Teacher brings dying language home

“I AM the last one to speak Worrongo. When I die this language will die. I will teach you everything I know. So put it down properly.”

With those words, Indigenous elder Alf Palmer started an extraordinary turn of events which passed on the survival of Worrongo into the hands of a Japanese student in the 1970s.

This week, that Japanese student – now National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics Professor Tasaku Tsunoda – returned to Palm Island as the last living speaker of Worrongo.

Even more precious was the cargo he carried – a 1500-word dictionary and 900-word grammar guide which will be used by the children of Palm Island and Alf Palmer’s descendants in early learning.

His trip is part of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation’s Early Learning Project to introduce Indigenous languages back into learning.

Chairwoman and founder Mary-Ruth Mendel said Indigenous children were naturally drawn to their own languages and the neural pathways built in learning those then helped their understanding of others, including English.

Professor Tsunoda said many people thought Aboriginal languages were “simple and primitive”.

But they were wrong, he said.

“They are not. They are like Latin, they are very systematic and sophisticated,” Professor Tsunoda said.

“And for Aboriginal children to learn such a language highly systematic and sophisticated it helps them.

“It helps them to appreciate the structure of English.”

He said there were other reasons learning Worrongo would be important, which Alf Palmer, a man of vision, had helped him to realise.

“Language connects you to your land and your ancestors it is very important. Language connects to your land and your ancestors.”

He said language was also very important in Aboriginal society to pass on culture and traditions and it was an important part of their identity.

“It was Alf Palmer who taught me the importance of documenting other languages and it was Alf Palmer who made me really serious about the documenting of Aboriginal languages,” Professor Tsunoda said.

He said it made him feel special to know that Alf Palmer’s words would now be spoken by the former elder’s descendants and the descendants of others on Palm Island.


Tanya Chilcott
From: The Courier-Mail
September 10, 2011 12:00AMĀ 

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