What does it mean for the world to lose a language?
TONY EASTLEY: It’s taken 40 years but from almost the ashes of extinction, an Aboriginal language has been saved and is again being spoken on Palm Island in North Queensland. The last living speaker of the Worrongo language is a Japanese professor who created a dictionary after learning it from one of the last native speakers in the early 1970s.
Natalie Poyhonen in Townsville prepared this report.
TASAKU TSUNODA: The name for Palm Island is Borrgoman, the name of Townsville is Gabilagaba.
NATALIE POYHONEN: In north Queensland the Worrongo language is coming back to life.
In the most unlikely of tales, a Japanese professor who first spoke the language four decades ago is gearing up to play a pivotal role in spreading the Worrongo sound.
The story begins with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation approaching the Palm Island community about first language learning for children.
Chairwoman and founder, Mary-Ruth Mendel, says when she put the call out for an experienced voice she couldn’t believe her ears.
MARY-RUTH MENDEL: When we were talking to families on Palm Island and saying ‘Yes there’s many languages here and, you know this is what we can do, but this is what we need: a dictionary and a speaker’, they all went ‘But there is a language, it’s Worrongo language, and it has a dictionary and it has a speaker.’
And I said ‘Oh terrific, where is that speaker?’ and they said ‘Japan’ – and I said ‘What? How can that be so?’
NATALIE POYHONEN: In 1971 linguistics student Tasaku Tsunoda was sent by his Monash University supervisor to the island, where he met Alf Palmer, one of the last two native speakers of Worrongo.
TASAKU TSUNODA: When I was doing field work with him he used to say to me “I’m the last one to speak Worrongo. When I die, this language will die. I’ll teach you everything I know, so put it down properly.”
NATALIE POYHONEN: Professor Tsunoda now works at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in Tokyo.
He says Alf Palmer showed incredible foresight in helping to preserve the endangered Aboriginal language.
TASAKU TSUNODA: Language connects you with your ancestors, language part, you know, a very important part of your identity and also language is something like a vessel. Often when a language disappears, it’s very difficult to transmit traditional knowledge without original language. There are certain aspects of culture that cannot be translated into another language.
NATALIE POYHONEN: But reviving this Indigenous heritage could also help English literacy levels.
TASAKU TSUNODA: Some of the Worrongo words: eye – jili, nose – goja, mouth – jawa, grey hair – birngga.
NATALIE POYHONEN: The professor’s dictionary is being transformed into a card system.
It will include the English letters and different sound options for how words should be pronounced in Worrongo.
Eventually those words will be used to translate classic Australian children’s stories and other texts.
Mary-Ruth Mendel says first language literacy can transform the learning possibilities for Indigenous youth.
MARY-RUTH MENDEL: That extra engagement, that extra connection to books and story and vocabulary and sentences, and the listening skills that go with it really sparkles up children’s neurology.
And it’s not just a party trick, that actually is growing neural pathways in the brain which then teachers can build on in school.
NATALIE POYHONEN: When Professor Tasaku Tsunoda returns to Palm Island this week he’s planning a graveside tribute for his late friend Alf Palmer.
He says he will tell him he’s bringing people to Palm Island to make books for the Worrongo language, and he hopes it makes his friend very happy.
(Tasaku Tsunoda presenting a tribute to Alf Palmer in Worrongo.)
TONY EASTLEY: Japanese professor Tasaku Tsunoda ending that report from Natalie Poyhonen.