Sharyn Derschow’s mother was just four years old when she was taken from her family and sent to Mogumber mission in Western Australia.

“She lost her language, her birth name and her family,” says Sharyn, a Traditional Owner in the Pilbara, where Rio Tinto’s Australian Iron Ore operations are based.

“Years later, when she found her mother again, she didn’t have the language to connect with her and build a relationship.”

image image
Each Indigenous language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance. Image courtesy of Clinton Walker

How language links people
to land and water

How language links
people to land and water

“When I say ‘goanna’, I feel like I’m not doing justice to the animal compared to when I say ‘gurrumandu’, the word in Yindjibarndi,” says Sharyn Derschow.

“When I say ‘goanna’, I feel like I’m not doing justice to the animal compared to when I say ‘gurrumandu’, the word in Yindjibarndi,” says Sharyn Derschow.

“This name ties the gurrumandu to one hundred stories, songs, ideas, images and the Country.

“When you translate ‘gurrumandu’ into ‘goanna’ it excludes the animal’s connection to land, people, songs and its soul.

“It leaves this whole world behind, and it feels dry and empty.”

 

Image courtesy of Clinton Walker

And in Australia, nearly half of our Indigenous languages have been lost since European settlement. Many more are at risk of being lost as Elders pass on.

The impacts are felt for generations.

“[Not speaking an Aboriginal language] did affect me. Because when I first came to Roebourne in my teens I found myself among people who had more than one language.

“I felt isolated and different because I only had English. I didn’t feel 100 per cent Aboriginal – and I didn’t feel I could claim my Aboriginality 100 per cent,” Sharyn said.


This year’s NAIDOC Week theme, “Our languages matter”, celebrates the unique and essential role Indigenous languages play in cultural identity. Sharyn Derschow’s story highlights the profound impact the loss of Indigenous languages can have.

When Sharyn later learned one of the Aboriginal languages of the Roebourne area – Yindjibarndi – she found it had a profound impact on how she connected with her community and in the way she understood the world.

“When I started learning the Yindjibarndi language and people hear you speaking it, they know you’re starting to be part of their world and its stories. That’s when I started to belong and felt 100 per cent Aboriginal,” Sharyn said.

“It opened my eyes to a whole new world of ideas and shades of meaning.”

Languages matter

Languages matter

NAIDOC Week, which runs from 2 to 9 July 2017, is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements.

NAIDOC Week, which runs from 2 to 9 July 2017, is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements.

This year's theme, "Our languages matter", celebrates the unique and essential role Indigenous languages play in cultural identity – linking people to land and water.

Anne Martin, National NAIDOC Committee co-chair, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything from law and religion to geography and biology.

"Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance and it is through their own languages, that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law."

As a training facilitator with Keogh Bay Training, Sharyn works with leaders across Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore business to help improve communication as part of the Leading Aboriginal People programme.

The programme encourages leaders to use various communication and engagement methods to build strong and respectful relationships with our Indigenous workforce and Traditional Owner groups. More than 620 employees have been trained since the programme began in 2012.

“The programme looks at the variety of languages spoken by Aboriginal people and how language differences can affect understanding and team relationships,” said Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore product group.

“It teaches the use of plain English to cut through communication barriers, and it shows how to ask about language to build connections and relationships.”

Australia’s Indigenous languages: As different as English and Chinese

Matt Wrigley, a linguist and facilitator with Keogh Bay Training, explains Australia’s unique Indigenous languages.