Waking up the Woi Wurrung language

Originally published in the September 2016 edition of Australian Teacher Magazine

When Mathew Gardiner picks up the phone, there is a smile in his voice. The Wurundjeri man has just had a “breakthrough” with the Preps he teaches twice a week at Melton West Primary School.

This is Gardiner’s first stint in the classroom and the subject could not be more personal. Now in his second term running the school’s new LOTE program, Gardiner is “waking up” the local Woi Wurrung language.

“Words can’t describe how I’m feeling about all of this,” he tells Australian Teacher Magazine.

Not in English anyway. Because the words Gardiner now teaches in class, words like ‘Marram’ for kangaroo or ‘Bunrdup yalingbring’ for good morning, are endangered.

Only 20 people in Victoria still speak the Woi Wurrung language.

“I started learning my language only recently,” Gardiner says. “[I] wanted to have more connection to my culture, and language is definitely one of the big things missing within the Aboriginal everyday cultural practices … Having that … really makes and rebuilds and strengthens our spirit.”

The breakthrough with his Preppies came after Gardiner began introducing more games in class.

“We’re a very oral language… [and] kids learn better by having fun,” he says. “Today was definitely [the] best session that we’ve ever had… I got them dancing, I got them acting as animals and getting them to do the sounds, counting their body parts as the animals… the kangaroo, the emu, the goanna…”

Gardiner came to the school in April after a student asked principal Michelle Costa why there was not an Aboriginal teacher running Melton West’s ‘Koori Club’.

For the school leader looking to bring in more Indigenous staff, it was a question Costa took deeply to heart.

Since then, Gardiner has taken over the club, running cultural sessions and incursions as well as the 10-week LOTE program. Feedback has been strong and Gardiner now says he’s found his calling.

“When I was a kid I used to pretend I was in the classroom and I was conducting the class, so I’ve always done that,” he says. “…[And] as much as I’m empowering the kids, they’re actually empowering me even more. Each day, every time I see my nephew, I’m always speaking in language to him.”

While Melton West may only be the second school in the state to offer Woi Wurrang, Gardiner now hopes to see Indigenous language continue to “expand within the school curriculum”.

“My goal is to get all the schools in Victoria engaging with their local language… You see every other ethnic person speak their language and you can see the body language and the facial expressions and how honoured and proud they are talking in their language. It’s definitely the same for me now that I’ve learn it.”

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