‘Silent’ languages heard through performance

As home to more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and more than 1,000 different dialects, Australia is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world – and has the highest rate of language loss.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Sydney Catholic Schools’ Regional Performance Ensembles are doing their part to stem the rate of decline, with a series of Growing in Culture performances for their primary school peers.

Now in its third year, the Growing in Culture program is part of Sydney Catholic Schools Performing Arts (CaSPA).

Inspired by the 2017 NAIDOC Week theme ‘Our Languages matter’, the performances feature dances and dialogue in six Aboriginal languages and two from the Torres Strait Islands.

Titled Ngaraguun – a Dharug word meaning researching languages – the 2017 performance series began in March with a tour of eight primary schools in Sydney’s inner west.

It will continue with performances in Sydney’s eastern and southern regions, visiting 24 different primary schools. Each regional ensemble of students in Years 7 to 10 also has the opportunity to perform at an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community event, including the Eora Elders’ Olympics.

It was empowering to look at language.

– Sharon Zeeman

CaSPA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artistic Advisor Sharon Zeeman developed the Ngaraguun script.

She said each language had deep spiritual significance for its speakers and was not only a form of communication, but of expressing, sharing, maintaining and strengthening culture and identity.

“The songs and dances were all linked to language and we explained things in between – place names and suburb names where the students wouldn’t realise that those were Aboriginal words,” Ms Zeeman said.

“We also looked at words like deadly, gubba and jarjum and how they are used. The kids absolutely loved it. As we were leaving one of the schools one student yelled out ‘Thanks for sharing your deadly languages’.

“To know you are contributing to preserving languages gives a sense of achievement.  Growing up I didn’t know much of my Mum’s language [Gamilaraay] so it was empowering to look at language and explore that further.

“Some students have now downloaded language apps to their phone. They’ve gone ‘That’s my mob; I can look at my own language’. Some performances were in small classrooms, at other times they were in a massive hall. Being able to adapt to different spaces was another skill the performers learnt.”

I have an app on my phone that teaches Gamilaraay words.

– Mahalliyah Hayes

Among the languages used in the performance were  Dharug, Wiradjuri, Gamilaraay, Gubbi Gubbi, Gupapuyngu , Kala Lagaw Ya,  Miriam Mir, and Torres Strait Creole, also known as Ailan Tok or Yumplatok – a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages.

CaSPA Secondary Coordinator Elizabeth Mullane said the way the students stepped up to the challenge of learning the Indigenous languages for the performances was extraordinary.

“Like any success with language it was really uplifting,’ she said. “There was a real sense of pride and achievement in their knowing a few words.”

Heads up on language

Holy Spirit Catholic College Lakemba Year 7 students Hemi Martyn and Mahalliyah Hayes recorded a video used to teach primary students ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in Dharug language ahead of the Growing in Culture performances at their schools.

The pair are cousins and two of the ensemble’s newest members, both of the Gamilaraay nation.

“It made me step out of my comfort zone because I didn’t know a lot about my Aboriginal heritage until I started CaSPA,” Hemi said.

“It’s awesome. You do get frustrated sometimes when you can’t pronounce the words.  When we were learning ‘Heads shoulders, knees and toes’, our teacher recorded a conversation in Dharug with one of the elders and cut out the words we needed for the song so we could hear how they were pronounced.”

Darren Compton from NITV’s Move It Mob Style taught Hemi how to do the shake-a leg dance when he visited Goodjarga ensemble members with fellow choreographer Jacqueline Cornforth.

“The best thing now is when I go down to my dad who lives in the country and to visit all of my aunties and uncles who are Aboriginal I can show them the dances.”

Mahalliyah said it took an hour to film the resource. Though hearing about the First Fleet’s treatment of Aboriginal people drove her out of the classroom for those lessons in Years 5 and 6, she has enjoyed the Goodjarga activities and is proud of her Aboriginal heritage.

“It was fun and exciting to do the performances because it was learning Aboriginal language and culture,’’ she said. “There were some words in Waradjuri , Gamillaraay, Dharug, Gubbi Gubbi.

“The differences are that every place has their language but we are all one. It’s an exciting experience to learn. The hardest part is that not many people speak the languages so it’s difficult to get the pronunciation of the words.

“I have a Gamilaraay app on my phone that teaches Gamilaraay words. At the Eora Elders Olympics the Metropolitan Land Council representative said she enjoyed the performance and that it was good to see young people getting in with the culture. We will also be performing at the annual Indigenous Veteran’s Commemoration Ceremony in Hyde Park.”


Indigenous languages – a snapshot

Australia’s linguistic diversity was present long before it became a popular place to migrate to.  This influence is seen in many places.

70 aboriginal languages were spoken in NSW

250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were present across Australia

Bondi means water breaking over rocks

Woollahra means meeting ground or camp

Milperra means gathering of people

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