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Tokyo prof strives to rescue an Aboriginal language from oblivion

by Eriko Arita

“Every language is a cultural asset of humanity,” is how Tasaku Tsunoda expressed his motivation for costarting a project in 2002 to teach the extinct Warrongo language to the Aboriginal people of the Warrongo tribe of northeastern Australia.

Although it is believed that there were up to 600 Aboriginal languages in use in Australia when the British became the first European settlers there in the late 1700s, most have largely disappeared along with the identities of the tribes that spoke them. As a result, English became the continent’s dominant language and there are only around 20 Aboriginal languages in daily use today, according to Barry J. Blake, a leading authority who is professor emeritus at multicampus La Trobe University in the state of Victoria.

Bizarrely enough, Tsunoda, a 63-year-old Japanese national, is now the world’s only speaker of Warrongo — though he is the first to admit he is not fluent.

Now a professor at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in Tokyo, Tsunoda first encountered Warrongo when he was studying Australian Aboriginal languages in the northeast Australian state of Queensland in the early 1970s.

“At that time in north Queensland, Aboriginal children were not interested in learning their own languages from their parents or grandparents,” Tsunoda said.

According to many authorities on Aboriginal history and culture, that disinterest stemmed from the Aboriginal people’s long and painful marginalization by Australia’s white immigrants right from the time of their arrival. Consequently, Aboriginal cultures were derided by the new majority population, who also forced Aboriginal people to speak English. One result of this was that Aboriginal languages became associated with an underclass status, causing many Aboriginal people to reject the language of their ancestors.

In 1966, however, the government finally abandoned Australia’s long-standing “White Australia” policy, signaling a shift away from the country’s racist, white-supremacist past — and planting with it a seed of respect for Aboriginal cultures. But the realization of the value of those cultures — only significantly evident since the 1990s — came too late for many hundreds of Aboriginal languages.

For the Warrongo language, though, new hope dawned five years later, in 1971, when Tsunoda met Alf Palmer on an Aboriginal reservation on Palm Island in Queensland. Tsunoda was a 25-year-old student of Melbourne’s Monash University at the time. Palmer was a Warrongo, whose tribal name was Jinbilnggay — and he was the last speaker of his tribal language. Through their meeting, Tsunoda said he believes Palmer probably saw in him the best hope of passing on his tribal language, which had once been in use across a wide area stretching between the Queensland cities of Townsville and Cairns.

“I am the last one to speak Warrongo. When I die, this language will die,” Tsunoda recalled Palmer saying to him. “I’ll teach you everything I know. So put it down properly.”

After that first meeting, Tsunoda spent a total of about eight months between 1971 and 1974 learning the language from Palmer, documenting and tape-recording everything he told him, including many tribal myths and hunting and fishing lore.

Based on this, in 1974 Tsunoda wrote his master’s thesis comprising 400 pages on Warrongo grammar and sent a copy to Palmer, who died seven years later at the likely age of 101.

“Because Mr. Palmer died in 1981, I am now the only speaker of Warrongo, though I am not fluent,” Tsunoda said.

In 1998, Tsunoda received e-mail messages from two Aboriginal people from the Townsville area informing him that a few groups of Aboriginal people there had started a movement to revive their ancestral languages, as was happening in many other parts of the world.

The e-mails also included a message that “Rachel Cummins says ‘Hello’ to you.” Tsunoda said he knew that must be from one of Palmer’s grandchildren he’d met in the 1970s. And he said he knew immediately that she wanted him to teach the Warrongo language to her and her people.

Finally, in March 2000 and again in March 2001, Tsunoda was able to visit Cummins, who lives in Townsville, and found that she owned the copy of his master’s thesis on Warrongo that Palmer had kept and handed to her before he died. Because of that, she felt responsible for reviving the language her grandfather spoke, Tsunoda says.

Then in March 2002, in the first Warrongo lesson he conducted while in Townsville with his wife, Mie, Tsunoda played Cummins and her children one of his many tape-recordings of Palmer speaking in Warrongo in the early 1970s.

“She was moved to tears to listen to her grandfather’s words, and so were her children even though they had never met their great grandfather,” Tsunoda said.

Afterward, in lessons attended by several other Warrongo people as well, Tsunoda began teaching basic words such as yamba (house or camp), yuri (kangaroo) and gamo (water).

Although Tsunoda, by then a professor of linguistics at the University of Tokyo, was well versed in Warrongo, he was not experienced in language teaching. But his wife, Mie — now a part-time lecturer in Japanese linguistics at Rissho University in Tokyo — had taught Japanese using various materials, and it was she who prepared word cards of Warrongo and illustrations to help her husband.

“In teaching interrogative sentences, he first explained the structure of the sentences,” Mie said. “Then I showed cards with illustrations to students and let them practice saying sentences. For example, I showed an illustration of a kangaroo and let the students say, ‘A man caught a kangaroo’; ‘Who caught a kangaroo?’; and ‘What did a man catch?’ “

Since then Tsunoda and his wife have visited Townsville another four times, for about five days on each occasion, to give lessons in Warrongo during their own time off work. Over that period, Tsunoda said he has seen their students gradually mastering simple sentences as they have also been able to continue their studies in between his visits using an English- Warrongo dictionary he put together. In fact, within two years of them having their first lesson, he says Cummins told him her daughters were already teasing each other in Warrongo.

But Warrongo is not an easy language to learn, Tsunoda said, explaining that it has many more verb conjugations and noun cases than English.

“The method of forming complex sentences in Warrongo is found in only about a half-dozen languages in Queensland — out of 6,000 to 7,000 languages in the world,” Tsunoda said. “Although Warrongo had been disregarded as a primitive language, it is actually a cultural asset of humanity.”

In addition to the progress his Warrongo students are making, Tsunoda maintains that the language lessons are enhancing their self-awareness.

“A boy said to me, ‘I want to have a Warrongo name,’ ” Tsunoda said excitedly. “He had awoken to his own identity. I think it is great result.”

In March 2004, Tsunoda, his wife and Cummins’ family paid a visit to Palmer’s grave on Palm Island, where Tsunoda said, “I talked to the grave, saying ‘I came back to see you’ in Warrongo.” He added that other people also read aloud their messages to Palmer in Warrongo that Tsunoda had translated from English.

Since giving their last lesson in Queensland in August 2006, Tsunoda and his wife have kept in touch with Cummins but fear they may not meet again. That’s because, although the couple have paid most of their Australian travel costs to teach Warrongo themselves, they have no funds left for any more trips — unless organizations in Japan or Australia can assist them, since such funding is unavailable to the disadvantaged Warrongo Aboriginal people themselves. It seems the question is: what price a language?