Nesting Native Languages – The Miriwoong Language Nest Program
In April this year, Narragunnawali was lucky enough to
welcome Stephanie Woerde into the team. Steph has a longstanding love of
languages and is passionate about bilingual and First Languages education in
particular. Prior to joining Reconciliation Australia, Steph worked at
Kununurra’s Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre to help
establish an exciting language revitalisation initiative for young children,
known as the Miriwoong Language Nest.
The language nest model has its origins in New Zealand and represents an innovative, immersion-based approach to early childhood language education and revitalisation. It has successfully supported the continuation of New Zealand’s Maori language, as well as First Languages in Hawaii and Canada. While the Miriwoong Language Nest program does not function as a full-day immersion (pre)school, the team adapted the model to surround the children of Kununurra in the local, critically endangered Miriwoong language in daily or weekly sessions. During these sessions, children from a range of local playgroups, childcare services and schools learn from Miriwoong educators through fun and friendly activities facilitated entirely in the Miriwoong language. These activities include simple talk, storytelling, songs, games, arts and crafts.
While the program has gained national recognition, Steph says, “It is the rewards at the local level that are the most special”. In 2012, a landmark government inquiry highlighted the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language and culture programs in fostering children’s “Increased self-esteem, improved academic performance, improved school attendance, reduced drop-out rates, and better proficiency in reading skills in both the Indigenous language and English”, and recommended language nest programs be made a priority across Australia.
Steph agrees that outcomes of this kind are very apparent in Kununurra and appreciated by program participants, their teachers and educators, and their families and wider community. Reflecting on the Miriwoong Language Nest program’s positive impacts, a local primary school teacher said, “The kids feel so clever and good about themselves. I believe [the program] helps their English and ability to learn in other areas too. I am amazed at how quickly they learn and retain the Miriwoong language. It is especially lovely to have local Miriwoong Elders in the classrooms and the school—the kids’ eyes light up”. Indeed, a recent survey of Miriwoong Language Nest participants revealed more than 90 per cent of children agreed that the main thing they feel while learning from the Miriwoong educators is “proud”.
Miriwoong Language Workers were recently among the first cohort in Australia to complete their Certificate III in Aboriginal Languages for Communities and Workplaces, demonstrating the commitment of the Miriwoong community to language revitalisation and the growth potential of the language nest model. “I feel humbled to have arrived in Kununurra to meet only a handful of fully fluent speakers in 2013, but to have left knowing that more than three hundred children—both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous—are continuing to proudly learn Miriwoong, in the true spirit of reconciliation” says Steph. “I hope that learning Miriwoong will continue to be a special part of growing up in Kununurra—Miriwoong Country—for generations to come.”