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The ABCs of language revival

Evolution, Shape

Date: 27 March 2019

When Hilary Smith began working with the Gamilaraay people of northern NSW on the revival of their language, she quickly hit upon an unsurprising stumbling block: strong interest, but low confidence in using a language that no longer has an active speech community. With the help of a Centre grant, Dr Smith set out to overcome this barrier by first investigating the attitudes of children and adults in schools around Gunnedah.

“The results of my survey showed very positive attitudes towards Gamilaraay, but a lack of confidence, particularly in speaking,” says Hilary. “This prevents adults from using the language they learn and is a barrier to them teaching the children.”

From this research and other feedback, Hilary was able to develop an integrated cultural framework as a checklist for revival activities, based on the five central concepts: Dhiiyaan/family, Ngurrambaa/land, Garay/language, Maran/ancestors, and Culture.

“In practical terms this means that all the materials I am now working on are at the request of Gamilaraay people, have artwork by Gamilaraay people, and feature Gamilaraay voices in audio or video materials,” says Hilary.

First cab off the rank was a YouTube channel for trialling the video materials developed as part of the project, which includes a beautiful rendition of ‘Silent Night’ in Gamilaraay. Last year, Hilary and the Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre also received a grant from the NSW Education Department for ‘Yaama Gamilaraay!’ (Hello Gamilaraay!) – a project to develop early childhood materials to be trialled in the centre and Gunnedah Preschool.

“Given the hesitation around speaking, one of the first activities for ‘Yaama Gamilaraay!’ was to develop names for the sounds of Gamilaraay and related Yuwaalaraay as a tool to support the teaching of speaking with children,” Hilary says. “There is a completely regular spelling system based on the descriptive work of Dr John Giacon, but a frequent comment from Gamilaraay people is that they cannot say the words they read.”

Thus the Gamilaraay ‘alphabet’ was born.

In order to overcome the pronunciation barrier the team followed the pattern of ‘A is for apple’ in English, and used the phonological system of Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay. For example, words cannot begin with a vowel sound, so a ‘carrier’ sound/letter ‘y’ was added to ‘a’ to make “ya”. They chose example words that are used often in both Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay.

“We produced a YouTube video of the sound names and example words with one of the Winanga-Li staff speaking, followed by a poster with designs from a local Gamilaraay artist,” Hilary says. “Both have been very popular in building the status of the language and its speakers, and we are planning to build further on this with the equivalent of an ‘alphabet song’ using clapsticks and a chant, and other teaching materials.” 


Hilary SmithDr Hilary Smith is an Affiliate member of the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, an Honorary Research Fellow at Massey University (NZ) and a partner in Systemetrics. Her CoEDL Transdisciplinary Grant on ‘Developing a model of second language acquisition for Indigenous language revival in eastern Australia’ collected data through a series of age-appropriate tools based on the classical Affective, Behavioural and Cognitive (ABC) theoretical framework from social psychology attitude theory.


Gamilaraay 'alphabet' poster

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