Looking back to go forward

Spotlight on, October 2015

Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL)

Fitzroy, Victoria: the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) is located in the heart of Fitzroy, 2km north-east of the central business district of Melbourne. This highly successful corporation has devoted itself to addressing the loss of Aboriginal languages throughout Victoria. They are addressing the question of language when it starts to matter—at an early age.

Education and language are the glue needed to maintain, revive and reclaim culture.

A sense of history and how it informs the present is an important element when working with the live form of language.

At the time of colonisation, there were approximately 250 Indigenous languages with about 500 varieties spoken across Australia. It was possible for people to identify what region a person came from by the way they spoke.

The boundaries between one language area and another are not distinct. Rather, mixtures of vocabulary and grammatical construction exist, and so linguistic maps may show some variation about where one language ends and another begins.

VACL map

Language map used by VACL

Reproduced courtesy of VACL

But now, many Indigenous languages in Australia are fast disappearing. More than three-quarters of the original languages have already been lost and the rest remain under threat.

It is therefore heartening that there has been an increased awareness and interest in recent years in the Aboriginal languages of the south-eastern corner of Australia, and VACL is leading the way in Victoria.

Language contributes to the wellbeing of Aboriginal communities, strengthens ties between elders and young people and improves the general education of Indigenous people of all ages.

Knowing a word in language helps to maintain a link that has lasted thousands of years and keeping words alive that have been used by ancestors.

Language is an ancestral right and a part of culture—it is a means of empowering people.

Education and language going hand-in-hand

Education and language cannot be separated. That is the basis that drives VACL.

Well aware of the importance of language to express identity and pride, VACL is supporting communities throughout Victoria to revive their languages through language camps, workshops, music, dictionaries, school programs and educational material for children.

The key aim of VACL is to provide and maintain a central resource for Victorian Aboriginal Languages for the benefit of Victorian Aboriginal communities and people of Victorian Aboriginal descent. VACL does this by researching and retrieving language materials from Victorian and interstate archives, so the material can be made available to local communities and by providing advice, training and assistance to local Aboriginal community programs.

VACL board and community members

The VACL board and community members, L to R: Christina Eira, Lee Healy, Paul Paton, Aunty Doris Paton, Vicki Couzens, Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir, Bruce Pascoe, Aunty Rachel Mullett, Tom Kinchela, Uncle Herb Patten, Uncle David Tournier, Uncle Sandy Atkinson, Myranda Tournier (Photo: VACL)

Starting young

One VACL project, undertaken in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI), traditional owner groups and three schools, is currently teaching Aboriginal languages as part of a Victorian schools pilot. The pilot uses innovative digital audio-visual resources to support language activities at these schools.

Swan Hill Primary School became the most recent school to take part in the pilot trial to introduce Aboriginal languages in Victorian schools

On 7 May 2014, Swan Hill Primary School became the most recent school to take part in the pilot trial to introduce Aboriginal languages in Victorian schools (Photo: VACL)

Gunditjmara languages program at Heywood and District Secondary College, Year 7 and 8

Gunditjmara languages program at Heywood and District Secondary College, Year 7 and 8 (Photo: VACL)

Then there is also the Yirruk-Tinnor Gunnai/Kŭrnai language program that has been running for almost 20 years. Regaining the Gunnai/Kŭrnai language of Gippsland has been a highly successful project.

The next stage of this exciting project has been to translate books fully into the Gunnai/Kŭrnai language. This has involved extensive narrative recordings and the further development of illustrations to include animation and interactive imagery. The books are presented in both English and Gunnai/Kŭrnai allowing users to swap between languages. Users are able to record their own narration and add this to the resource, which can be played back at any time. The books are now available on the App Store for downloading by any person or school.

Illustrations featured in Woiwurrung language apps, created by Thornbury Primary School students involved in one of VACL’s language projects

Illustrations featured in Woiwurrung language apps, created by Thornbury Primary School students involved in one of VACL’s language projects

Illustrations featured in Woiwurrung language apps, created by Thornbury Primary School students involved in one of VACL’s language projects (reproduced courtesy of VACL)