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Patji-Dawes award announced

endangered languages, Outreach, Patji-Dawes

Date: 10 May 2017

Academic and lecturer Dr John Giacon has won the Patji-Dawes award, Australia’s premier award for language teaching.

Dr Giacon researches and teaches Gamilaraay at the Australian National University (ANU) and also teaches it at the University of Sydney. Gamilaraay is an Indigenous Australian language being revitalised. It is the traditional language over a large area of north central NSW and Queensland.

The Patji-Dawes award recognises outstanding achievements in language teaching by an accomplished practitioner in Australia, whether teaching in primary or secondary school, university, language schools or language centres.

Nominations for this year’s award came from students inspired by many language teachers including those teaching French, German, Mandarin, Italian and Indonesian. However, it was the case set out for Dr Giacon by ANU student Bonnie McLean that captured the attention of the jury.

An extract from her nomination included the following background about her language journey: “Most of what John teaches today and what he taught me is based on archival material, primarily fifty hours of tapes recorded in the 1970s...” Bonnie went on to explain that in the last two courses on Gamilaraay that she took with Dr Giacon, she worked with him on the tapes trying to uncover particular aspects of the language, “I spend as much time as I can with the archival material because the more time I spend with it the more things I begin to uncover about the language. It is very exciting.”

Dr Giacon, a Christian Brother, began working on Gamilaraay, and the closely related Yuwaalaraay, when he moved to Walgett in 1994. He has often taught these languages, including Gamilaraay courses at the University of Sydney since 2006 and at ANU since 2012. He has been untiring in his efforts to promote the teaching of Indigenous languages at universities, and to involve the traditional owners of Gamilaraay in the revitalisation and teaching of Gamilaraay. A number of Gamilaraay have completed his courses and gone on to teach also.

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at ANU Professor Nick Evans, said Dr Giacon’s ability to teach Gamilaraay was an outstanding achievement given that when Dr Giacon first began working with Gamilaraay people, even the oldest speaker had found it difficult to recall lengthy sentence structures and much of what had been recorded was single words and shorter sentences. “John’s relationship with the Gamilaraay people began not as a linguist but as a teacher who was concerned for the well-being of Indigenous people, particularly those he was living with in Walgett,” said Professor Evans. “He gradually came to realise how much growing back the language is part of healing the terrible wounds of the past. Whenever possible he has tried to do this by employing old recordings to let the voices of elders now departed be heard in the classroom. But he has also been ingenious in filling in gaps in our knowledge by drawing on knowledge of the closely-related language Yuwaalaraay material.

 “As Bonnie pointed out in her nomination, John’s work has led to a Gamilaraay grammar, a learner’s guide, dictionary, picture dictionary, teachers’ resource books, and song books. He continues to inspire other teachers of Gamilaraay who pass the language on to the next generation. It really is an outstanding achievement - Gamilaraay’s revitalisation has been a significant part of his life’s work.”

 Dr Giacon teaching Gamilaraay at the Australian National University

Congratulations to both Dr Giacon and Bonnie McLean on their achievements. As part of the prize, they will attend a conferring ceremony at the 21st AFMLTA International Languages Conference on the Gold Coast on July 6.

 The Patji-Dawes award is named after Aboriginal woman Patyegarang and her Eora language student, First Fleet Lieutenant William Dawes. They shared a student-teacher relationship that saw Lt Dawes master the Sydney-region language in the earliest documented instance of a settler learning an Indigenous language.

 The prize is administered by the ARC Centre for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL). It is co-sponsored by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) and the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities (LCNAU).

William Dawes' notes and a painting of Patyegarang

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

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