Nests nurture young language learners

As part of Aboriginal Languages Week, Luke Horton caught up with Gumbaynggirr language expert Gawa Micklo Jarrett to find out how language is being taught in schools.

A headshot of a man looking directly at the camera A headshot of a man looking directly at the camera
Image: Gawa Micklo Jarrett. Photo courtesy State Library NSW, photograph by Joy Lai.

For nearly three decades, Gawa (Uncle) Michael ‘Micklo’ Jarrett, has worked to share and teach Gumbaynggirr language.

Gawa Micklo is an Aboriginal Language and Cultural Officer and works in one of seven Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests across the state funded by the Department.

“Gumbaynggir is my second language. I started learning and teaching it in 1997 and I’ve been learning and teaching it ever since,” he said.

“As a teacher, my goal is to have every student understand and speak Gumbaynggir, particularly those students with a cultural connection to the language.”

Gawa Micklo works to educate both children and teachers about Gumbaynggir.

“One of the important things is understanding the cultural aspects of the language, the music, food, relationships and place names. Language is culture,” he said.

“When we’re teaching language, we want to try and make it fun, so there are lots of games, music, storytelling and singing. Children absorb a lot of stuff if they’re enjoying themselves.”

The ‘awakening’ of Gumbaynggirr, as Gawa Micklo calls it, started in the mid-1980s when local Elders came together to revive their language with the support of linguist Brother Steve Morelli.

The Elders shared their knowledge of the language, listened to old recordings, and analysed grammar and vocabulary to produce the first Gumbaynggirr dictionary-grammar.

The dictionary paved the way for the creation of Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, which supports language revitalisation for the seven Aboriginal nations from the Central Coast to the North Coast of NSW.

Gawa Micklo said the foundation work done by organisations such as Muurrbay was crucial in the establishment of the first Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests in 2013.

The Department’s Executive Director, Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships, Karen Jones, said the Nests were bound together by a connection through an Aboriginal language.

“Learning an Aboriginal language creates a sense of pride for all our students, and helps strengthen cultural identity, self-esteem and resilience among Aboriginal students,” Ms Jones said.

“It also supports non-Aboriginal students to broaden their knowledge of local Aboriginal cultures and learn about the diversity across and within Aboriginal cultures.”

The Nests are part of a broader set of government priorities to revoice and revitalise critically endangered Aboriginal languages in NSW, governed by the NSW Aboriginal Languages Act 2017, the Department's Aboriginal Education Policy and its partnership agreement with the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG). 

Each Nest Footprint is a designated area in which schools can access funding for localised Aboriginal language and culture lessons and every school in a Nest Footprint can access up to three hours of funded teaching, with an option to purchase additional hours.

The Department currently engages the NSW AECG to provide service delivery and support for the Nest program across seven regional language areas:

  • Bundjalung: Ballina, Bonalbo, Casino, Coraki, Evans Head, Grafton, Kyogle, Lismore, Tabulam, Tweed Heads, Woodenbong
  • Dunghutti: Kempsey, Bellbrook, South West Rocks, Crescent Head, Walcha
  • Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay/Yuwaalayaay: Collarenebri, Goodooga, Lightning Ridge, Walgett 
  • Gomeroi: Tamworth, Gunnedah, Werris Creek, Walhallow, Quirindi
  • Gumbaynggirr: Bellingen, Coffs Harbour, Dorrigo, Nambucca Valley, Northern Beaches, Orara, Sawtell, South Grafton, Toormina, Urunga
  • North-West Wiradjuri: Dubbo, Gilgandra, Mudgee, Narromine, Peak Hill, Trangie, Wellington
  • Paakantji: Bourke, Broken Hill, Coomealla, Menindee, Mildura, Wilcannia

The Dunghutti and Gomeroi Nests became fully fledged Nests in 2023 and there are plans for the program to expand further.

“With the extension of the services agreement with the NSW AECG, the Nest program will continue to expand to include new Satellite Nests into the future,” Ms Jones said.

Gawa Micklo will host a virtual language lesson in Gumbaynggirr via livestream from 9.30am today, Friday 27 October.

Visit the NSW Aboriginal Languages Week 2023 website to view the livestream.

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