The Sydney Morning Herald 6.7.12
An innovative program is saving hundreds of Aboriginal languages, writes Jacqueline Maley.
We can save a drowning man, we can save a colony of fairy penguins and we can even, according to the government, at least, save an economy from recession. But how do we save a dying language? Even harder, how do you revive it?
The Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre in Newcastle, which received $341,150 in funding from the federal government this week, is labouring to save millions of forgotten words, as well as the grammar, syntax and pronunciation of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages that face extinction if they are not recorded soon.
''The word 'miromaa' means 'saved','' says the centre's director, Daryn McKenny. ''We've created a computer program which enables people to capture their evidence of language - textual, audio, images and videos. We archive it all.''
Funding for the project was part of $48 million worth of projects supporting indigenous arts, culture and languages, announced on Tuesday by the federal Arts Minister, Simon Crean.
McKenny believes one of the most heartbreaking aspects of Aboriginal disadvantage is the community breakdown that leads to the loss of language. He sees technology as the only way to arrest the decline.
''Medical science is not helping our elders to live longer. They are dying from diabetes and heart disease,'' he says. ''We have to find a way to capture their knowledge, and technology is it.''
The program began with an attempt to record the language of the Awabakal people from the Newcastle-Port Macquarie area, which had not been spoken for a staggering 150 years.
Luckily, the language had been codified by an early settler with the unlikely name of Lancelot Threlkeld, who learnt the native language so he could preach the gospel in it. Threlkeld and a local man, Biraban (sometimes known as McGill), began a collaborative study of the local language, which is now believed to be the first methodical study of an Aboriginal language anywhere in this country.
This colonial paternalism ended up being a boon. McKenny says his people owe Threlkeld a great deal.
''The book was called An Australian Grammar. We've been able to piece together the language from that,'' he says.
The Miromaa program was developed from that attempt, with Aboriginal users in mind.
''The majority of tools for linguistics are aimed at linguists, academics,'' McKenny says. ''None of them are aimed at the language owners themselves.''
The program has been used by people trying to resurrect 150 languages around Australia, from Victoria to Thursday Island.
It was also sought after and is now used by native Alaskans, native Americans in North America and even the keepers of an Amazonian language in Peru.
The latest government money will be used to develop the program into smartphone applications and multimedia tools, because this is the best way to reach young Aboriginal Australians, McKenny believes.
''We would love for all people, black and white, to know the Aboriginal language,'' he says. ''Because it is all around us, in our landscape. When they say Parramatta, what are they actually saying?''