for those fluent in a native tongue to learn English.

However, she said the foundation needed greater funding to establish similar projects in other parts of Australia.

Schwarten, Evan. 2011. "Linguist revives lost Aboriginal language ". The Australian. Posted: September 12, 2011. Available online:

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