Language rescue

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Professor Lynette Russell AM, director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre
Professor Lynette Russell AM, director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre and 2019 Australian Laureate Fellow, pictured with an image from the Wunungu Awara project, is working to revive Indigenous languages.

Joy and tears have greeted animations that bring Indigenous languages on the bring of extinction to life – thanks to the generosity of the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation.

Every four cycles of the moon, a language dies – a historical rate of loss averaged from the disappearance of languages globally since 1960.

Of this landslide into extinction, which is silencing an increasing number of the world’s 6900 languages (half of which are endangered), Australia has the worst track record of linguistic peril, with 90 per cent of Indigenous languages critically endangered.

In 2017, in central Victoria’s Goulburn River Valley region, the Taungurung Aboriginal people looked to the moon as an age-old totem of death at the funeral of a community member.

But in a digital twist, the face of the moon they looked upon was a 3D animated one brought to life in the Taungurung language through its starring role in a short animated film telling the creation story of Winjara Wiganhanyin (Why We All Die).

This vivid, computer-generated work is one of 20 animations produced to date as part of Monash University’s Wunungu Awara project, formerly the Monash Country Lines Archive, developed from 2011 thanks to the philanthropic support from the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation.

Overseeing the project, Professor Lynette Russell AM, Monash Indigenous Centre director, says Wunungu Awara has had a “transformational” impact in helping to preserve, and sometimes revive, Indigenous languages.

For instance, working in conjunction with Aboriginal communities and linguists, the project contributed to the revival of the Taungurung language, which had not been spoken in central Victoria for almost 100 years following the death of its last native speaker.

Another animation, which hails from the Northern Territory, features the last native speaker of Garrwa Kunindirri dialect, Maureen Timothy, telling the story of Marlukarra Ngarrkadabawurr: Karnanganjanyi (Emu Hunters of Excellence) in the months before she passed away. “Support received from the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation has put the project on the map,” Lynette says. The Foundation donated $1 million in 2011 to establish the project, and a further $1.4 million in 2019 to expand its scope. “Without that support the project wouldn’t exist.

“The project has given us the opportunity to liaise, engage and communicate with Aboriginal communities across Australia, which is at the forefront of everything we do in partnership with Indigenous people,” says Lynette, an Australian Research Council 2019 Australian Laureate Fellow.

Wunungu Awara, meaning ‘strong and healthy; a vital place’ in Yanyuwa language, is the brainchild of Associate Professor John Bradley of the Monash Indigenous Centre. John leads the project team, which includes lead animator and artistic director Brent McKee, award-winning Indigenous performer and project manager Fred Leone, and education archivist David Harworth.

John, Wunungu Awara founder and director, says the animations, told in 12 languages (so far), help Indigenous people to reclaim a “complex sense of self”.

“Through looking to the value of land, country, culture and language as important parts of Indigenous communities, the animations create a powerful sense of self, of wellbeing and identity,” John says.

Ongoing support through the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation reflects the donors’ “rare vision” in giving to Indigenous families, as well as the wider Australian population, he says.

“Their gift is allowing Indigenous Australia to work with their languages and cutting-edge technology to produce visions of their culture that allow all Australians to learn and understand more about this vast continent.

“We see the joy, and sometimes tears, of the Indigenous families we work with when they see their completed animations.”

Supporting PhD students

The project’s expanded scope also supports the 3.5-year research tenure of three PhD students, including Vincent Dodd and Nathan Bird, whose work aims to raise knowledge of Indigenous languages as a living archive and as part of modern music culture, respectively.

More information

To find out more about supporting vital Indigenous research, programs and scholarships, contact Gillian Dodgin at gillian.dodgin@monash.edu.

Words: Clarisa Collis