First nation language as a capacity building tool and key to helping Mother Earth

I’m half Breton French half Anglo-Australian, born and raised on Kulin country in Birrarung Biik (Melbourne). I believe to fix Mother Earth, we need to connect to the country we live on (and/or were born on) through learning language, and also learn the languages of our heritage (our ancestors). In this way we can understand the old ways, breathe life back into forgotten languages, which hold the key to a better more sustainable life.

As a 7 year-old I yearned to learn my dad’s mother tongue French. His grandparents spoke Breton as their mother-tongue but in a generation it became second language to French. However he refused and I reluctantly learnt German as a second language at high school before learning intensive French at University (which I hated) and continuing my interest in languages as a linguist. I learnt the first languages of southern Laos (West Bahnaric languages of Mon-Khmer) living with indigenous people and writing their languages down sometimes for the first time. It was heartbreaking though, cultures and languages not being passed down, children wanting to learn English rather than almost ‘dead’ languages of their grandparents.

I returned to Australia, having the privilege and honour, but also incredible burden, of working on a language documentation project of Jawoyn, an almost extinct language of Arnhem land. Once again English was the dominant language, the family of the last remaining speaker not interested in keeping the ancient language of their country alive and strong.

When a language lies sleeping (no fluent speakers, no first language speakers as another language becomes mother tongue) a culture starts to die. I’ve noticed connection to country also diminishes as it’s only seen through the lens of a non-indigenous language. Over time, the country itself starts dying – traditional sustainable ways of managing the land and ways of life are replaced with other ways, the ways of the colonial powers, powerful from conquering and exploiting lands around the world.

I have since become a horticulturalist, teacher of sustainability and passionate about reconnecting to Mother Earth and bringing along the younger generation with me. I am slowly establishing relationships with traditional owners of the land I live and work on and the land I was born and raised on – Kulin country, where the Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung languages, are slowly being woken up from a deep coma. I dedicate the rest of my life (half of it I hope remains) to learning the language of country to heal myself, the ancestral spirits in the land and the land itself. I’m very excited to begin planting an indigenous biodiversity forest this week at one of the schools I teach (we were successful with a Junior Rangers Biodiversity Grant). Right now many traditional owners and emerging elders are learning their ancestral languages, reviving old traditions, and I see, breathing life back into the country. One day I hope to speak the names of each species, and speak to the forest in language, and encourage all young Australians to do the same.

This piece inspired by reading the article “Te Reo Māori – a key to our future” by Nadine Anne Hura

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