Rhonda Radley: breaking down the language barrier

Language skills: Rhonda Radley says the revitalisation of her language is restoring her cultural pride.
Language skills: Rhonda Radley says the revitalisation of her language is restoring her cultural pride.

Rhonda Radley says the revitalisation of her Aboriginal language connects her to the land and helped set her on a lifetime path to teach and learn.

She says the Gathang language has been laying dormant meaning some words will be forever lost. However a Gathang dictionary 10 years in the making is one resource being used to revitalise the language.

“We have found that there are very few speakers of the language, so we have been relying on the dictionary by linguist Amanda Lissarrague, Muurrbay Language Centre and Elders from the three nations,” she said.

“Given the lack of fluent speakers, we are taking steps to bring back the language with our women’s group and also in our TAFE courses.

“We can use the Gathang dictionary to identify nouns and verbs … to understand the language better and to learn.”

Ms Radley said the missing generational gap in the passing on of her language started with the removal of children in institutions or/and non-Aboriginal homes.

“They just didn’t get to hear their Aboriginal language. It was frowned upon to speak it and it was not taught at all in non-Aboriginal schools.

“Our language and stories are passed down orally through the generations; there is little change in those stories because our language is recorded through story telling only. It is not written,” she said.

As well as teaching the language at TAFE, Ms Radley promotes the revitalisation and protection of the language through the involvement with an Aboriginal women’s group – Djiyagan Dhanbaan (strong sister).

This group shares language through song and dance.

But, she says, learning the language doesn’t stand alone. “It goes hand in hand with culture,” she added.

Ms Radley said Gathang language connected to the natural space and everything in it is acknowledged.

“It is also about connecting to my ancestors too. I am starting to understand the struggles of my ancestors they experienced through the denial of speaking their language.

“Learning my own language has helped me walk with my ancestors and understand them much better.

“I’ve made a lifetime commitment to teach my grandchildren our language, to help bring our language into the modern space.

“I think we should learn our local Aboriginal language in schools to learn more about the place where we live and to acknowledge the first nation peoples by the use of signage and interpretative signs.”

As well as teaching the Gathang language, Ms Radley is an Elder in residence at Newcastle Uni’s Wollotuka. Port Macquarie campus and on the board of the Birpai Local Aboriginal Land Council.

She has just completed her Masters in Indigenous Language Education at the University of Sydney and the Certificate III Endangered Language at the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language Centre.

Gathang is the language of the Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay peoples.

Critically endangered

Port Macquarie MP and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Leslie Williams says every aboriginal language in NSW is now classified as critically endangered.

“In 1788, there were 35 Aboriginal languages and around 100 dialects spoken in NSW. The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), strengthened through amendments in 1915, gave the Aborigines Protection Board the power to remove any Aboriginal child at any time for any reason,” Mrs Williams said.

“Speaking of aboriginal language was often used as a basis for removal, resulting in the loss of traditional languages.”

NSW will become the first state in Australia to introduce landmark legislation to protect traditional Aboriginal languages and establish an Aboriginal Languages Centre to support community-led revival efforts, Mrs Williams said.

The stage government has developed draft legislation which will have two parts: statements of recognition about the significance of Aboriginal languages, and the importance of preventing their loss; and measures to protect and revive NSW Aboriginal languages, including a proposed NSW Aboriginal Languages Centre, a strategic plan, and accountability framework.

Several things are already being done by the NSW government to protect and revive aboriginal languages in NSW.

Aboriginal languages are being taught in schools that are part of the five Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests, Connected Communities schools and schools across NSW.

This year  5100 students in 60 schools are learning one of the 19 Aboriginal languages being taught. This is an increase from the 3500 students at the end of 2015.

Two NSW Aboriginal languages (Gamilaraay and Wiradjuri) are offered as university subjects.

The five Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests are: North West Wiradjuri Language and Culture Nest, Dubbo; Gumbaynggirr Language and Culture Nest, Coffs Harbour; Bundjalung Language and Culture Nest, Lismore; Paakantji/Baakantji Language and Culture Nest, Wilcannia; and Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay/Yuawaalayaay Language and Culture Nest, Lightning Ridge.

In 2015, the Stage 6 Aboriginal Languages Content Endorsed Course was made available to NSW schools.

This means that Years 11 and 12 students can study an Aboriginal language and it counts towards their HSC. Paakantji and Gumbaynggirr are being taught to Stage 6 students in two locations, and from 2017 Wiradjuri will also be taught to Stage 6 students.

This year Aboriginal Affairs NSW’s Our Languages, Our Way program granted $156,000 to support six community-led language projects across NSW.

Aboriginal Affairs NSW will undertake consultation with Aboriginal language experts and the broader community to inform development of the bill before it is introduced to Parliament in 2017.


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