Keeping an ancient language alive

Our Culture

Added by First Languages Australia

Description A few people speak the Indigenous Djabuguy language fluently. Michael Quinn, an Englishman, is one of them.

It was 1986 when he arrived in the Far North Queensland town of Kuranda with his young family. Before this he had been living in Sydney where he studied a four year Anthropology degree at the University of Sydney, while teaching English.

He had never met an Aboriginal bama (person) but wanted to study the mythology of the land he was going to build a house on. When he approached Lalfie Thompson, the last initiated man of the Djabuguy tribe, to ask permission to do this he told him, ""not until you learn our language.""

So began Michael's 28 year journey of learning and teaching the Djabuguy language. In this time he has had the help of linguists who had studied the language in the past - Ken Hale, Bob Dixon, Helena Cassells and Elizabeth Patz - and elders like Nyuwarri Queen of the Djabuganydji, Wurrmbul Gilpin Banning and Warren Brim.

Elder, Rhonda Brim, Rhonda Duffin and Chairman of the Djabuguy Tribal Aboriginal Corporation, Gerald Hobbler, have also been some of his main supporters.

When Michael arrived there were still a handful of elders who spoke Djabuguy. It was Wanyarra, Roy Banning, who is the last person Michael knows to have grown up speaking Djabuguy as his first language, who was his main language teacher. Michael says he couldn't have got very far without Roy. For many years they worked together in local schools and at the Tjapukai Theatre in Kuranda and Tjapukai Aboriginal Theme Park outside Cairns.

One of the reasons the Djabuguy language has come so close to extinction is the movement of many Djabuguy children to the Mona Mona Adventist Church Mission between 1913 and 1963 – under Aboriginal protection policies of the day.

“The government were telling us what we can and can’t do,” says Gerald Hobbler, who spent some of his childhood on the mission. “We always thought we were under the act.”

The rules were strict and English was the only language tolerated. Mother tongue was no longer spoken.

Today, one Indigenous language disappears every two weeks. Estimates suggest 100 years from now there will possibly be no indigenous languages left on the planet.

Nearly thirty years after first approaching Lalfie Thompson, Michael is seen as a custodian of the language – a language that once covered an area from the coast in Cairns to the highlands, back to Mareeba and up to Port Douglas.

He is now a teacher of the language he has dedicated much of his life to learning and spends two afternoons a week at Kuranda District State College teaching Djabuguy to local children.

What does Michael hopes comes from all this? That people will be able to “Buwal bugan ngirrma bulmba-barra – speak the language of the country”.

"I am grateful to the Bama, the people of this place, who have shown me friendship and encouraged my work," says Michael.

Produced by Gemma Deavin

This video was originally contributed to the ABC Open Mother Tongue project, which invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to share a story about their mother tongue.

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