Rediscovering lost language

The ancient language of the Guugu Yimidhirr has the very best chance of surviving and flourishing for generations to come. Lillian Bowen has taken her language into the local school and the children are taking it back into homes.

Too often throughout Cape York, ‘getting language back’ is a common theme in every day conversations.

Lillian Bowen is one of the lucky ones to have her language and is making it her life goal to give it back to her people.

“I have a passion for Guugu Yimidhirr. It’s a sad reality that three generations back have lost language,” Lillian explained.

“At my age there are only a couple of people who still have it. I kept mine because I had my uncle to communicate with and my dad. At the age of eight I used to sing the hymns out of the church book. I became fluent in teaching and speaking it because I could read it and write it.

“I have the urge to bring it back to the community and teaching it to the children is the best way to do that. The children are going home and teaching their parents Guugu Yimidhirr.

“I love to hear about the children teaching their parents. I’ve been getting a lot of comment from the parents telling me that their children are telling them all about what they are learning in language. Many say, ‘Aunty Lilly I just love that you are teaching Guugu Yimidhirr to my children’.”

This is the first time an Indigenous language (Yirrgii Guugu Yimidhirrbi) has been taught using the Direct Instruction (DI) method. The Academy Schools at Hope Vale, Coen and Aurukun use DI to successfully teach literacy and mathematics. The unique idea behind Lillian’s language lessons is that Guugu Yimidhirr is taught in Guugu Yimidhirr. English is left behind when you walk into the Guugu Yimidhirr classroom. Students experience Guugu Yimidhirr language immersion, students learn to think in their own language and to fully express themselves in their own language.

Lillian hopes many young people from Hope Vale will be interested in becoming language teachers and delivering lessons in the years ahead.

“Our aim is to use the workbooks and have adult classes. Because of the children, adults are now asking to learn the words again,” she said.

Cape York Institute has been working with Lillian, Irene Hammett and others, to produce and publish new children’s literature in Guugu Yimidhirr. Three new books were published last year and there are many new texts waiting to be illustrated. Lillian has been working to get together a Guugu Yimidhirr writers’ group,with older people who have stories to tell and a good grasp of the language.

“Writing stories in our language gives something better for the children to pick up and take along with them,” Lillian said.

The children ask Lillian if she can teach them all day long. “They love it. I think they are just starting to realise that it is a very important part of their culture and it was their great grandparents that were speaking this same language.

“I often tell them: ‘don’t think that this language has come out of the sky. This comes from your people, from generations back, and you have to carry it on.’ They can’t believe that their grandfathers and before that were into this language.

“I can see it in their facial expression that they are starting to connect with what this means. When I tell them the stories of the Elders, you could hear a pin drop.

Lillian said it’s vital that this generation of children can continue her legacy. “I am actually so proud of what I have been able to do for the children. I’d like to take it further and bring the mother tongue back to children through singing and in art and craft as well.”

Educators believe Lillian’s classes and the children’s keen interest in learning their language is helping attendance and providing an extra incentive for coming to school.

“The children are very interested when I talk about, and do, the family tree. The children are so very interested. A child could be sitting next to another child and they learn that they come from the same roots. This is very important for them to understand,” Lillian explained.

“The children aren’t being taught these things any more in the home—it’s a shame. I often teach the children hymns in Guugu Yimidhirr—‘This little heart of mine’ is a favourite.

Lillian is working toward putting together a choir.

“Our Elders used to sing in church like they had a conductor. I say to the children, to show their voices strong when they sing in church. You never know, one day I might take a little choir group overseas.”


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