Language Matters – A few words from a GLP alumna

I’ve always had a big heart for languages, and my participation in Macquarie University’s Global Leadership Program certainly provided an encouraging platform for my love of languages to grow and thrive.

During my time at University, I undertook a GLP-approved unit of modern language study (Spanish), and very much enjoyed seeing this study right through from Beginners to Advanced level. My on-campus study was complemented by a combined short course and volunteer experience in Olón, Ecuador, which inspired me to further use my language experience to support the Oxfam International Youth Partnerships (OIYP) program as a volunteer Spanish-English translator. Furthermore, I found great joy in co-establishing and coordinating Beyond Babel, a student-led mentoring program for first-year Language students at Macquarie University.

Prize Giving Ceremony, Languages, Macquarie University

Meeting with representatives from Embassy and Consulate General of Argentina during a Languages prize-giving event at Macquarie, 2012. Photo: Jennifer Heward.

Graduating from University—and from the GLP program—marked far from the end of my language journey, however. Indeed, it marked the start of a career dedicated to drawing on the passion that I’d built in engaging with foreign languages to focus on the importance of First Languages here at home. For tens of thousands of years prior to colonisation, more than 250 distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in Australia. However, due to unjust colonial policies and practices, such as explicit condemnation of native language use, and forced separation of children from their families and speaker communities, many of Australia’s First Languages are currently critically endangered or “sleeping.”

In 2013, I had the privilege of joining the committed team at Kununurra’s Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg) Language and Culture Centre to take on the beautiful challenge of supporting the establishment of one of Australia’s first Language Nest initiatives. A Language Nest is an immersion-based native language education and revitalisation environment. Now in its fourth formal year of operation, the Miriwoong Language Nest program positively works to surround more than three hundred children in and around the Kununurra area with the local Miriwoong language through a culturally responsive and dynamic range of simple talk, storytelling, songs, games and arts/craft activities. In doing so, not only does the program support children’s Miriwoong language skill development, so too does it support a range of broader benefits such as heightened socio-emotional development and self-esteem; increased inter-cultural awareness, empathy, and respect; and wider academic engagement and achievement potential for all children involved.

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Mirriwoong Language Nest session in action with a Kununurra-based class

This year, I am incredibly grateful and excited to have received a Churchill Fellowship, which will provide me with the invaluable opportunity to learn from, and share with, others across the globe who have played an important part in the Language Nest movement. My Fellowship will take me to New Zealand, where the Language Nest model first originated in the 1980s, as well as to parts of Hawaii and Canada, where the model has been effectively adopted or adapted to support other First Languages in other cultural contexts. The aim of my Fellowship is to meaningfully inspire best practice in the design and development of emerging Language Nest initiatives in Australia.

3. Australian Languages

Stephanie with the diverse Australian First Languages mapped out behind her

The great Nelson Mandela once said that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

It has been an incredible joy to be able to use my own big heart for languages to help to touch the hearts of others through First Languages revitalisation work, and I am excited to see how my research experience will inspire this work into the future. For GLP-ers interested in languages, here are a couple of key tips:

  • Remember that it is not just about learning languages; it is also about what you can learn through languages— languages can teach us a wealth about different ways of expressing oneself, understanding others, and making sense of both local and global life-worlds.
  • Remember that it is not just about speaking languages; it is also about listening— effective cross-cultural communication requires active listening to the needs and aspirations of the community concerned. Alongside listening, looking out for non-verbal cues and messages, such as those articulated through body language and symbolic language, can also be very important.
  • Remember that in linguistic diversity, as with diversity more widely, there is beauty and there is strength!

Written by Stephanie Woerde, a GLP alumna. Stephanie graduated from a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies and Culture Change from Macquarie.  She is a 2017 Churchill Fellowship Recipient for her work in developing frameworks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language learning. Stephanie is current working with Reconciliation Australia as a Senior Officer, Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Schools and Early Learning.

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