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Gunning for Gija – Patji-Dawes Award winner Sophia Mung

Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Learning, Patji-Dawes

Date: 11 July 2019

Sophia Mung is a humble school teacher. The bright stage lights of an international conference in Hobart are a long way from her homelands at Purnululu in the East Kimberley. But this week, when she received the Patji-Dawes Language Teaching Award, she was asked to tell the world why it was important to keep her mother tongue Gija strong – and she delivered. 

Receiving her award at the AMFTLA conference this week, Sophia first wanted to thank the elders of her community for the gift of language:

“I am very honoured to have received this award, and I would like to thank all my old people for immersing me in my mother tongue Gija, my traditional language,” she said. “I was very lucky to have had my grandparents and all my other old people surround me with Gija – I now feel really passionate about teaching it to our future generations.”

Sophia Mung receiving Patji-Dawes Award

Speaking to ABC Radio at the ceremony, Sophia mentioned the community’s concern about keeping the language strong among younger people, whose fluency in Gija is being challenged by other languages. “Kids go away for schooling all over the country, where they learn English,” she said. “They only come back for holidays and hear a little of Gija being spoken at home, we only speak it around our mob and not at other places, so it’s getting really hard.”

Sophia believes that passing Gija onto future generations has practical benefits, including welcoming outsiders to country “so the ancestors will hear it in our language and keep the mining workers safe”, and to teach kids about plants, medicinal uses, and to know their country.

But the most important reasons are cultural and spiritual. Sophia likens the prospect of her people losing their language to losing their identity:

“They’ll feel lost themselves. They won’t know how to talk to their ancestors, and they will get hurt, they’ll get sick. Having the language lets us speak to our elders in their own language. They come out with us on country and they keep showing us things that come up all around, and we want them to be there in front us.”

Sophia was nominated for the Patji-Dawes Award by Anna Crane, an educationist and doctoral scholar in linguistics at the University of Sydney, whom she taught Gija for five years. In her acceptance speech she thanked Anna for her work at Purnululu School, as well as veteran Kimberley linguist Frances Kofod “for working on our own Gija dictionary and for supporting us in our quest to keep our Gija language alive.”

“When I heard of the Patji-Dawes Award I immediately thought of Sophia,” Anna said. “She is a truly natural and talented teacher. But crucially she is also highly intelligent and skilled and uses the best of what she herself has learned to nurture her young learners to be proud and empowered Gija speakers. She is always aware of where her learners are and gently, strategically works with them to grow their skills and confidence to speak their own language. She has taught so many so much.”

Group photo - Patji-Dawes Award 2019

L to R: Sharon Butters, Anna Kingston (representing Anna Crane), John Hajek, Sophia Mung, Jane Simpson, Anne-Marie Morgan, Steve Morelli (co-winner) and Gary Williams. 

Sophia and Anna have been key collaborators on Jarraggjirem, a web portal developed by the community of speakers to keep Gija alive and make it strong. (Check out the What skin name are you? and Wash your hands for feed! videos produced by Anna and featuring Sophia.) The site showcases the range of Sophia’s work, which has involved creating bi-lingual books, translating English literacy texts into Gija, and helping to develop appropriate curricula.

But for Sophia, keeping the language alive is first and foremost about taking pride in cultural identity:

“My hope is for the kids to be able to speak it fluently, for themselves and for their kids in the future, to know their identity, because Gija is their identity. I feel honoured, and I said to my old people, ‘Thank you all for being there, for teaching me the language’. I’ve come down to get this award on behalf of them mob.”

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University