Workshops can fill gap in Indigenous language teaching, experts say

Amber Schultz

Public interest in indigenous language and culture workshops highlight a deficit in Australia’s education system, the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) says.

Woiwurrung, the indigenous language of the Wurundjeri people of the north-eastern areas of Melbourne, is one of many Indigenous languages in Australia on the brink of extinction.

Language revival workshops are currently being run throughout Victoria hoping to recover Indigenous languages, and share them with the general public. 

According to Paul Paton, the executive officer from VACL, interest in attending these workshops is high.

“Many people say they haven’t learnt indigenous language and culture through our education system,” he says.

“This highlights a deficit in the system.”

Sign at Montsalvat Arts Centre in Eltham (Nillumbik) Photo: Amber Schultz
Sign at Montsalvat Arts Centre in Eltham (Nillumbik) Photo: Amber Schultz

Earlier this year, the Banyule Reconciliation Group hosted a Woiwurrung language workshop taught by Wurundjeri woman Mandy Nicholson, which approximately 50 people attended.

Mandy incorporates traditional greetings, dances and rituals in her seminars. 

Participants of these types of workshops are usually adults from a range of backgrounds, with teachers, historians and academics taking part.

Organizers say many attendees have mentioned that they’d independently read early reports of the history and plight of the Wurundjeri people, and spoke about their ignorance and interest in learning more.

There are also age-appropriate workshops for children, which consist of reading books and enacting dreamtime stories.

Paul believes language revival workshops, as well as public awareness seminars, are important to increase awareness of Indigenous cultural identity.

So far, he says, feedback from participants has been very positive.

Learning a Lost Language

Jan Aitken, who has been president of the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group (NRG) for the past 10 years, acknowledges some of the challenges associated with teaching a language from which a lot has been lost.

“The Indigenous population weren’t allowed to speak their languages for so long,” she says.

“Actual knowledge of the Woiwurrung language is limited”.

The organizations rely on language co-acted by elders, and fill in missing words by borrowing them from languages of neighbouring regions because of the similarity between them.

Workshops focus on linguistics, methodologies and technologies to teach and understand language patterns.

They also include Indigenous history and language distribution throughout the state to help put the knowledge in context. 

 “The aim of the NRG is to keep Indigenous heritage and people in the community’s mind, and to support the Wurundjeri people,” Jan says.

Correcting the Deficit

Education in schools is crucial to bridging the indigenous language and culture knowledge gap, she adds.

In Victoria, primary school students in years five and six are taught an Indigenous unit; Jan believes that high schools, TAFEs and universities should also offer Indigenous units.

“We need to encourage this type of information;” she says, “so that interest in Indigenous language and culture will flow back to the home.”

Recently, Federal Parliament decided to add the Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages to the Australian curriculum.

According to the Australian Curriculum website, this will allow students to “gain access to knowledge and understanding of Australia that can only come from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective”.

Benefits of this framework include instilling a sense identity, pride, and self-esteem for all Australian students, the website says.

The Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority will ensure that changes will be adapted to suit the Victorian school curriculum.

Communities will learn languages specific to their region; schools in Melbourne and the surrounding north-east areas will learn Woiwurrung; and students in Ballarat, Melton and Geelong will be taught Wathaurong.

Those around and to the east of Port Phillip Bay will be taught Boonwurrung.

Similarly, High School Curriculum reforms in NSW will place an emphasis on teaching Aboriginal languages and history in high schools.

These initiatives can be seen as a movement towards recognition of Indigenous culture, and steps toward reconciliation.

Many suburbs and council areas have taken steps to recognise their Indigenous past, with signs in the shire of Nillumbik displaying Aboriginal greetings written in Woiwurrung, and signs acknowledging the Wurundjeri people as traditional owners of the land visible in and around Melbourne.

Currently, Barranga Dance Theatre is showcasing “OUR land people stories,” a contemporary dance work displaying stories of Australia’s cultural heritage.

In July this year, large groups attended the Black Lives Matter rallies in Melbourne and Sydney to protest against the treatment of both black people in the US, and Indigenous people in Australia.

Aboriginal people represent just 3% of Australia’s population, yet make up 28% of Australia’s prison population.

Many rally attendees maintain that indigenous people are not being represented or listened to in Australia, and call for a movement to support equality and equity.

Information on indigenous culture, history and language workshops can be found via VALC’s website,; on Mandy Nicholson’s website,; and via local reconciliation group websites.