Cape York elders enliven ancestral language online

Written by Louise

November 1, 2023

The revitalisation of an Australian Aboriginal language in Cape York is at the heart of a series of videos launched on YouTube in March. The video tutorials are a powerful and timely tool for teachers who have recently had to adapt to catering for online learning environments.

Good to Great Schools Australia’s Guugu Yimithirr language tutorials teach ancestral language, building on current knowledge and connecting Guugu Yimithirr people to culture.

Guugu Yimithirr was one of the earliest Australian Aboriginal languages to be recorded, with Sydney Parkinson recording 200 words during Captain Cook’s stop-over in the area in 1770.

These words included ‘kangaroo’, which would become part of mainstream Australian English.

Australia was once home to hundreds of dialects spoken by Indigenous people; however, as recently as the 1970s, many Aboriginal languages were actively suppressed by government policies.

It has been up to elders and speakers of Guugu Yimithirr to keep it alive, and ensure it is passed on to future generations.

Guugu Yimithirr elder Dora Gibson, who features in the online tutorials, grew up bilingual.

“I consider myself lucky to be part of a generation of people taught to speak Guugu Yimithirr at home by my parents and taught English at school,” Ms Gibson said.

“Our parents gave us the power of language. Subconsciously, we have learnt to code-switch, whereby we alternate between Guugu Yimithirr and English in the context of a single conversation.

“Traditionally language is kept alive by telling stories and yarning with family members. This is still normal practice within our family homes; however, now we are also using video technology, like the tutorials, to keep our language strong.

“Even though our language has been suppressed over the years, our elders have always managed to keep it strong. We don’t want their hard work to go to waste.”

Ms Gibson said she hoped the tutorials would have an impact for years to come.

“We want to support any initiative that ensures Guugu Yimithirr is passed on to future generations,” she said.

Of the now 1,400-strong Guugu Yimithirr nation, only about half speak the language, with fluency generally ending with the grandparents’ generation. Of the up to 700 Australian Indigenous languages, only 13 are still spoken by children.

Research shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families develop deeper connections with community, culture, family and history when they have opportunities to connect with their language.

Hope Vale Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy Attendance and Community Engagement Officer Cheryl Cannon said that although statistics showed transmission of the Guugu Yimithirr language had declined, she was reassured that language was being maintained within the community.

“Many households with elders at home are maintaining language. I’m not worried it will be lost; we will continue to teach our children,” Ms Cannon said.

“Singing in language is a great way for children to learn how words are pronounced, and the subtitles enable children to see how words are spelt.”

Good to Great Schools Australia (GGSA) expects that the tutorials will be used by current and future generations to learn and practise their language.

GGSA encourages governments to work with Indigenous people to help fulfil hopes to further preserve our national languages.

The language tutorials feature video and audio recordings of Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal elders. They are available online for free viewing and can be accessed on the GGSA YouTube and Facebook platforms.

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