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Indigenous language teachers win Patji-Dawes Award

Date: 30 May 2019

Two teachers of Australian Indigenous languages are the joint winners of the Patji-Dawes Award – Australia’s premier award for achievement in teaching languages other than English.

Sophia Mung, a Gija woman from Purnululu (East Kimberley, WA), has been recognised for decades of tireless work to ensure the Gija language is passed down to future generations.

Brother Stephen Morelli is a Christian Brother, teacher and linguist who has worked closely with Aboriginal communities on the mid-north coast of NSW for over 30 years to revive and teach the Gumbaynggirr language.

Ms Mung, an Aboriginal Teacher’s Assistant at Purnululu Aboriginal Independent Community School, has been working to keep Gija strong in her community since the 1980s.

She has worked with local elders to pass on language and cultural knowledge, teaching small children, creating bi-lingual books, translating English literacy texts into Gija and helping to develop appropriate curricula.

“I was very lucky to have had my grandparents and all my other old people surround me with my mother tongue which is Gija, my traditional language,” Ms Mung said. “I now feel really passionate about teaching it to our future generations.”

She was nominated by Anna Crane, an educationist and doctoral scholar in linguistics at the University of Sydney, who was taught Gija by Ms Mung for five years.

Sophia Mung teaching

Sophia Mung teaches a class outdoors.

Stephen Morelli has compiled a dictionary and grammar of Gumbaynggirr, co-developed courses up to Certificate III level, and co-edited the Gumbaynggirr Yuludarla Jandaygam Gumbaynggirr Dreaming Story Collection.

He said he feels greatly honoured by the award, especially considering where the nomination came from.

“For me, this award says something about the great revival of the Gumbaynggirr people, about the huge sense of pride felt by the local Aboriginal people in ownership of their heritage,” Brother Morelli said. “This award in some way honours the achievements of the people too – it’s not just an honour for me.”

Brother Morelli was nominated by Gary Williams, Gumbaynggirr community elder, CEO of the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative and co-editor of the dreaming story collection.

Mr Williams said that Brother Morelli has worked with the community to help its members do justice to the aspirations of those people who first gathered in Kempsey in the 1980s to reclaim the language.

“He has really understood from the start that our language and culture are completely intertwined,” Mr Williams said. “Developing the language to accommodate the needs of contemporary speakers was only possible because Brother Steve has always worked with us as part of a team, together adapting the language in ways that made sense culturally."

Steve Morelli and Gary Williams at book launch

Brother Stephen Morelli at the launch of the Gumbaynggirr Dreaming  Story Collection, with Gary Williams in backround.

Professor Nicholas Evans, Director of The ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, which bestows the award, said that the Centre has been thrilled by the spike in nominations of and by Indigenous people in the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

“The winners of the award highlight that teaching and learning our Indigenous languages should be a fundamental part of Australia’s education systems,” Professor Evans said. 

“For many Indigenous Australians and the majority of people around the world, speaking more than one language is a comfortable and normal state. Being fluent in more than one language has been shown to bring huge cognitive advantages, and the more we can do to encourage and celebrate our language teachers, the better.”


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 centres. It is named after Aboriginal woman Patyegarang and First Fleet Lieutenant William Dawes, who shared a student-teacher relationship that saw Dawes master the Eora language in the earliest documented instance of a settler learning an Indigenous language. The award is co-sponsored by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations and the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities. The winners and their nominators will attend a conferring ceremony at the 22st AFMLTA International Languages Conference in Hobart on 9 July.

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