From fragments to full sentences

Two Sydney schools are teaching the future custodians of language. Dani Cooper and Kerrie O’Connor report.

Lethbridge Park Public School Dharug language program.

As a child from Villawood, Curran Public School executive principal Nicole Wade used Nyoongah words from her grandmother in everyday language without realising their provenance.

“To me they were just what you called something,” she said.

Likewise, Alexandria Park Community School relieving assistant principal Bradley Hansen, who grew up around La Perouse, would regularly ask his mother for “walla” without knowing it was a Dharawal word for money.

Today, these two public school educators are working in partnership at Curran Public to provide the gift of Dharawal Aboriginal language to the school’s 290-odd students.

For the past year, Mr Hansen has been on secondment with the Gujaga Foundation revitalising Dharawal language through its school program, which includes lessons at Curran Public.

The Foundation has worked with linguists at the University of NSW and community Elders to verify and expand the living knowledge of Dharawal, the language first documented at white settlement.

Ms Wade said the school had been gradually implementing language lessons across the school curriculum and from 2024 all years would have a 30-minute lesson each week.

The current schedule also includes Aboriginal language for preschoolers who attend the school once a week as part of the school’s transition program.

Ms Wade said the introduction of Aboriginal language lessons at the Connected Communities school had impact beyond the school.

“It's really bought the community and Elders back to the school and has fostered pride in cultural identity and a greater sense of belonging,” she said.

Inside the school gates the impact is also being felt with improved engagement, attendance and resilience.

An important key to the program’s success is that everyone - teachers, students and other staff - is learning together.

“The students hear me and other teachers trying to learn new words and getting the pronunciation right and that encourages them to understand that it takes time to master a new word,” Ms Wade said.

For Mr Hansen, one of the highlights of being involved in the program is the pride Aboriginal students have in connecting with their culture through language.

“We see the joy on the kids’ faces when they participate in Aboriginal workshops,” he said.

It also helps foster a deeper appreciation of the world’s oldest continuing living culture among non-Aboriginal students and their understanding that not every Aboriginal nation is the same.

Similar impacts are being felt at Lethbridge Public School, another Connected Communities school in Sydney’s west, which has embraced the revival of Dharug language.

Students from preschool to Year 6 learn words, sentences and grammar thanks to tutors such as Elizabeth Coplin and Jasmine Seymour.

School captain Robert McAnespie-Shipley takes great pride in conducting the Acknowledgement of Country in Dharug, while classmate Shaylan Smith sees it as “a way to wake up the Dharug language and all languages around Australia”.

“We love it because it is a way for Aboriginal people to love their culture,” she said.

Assistant Principal Lauren Medcalf said students were now teaching their families Dharug words.

“I feel really honoured to work in a community that has such a strong language program,” she said.

Teacher Nicholas De Lorenzo said his students engaged with the language in every lesson.

“It has made me more confident to use it in the classroom and integrate it more effectively in my programming,” he said.

Lethbridge Park uses the Dharug names of local native animals, and each class has written a descriptive sentence in Dharug that is on display in the library.

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