To put it very simply, my job involves revitalising as many as 7 endangered languages, which is … well … pretty huge. And it’s a job that can only be done in baby steps. And sometimes I see some of the baby steps… and on one hand, they’re not much, but on the other hand, they represent something quite significant.
A few weeks ago, we put up some signs at the shop showing the names of eight animals in five different languages. This could easily be perceived as a fruitless activity – firstly, because hardly anyone is literate in their language and wouldn’t be able to read the words and secondly, the vast majority of people here seem pretty uninterested in their language. But four weeks on, two of the five signs are still sitting there at the shop and today I looked at the Ngandi one and someone had graffitied ‘Thompson’ at the bottom of it, which is the surname of the vast majority of Ngandi people here at Ngukurr. It’s only a little thing, but it means that that language, and the fact that it’s on display at the shop, is important to someone.
Last week, I went to Urapunga community for the first time in a year and a half. I didn’t do any language work there last year because they had no funding and I had no time. It was a shame, especially because there a few ladies there that are really keen. The language there is Ngalakgan and those ladies know a few words but there are no full speakers left there to teach them more. But they are keen to teach what they know and to learn more. So I finally went back there and had a meeting with them and the school. They are dead keen. The ‘baby step’ that really surprised me was when one of the ladies produced from her pocket a dirty folded piece of paper. It was a short Ngalakgan wordlist I’d written for her 18 months ago. If you know anything about communities, you would know that for something to last 18 months is pretty significant. I couldn’t believe she was carrying around that same bit of paper.
Today during language class, I sat with the Ritharrngu and Waagilak kids for a bit. They were learning those animal names. If they got it wrong, their teacher BW would say yaka (nothing, no). Then I heard a little boy, FH, all of 8 years old, pipe up with yaka, bayangu (nothing, no in two different yolngu dialects).
Earlier I was there when the assistant principal sat with the Ngandi kids briefly. One of the little girls (all of 7 years old) taught her how to say a-walpburrunggu (bustard, or bust turkey). Keep in mind that this language Ngandi is basically never spoken anymore, yet here was a 7 year old girl teaching her assistant principal a Ngandi word.
Baby steps. But then people are always excited to see a baby learning to walk.