An Indigenous language that has survived for more than 50,000 years and gave Australia the word “kangaroo” is fighting to stay alive amid fears the number of fluent speakers is dwindling.
Guugu-Yimidhirr is the mother tongue of people in Hope Vale on Cape York Peninsula, and the first Aboriginal language to be recorded in writing.
Captain James Cook’s crew spent several weeks in the area in June 1770 while repairing the Endeavour, which was damaged by the Great Barrier Reef.
They recorded more than 100 Guugu-Yimidhirr words and phrases, including ‘gangurru’, meaning grey kangaroo.
Of the now 1,400-strong Guugu-Yimidhirr nation, only about half speak the language, with fluency generally ending with the grandparents’ generation.
But the community is fighting to preserve its language for future generations, with a program at the local primary school showing promising results.
Guugu-Yimidhirr language teacher Lillian Bowen, the mother of retired North Queensland Cowboys NRL star Matt Bowen, is passionate about keeping her people’s culture alive.
“I know from my own six children they can barely put it in proper tense, and I’ve got to stop at times to correct them,” she said.
“I feel so sad at times when I can’t get something through to them and sometimes I feel like I’m failing.”
Language classes were re-introduced to the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy at Hope Vale in 2010.
Principal Glenn White said the children had daily lessons with help from the Pama Language Centre, which provided teaching support and resources.
“What I see from our language program is it gives children that sense of pride in their own language,” he said.
“The language is being more encompassed in the school. We’re trying to use it more frequently, and I’ve noticed the kids are becoming more fluent.
Mrs Bowen said she was proud of her young students.
“They’ve learnt a lot and they’ve been taking it home and teaching their parents,” she said.
“The children that have gone away to high school, I said to them, ‘Don’t forget your Guugu-Yimidhirr language now’ and they said, ‘Oh Miss, can you send us some writings down?’
“They’re very eager to learn the language and keep it going themselves.”
Elders are also pushing to use Guugu-Yimiddhir more outside the classroom.
Shirley Costello from Hope Vale’s Indigenous Knowledge Centre said older people like herself had an onus to continually speak the language to the younger generation.
“As you can see on the door I’ve even got our local language giving instructions how to pull or push the door, and that’s a start; even one word is a start,” she said.
“It would be better for us to get it rolled out in the home because it’s in the home where the constant talking of our language would be more embedded.
The language program at the Hope Vale school is also running in Aurukun and Bamaga on Cape York, and is hoped to roll out to Lockhart River by next year.
National advocacy organisation, First Languages Australia, estimated there were up to 750 distinct languages in Australia in the late 18th century, but fewer than 150 remain in daily use today.
All but about 20 are considered ‘highly endangered’.
The organisation’s Karina Lester said, while ancestral languages were strong in some parts of the country, particularly Central Australia and the APY Lands, more support was needed to ensure others did not die out.
She said more young, Indigenous people should be encouraged to become linguists who could document their languages.
“It’s always a challenge when you’ve got a handful of speakers in a community and it’s not being passed onto the younger generation,” she said.
“There’s a real urgency to work with those [fluent] people in those communities and gather as much information as you can.
“You can only imagine what they lose when an elder in that community passes with his or her great knowledge that they have of their language — it’s a huge loss to that community.”