Reviving the language of South Coast Elders

Since the beginning of 2017, Aboriginal students at Eden Public School have been learning the language of their elders, the culmination of a painstaking language revitalisation project that began more than ten years ago.

In 2006, Ossie and Beryl Cruse, Shirley Aldridge and Liddy Stewart, together with project coordinator Sue Norman, began meeting with South Coast Elders to record interviews and find out how much language was still spoken. For the next four years, they travelled the coast from Bomaderry to Eden, interviewing thirty-seven Elders and capturing over a thousand words, supplemented by recordings made with Elders in the 1960s.

They built a database of words using the Miromaa database, developed in Australia for communities working to revitalise traditional languages.

Another two years were spent building an audio dictionary, selecting words and verifying their pronunciation and spelling in consultation with the community in Eden. The group then developed resources to teach the language – from flash cards and games, to a workbook and a song.

The group have been teaching students at Eden Public School since the beginning of this year. And one of the first class exercises was for students and teachers to give themselves a name in language. The traditional languages of the far south coast are Dhurga from Wandandean to Wallaga Lake, Djiringanj from Wallaga Lake to Merimbula, and Thawa to the south of Merimbula. But Uncle Ossie Cruse says the group wanted to revitalise a common language that was used from Eden to La Perouse.

The Eden Aboriginal community is a resettlement community – South Coast tribes were heavily impacted by colonisation, and people travelled up and down the coast for picking work, so the language has become mixed. But even before colonisation, a trade language would have been shared by the different tribes of the South Coast, and this is what the language group have tried to capture.

In May 2017, Elders from the language group visited the original interviewees and their families in Cobargo, Wallaga Lake, Ulladulla, Nowra, Bomaderry Sanctuary Point, and Wreck Bay to give them a copy of their recordings, and the audio dictionary and workbook they contributed to. Uncle Ossie Cruse says it was an emotional experience, especially as many of the Elders who shared their knowledge had now passed away.

This story was filmed over 12 months at the Monaroo-Bobberer-Gudu Keeping Place at Jigamy, Eden High School and Eden Public School. Many thanks to the community for allowing this project to be captured by the ABC.

Story published in 2017.