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The 50 Words Project Is On A Mission To Preserve First Nations Languages Across The Country

"If you learn a language, you then get access to that particular way of thinking that ties you back to country—back into the dreaming, the creation, and your ancestors"

A new online program from the University of Melbourne has been revamped in honour of NAIDOC Week, showcasing the different and diverse First Nations languages spread out across Australia in an attempt to celebrate and preserve the traditional spoken words. 

The 50 Words Project, run by the university’s Research Unit for Indigenous Language, aims to provide fifty words in every First Nations language of Australia through an interactive virtual map, using words provided with community permission and with audio from native language speakers. 

On the platform—which you can visit here—languages and words are displayed on a map, making it easy to navigate to specific local areas.

Phrases include basic questions like ‘what is your name?’ as well as a number of greetings and words for animals and the local environment.

“We hope that this will be a useful resource for schools and educational organisations to learn 50 words in their local language, and for the general public to discover and appreciate the diversity of First Nations’ languages around Australia,” reads the site. 

Associate Professor Nick Thieberger, who headed up the project alongside fellow linguist Professor Rachel Nordlinger, told SBS News the team intended to conduct the project in a “way that didn’t take things away from Aboriginal people.” 

“We wanted to be working in partnership with Indigenous Australians, so we set up a framework and invited speakers of languages to contribute and that’s the way that it has grown organically,” he told the publication. “We’ve also heard from Aboriginal people who don’t speak their own language anymore, that they’re really moved to hear a relative speak this language.” 

The project was first started in July 2019 but has since undergone an update to become user-friendly in time for 2020’s NAIDOC Week celebrations. 

50 words proect
50 Words Project

Kado Muir, a Ngalia man, was just one of the 60 language speakers who provided words for the 50 Words Project. 

Speaking with NITV, he said around 200 First Nations languages were previously spoken across Australia, but now there are just 20. 

“The 50 words project is a novel way of using technology to bring languages to people who otherwise would not have heard of, or have the opportunity to access these languages,” Mr Muir said. 

He added that today, of the languages still spoken, some are on either close to being endangered or close to being extinct. 

“Myself, and my brothers, and a couple of other people can speak [Ngalia]. So that particular way of speaking is severely endangered,” he said. 

“When you lose a language, you lose a worldview. You lose a way of understanding the land on which you are living. You lose an understanding of different philosophies. It makes our lives as human beings a lot poorer if we lose a language.

“If you learn a language, you then get access to that particular way of thinking that ties you back to country—back into the dreaming, the creation, and your ancestors.” 

National NAIDOC Week (8–15 November 2020) celebrates the deep history and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For all the ways you can support and celebrate, visit here

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