Back to listing

Mildura’s languages shine in rainbow of colour

Date: 8 August 2019

When Debbie Loakes was in Mildura last month for NAIDOC Week, she came back with material for another Barkindji language poster – it would be the sixth – this one on traditional language words known by young people in the community.

The posters have become the most popular outcome of the ‘Strengthening Language, Strengthening Community: showcasing Mildura’s Aboriginal languages’ project, a collaboration with the Aboriginal community to share and discover more about the traditional languages of the region.

Debbie, a Centre Research Fellow who leads the project, says it’s been particularly rewarding to see materials distributed around the community. “The school has been really happy, the kids have been really happy, as well as the whole community,” she says. “A lot of the kids made the individual artworks and now they can see them hanging around the school. The Assistant Principal has requested more posters because there’s been so much interest.”

The idea to showcase the Latji Latji and Barkindji languages of the region first arose several years ago when Debbie was in Mildura to conduct sociophonetic research into the production and perception of Aboriginal English.

“When I interview people, yes I do study their perception and map their vowel space, but I also talk to them!” Debbie says. “And it’s amazing what you can find out from people when you just ask what’s important to them about language. Most people talked about traditional languages and it turns out that they have a lot of good ideas about how to revive and promote them.”

This led to the creation of postcards for NAIDOC Week in 2017, including the one below, which features an artwork created by local Indigenous elders –a well-known image in the community.

Mildura Aboriginal languages postcard

After receiving some funding from the Helen MacPherson Smith Trust, Centre alumna and affiliate Jill Vaughan, one of the facilitators of the Linguistics Roadshow, came on board as a project officer.  Jill recruited students from local schools to create the posters in a collaborative effort between the children, Research Assistant Marian Stoney, and local elders who identified the words they were happy to share.

Debbie and Jill were also able to visit to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra to repatriate sound recordings, photographs and field notes from language work in the region done by Louise Hercus.

One of the elders who is particularly happy with the outcomes of the project is Ada Peterson from the Mildura office of the Mallee District Aboriginal Services, who first introduced Debbie to community members. Ada thinks the posters are both “bright and brilliant.”

“The Latji Latji ones are amazing because we don’t have much on the language here so it’s good to have them,” Ada said. “The Barkindji ones hit home because we have so many Barkindji families. We will have the posters up at the organisation and schools here.”

Moreover, Ada mentioned that the posters, postcards and information booklet also help create a feeling of ‘cultural safety’ at the Services office, where people often come in to deal with challenging personal issues. On this point, Debbie reflects that the things she thought are important as a sociophonetician are quite different to the things the community thinks are important. “And they are much simpler and nicer things to talk about than a vowel space!” she says.

Debbie and Jill continue to work with local communities on revitalising local languages and are now gathering material for the 50 Words project. Jill has already worked with local Brendan Kennedy to collect Mathi-Mathi recordings, which can now be heard via the 50 Words map, and Debbie will soon be collecting 50 words from a Barkindji elder.

This project is run by the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at The University of Melbourne, with funding from the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Melbourne Humanities Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Chaffey Secondary College, Mallee District Aboriginal Services-Mildura and the Mildura community. (Main image, L to R: Jill Vaughan, Crystal Kirby, Ada Peterson and Debbie Loakes with the posters.)


Poster printing instructions

Permission has been given by the copyright holding artists (Chaffey Secondary College students) to publish and display these posters. The high resolution artwork files are available from the links below. Please use the following specifications for best results: satin finish; 200 gsm; 420 x 594mm (A2); edge to edge or trim because of white edge; digital print.

Latji Latji earth poster



Barkindji earth poster



Latji Latji sky poster



Barkindji sky poster



Barkindji wildlife poster


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