A new course teaching Kunwinjku language is being offered to university students.

28 June 2019

Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Australian National University (ANU) have combined forces with the Bininj Kunwok Language Reference Committee to offer a course in Kunwinjku language. 

Kunwinjku is part of the Bininj Kunwok language family, spoken by around 2000 people in West Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. 

‘It’s one of the stronger Indigenous languages in the country, as it’s still being transmitted to children as they grow up,’ course convenor and PhD scholar Cathy Bow said.

According to the 2014 National Indigenous Languages Survey, of the estimated original 250 languages at the time of settlement, there are about 120 Indigenous languages spoken across Australia. Of these languages, only 13 are considered strong. 

It is significant that the course started this year as it is the United Nations-declared International Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019). 

IY2019 highlights the importance of reinvigorating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, like Kunwinjku.

‘It’s incredibly important for people who speak the languages in terms of preserving their knowledge and culture,’ Cathy said.

‘Language is part of cultural identity. Without these languages there’s a risk of losing so much cultural knowledge.’

Cathy said Kunwinjku is a fascinating but complex language with a very different grammatical structure.

‘Indigenous languages have a lot of complexities,’ she said. ‘One word in Kunwinjku can represent a whole sentence in English.’

She said the majority of students enrolling in the course are not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, showing the breadth of interest in Indigenous languages.

The first students began the online course this semester, with about 30 students enrolling from Canberra, Darwin and West Arnhem Land.

The course is not just for language students, it is available for anyone studying at the two universities, including students of medicine, law, environmental science, education, or any discipline that has a connection to Indigenous knowledges.  

At the end of the course, students will have a basic grasp of the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the Kunwinjku language to be able to hold a simple conversation.  

At the moment, just one course unit is being offered online through ANU and CDU, but it is hoped more Indigenous language courses will be offered in the future.

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