We’ve previously touched on what happens when a language goes extinct, how it affects the world, and what can be done to prevent that from happening. Gina Williams, an Australian singer/songwriter of indigenous heritage, is doing her part to prevent the language of her ancestors from being lost forever.
While her family originates from an indigenous group of the southwest most point of Western Australia known as the Nyungar, she was never taught their language as a child. During the Stolen Generations era, her parents were both taken from their homes by the Australian government under the ruse of child protection, stating that the indigenous people, who have been living in Australia for longer than we can account for, were dying off too quickly and were unable to properly care for their children.
Since Gina’s parents were moved to missions and foster care, they began to be taught the things that the Australian government wanted them to know, in a supposed attempt to integrate them with the rest of the ‘civilized’ population. Their methods of doing so were cruel, punishing children who were caught speaking their native dialect, or even about their families that they were taken from.
We know, of course, that this was a devastating and destructive time for indigenous people and their languages. With their children being stolen away from them, they had no one to pass their language on to. Because of this, we’ve seen the Nyungar population, and speakers of its language, decrease dramatically to a dangerous number.
According to The Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages, there used to be thirteen different dialects of Nyungar, but that number has since dwindled to a mere five dialects, spoken by less than 250 people around the world.
While Gina didn’t have the benefit of learning and speaking Nyungar in her home as a child, she did decide to do something about it. At age 40, she apprehensively enrolled in a Nyungar language course. She was the only Nyungar in the class, which she states left her feeling “a bit sick from embarrassment and shame”, but she pushed forward, for the greater good, and learned the language of her people.
Now fluent, she has been able to collaborate with Guy Ghouse and release an album sung entirely in Nyungar. The album, entitled Kalyakoorl (or Forever in Nyungar), allowed her to give something back to her parents, her ancestors, and the entire Nyungar community by immortalizing their language through music.
Will Gina’s efforts single-handedly save the endangered language? Probably not, but in a time when we’re losing two languages every couple of weeks, people like her are needed through the world.
If you’d like to learn a new language, and would like to help preserve some of the world’s most endangered languages, check out the Endangered Languages Project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity.