Lingua franca of the outback

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, April 2007 

By Amy McQuire

KIM Scott has a pretty impressive command of the English language.


It’s hard to argue otherwise when you look at his resume.

As well as a successful maiden book that was also translated into French, his second novel Benang, won both the WA Premiers Literary Award in 1999; Australian literature’s most prestigious prize, the Miles Franklin award in 2000 and the Kate Challis RAKA Award in 2001.

But Mr Scott also has a passion for Indigenous languages, as shown in his 2005 release Kayang and Me and a new compilation book this year edited by Mary Besemeres and Anna Wierzbicka.

The book, entitled Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, attempts to tap into the experiences felt by Australians who are bi- and multi-lingual.

Mr Scott writes of his experiences learning his ancestral tongue of Noongar and the importance of preserving Indigenous languages and it’s role in healing the loss of identity and heritage many Indigenous people feel.

“One of my own feelings as an Indigenous person is that [learning Indigenous languages] is a lovely way of consolidating a connection with the ancestors and the ancestral country, since a lot of the words and language forms refer to the natural world,” Mr Scott says.

“In a wider sense, there’s a chance of healing aspects of the division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the same way of things like the Olympic games.”

“I think it’s important. It gives another depth to your sense of heritage.”

Mr Scott’s journey towards learning Noongar began around the time he started writing Benang, a Noongar word for ‘tomorrow’. But it was researching the history of a Noongar family that Mr Scott’s “re-learning” of the Noongar language gained momentum.

“I thought of how in learning to make the sounds of a regional Indigenous language – even in learning to do so – there is the possibility of reshaping oneself from the inside out, of making oneself an instrument of place, particularly when the language is so onomatopoeic,” Mr Scott writes in Translating Lives.

“…And of course, there is also the promise and pleasure of sharing something of the perspectives of ancestors.”

Mr Scott says one of the main challenges for Indigenous people wanting to re-learn language is finding fluent speakers.

When learning language, questions also arise as to who has the rights to deal with the language, Mr Scott says.

For now, Mr Scott is continuing his work with language preservation.

“I continue to work on language consolidation and regeneration and because I work as a writer in English, I’m trying to set up ways of working with composing bi-lingual stories and finding ways to do that in a way that consolidates community-based projects,” Mr Scott said.


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