1 January 2017
‘Keep speaking in language’: linguist

THE ALC's linguist has come from the bustling streets of London to the dusty streets of Angurugu because he is passionate about supporting Indigenous language.

David Nathan said he is excited to be working in the Groote Eylandt communities, where the language is spoken right across all the generations. 

In the late 18th century, there were more than 300 Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia. 

Today, less than 100 remain in daily use, but David says most of these are “spoken by a very small number of old people, and not with the detail, beauty and range of the entire language”.

“There are only a handful of languages where kids speak it as a mother tongue and richly, and Anindilyakwa is one of them,” he said.

Even though Anindilyakwa is among the strongest Indigenous languages in Australia, it is still at risk of dying out within a couple of generations. 

“The language will stay alive if people decide day by day to keep using it,” he said. “As a linguist I hope my contributions can help maintain the language’s status so that there continue to be positive reasons for its owners to use it.”

David previously worked with Aboriginal people in the Western Desert; at Batchelor Institute’s Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics; and for 10 years as director of the Endangered Languages Archive in London. 

“Working on Groote Eylandt is special for me because it’s a chance to use what I learned overseas here in a community setting,” David said.

Part of his work will involve looking over work by linguists and others in the 50 years since missionary days and working out how to preserve and catalogue it for use in the future.

He also plans to work with the Language Centre team to make multimedia apps and other online language resources.  

He said he is passionate about making more audio resources available, and advocating for more Anindilyakwa-only material, because if the environment is dominated by English and bilingual material “it doesn’t fully respect the language or encourage the language to be learnt in detail.” 

PHOTO: David Nathan with senior Anindilyakwa men, Lionel Jaragba, Jabani Lalara, David Nathan, Johnny Lalara, and Danny Lalara at Salt Creek.