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Sydney School Leads Efforts to Revive Lost Aboriginal Language

A project at school in Sydney is leading efforts to revive an extinct Aboriginal language that was lost after European colonization. Chifley College is teaching Dharug to not only its indigenous students but others from Africa and the Pacific Islands as well as non-indigenous Australians.

The sounds of a lost language echo across a packed classroom in suburban Sydney as secondary school students help to revive an ancient part of Australia's indigenous culture.

Dharug was one of the dominant Aboriginal dialects in the Sydney region when British settlers arrived in 1788 but became extinct under the weight of colonization.

Students at Chifley College's Dunheved campus are taught by Richard Green, who is on a mission to rekindle an ancient language.

"We've already reclaimed it, that's why there is so much interest. People are already speaking it. They speak our language from here, so when you walk in the school of a morning you hear 'warami'- hello, good to see you," he said.

"But we've got some young boys here that are absolutely brilliant. No matter what I say, they say it with correct pronunciation. You know, they sit in class the whole lesson. They are changing their attitudes," he continued.

About a fifth of the students here are Aborigines, who remain Australia's most disadvantaged group. The language classes are open to non-indigenous pupils, giving them a greater understanding of their country's rich history and culture.

Steven Dargin says the language classes give him more insight into his Aboriginal community.

"It's good especially for the blackfellas. You get to talk about your own culture and all that. Learn more stuff, speak it out of school," he said.

Dharug is firmly embedded in the school's curriculum and Joyce Berry, the deputy principal, says the aim is to create a vibrant, living language.

"We are reclaiming the language. And with Richard's help and with the elders' help, they are reclaiming and actually going through the process of writing down the language for probably the first time it's ever been written down. If this can work, it is something a school in western Sydney has been able to achieve with the support, so if we can do that it is going to be such a wonderful thing, not just for the school but for the Dharug community," she said.

Other indigenous dialects in Australia have been revived but the process may require what experts describe as "language engineering" - the borrowing of phrases and words or the coining of new vocabulary.

John Hobson, a lecturer in indigenous dialects at Sydney University, says they can be hard to learn.

"For the benefit of English speakers, I often compare Aboriginal languages to something somewhere between Japanese and Latin, which, you know, surprises them because the, kind of, gut approach is to go for something primitive and simplistic, which are they definitely not. They are very complex languages," he said.

When European settlers arrived in Australia, there were about 270 different Aboriginal languages. Today, only about 60 are spoken on a daily basis. Of these, roughly half a dozen are considered to be strong and are being passed from adults to their children.

Community leaders say these ancient dialects go to the heart of indigenous pride and identity.