Hittin' the road - Episode 9: Coonamble

The work being done at Coonamble TAFE is so crucially important for the future of local indigenous populations

About an hour's drive up the Castlereagh Highway from Gilgandra, and I arrived at Coonamble. This town, with a population of roughly 3,000, has strong indigenous roots, with three different mobs making up the area's original inhabitants. There's also the trifling matter of the name ‘Coonamble', which derives from an Aboriginal word ‘gunambil' – thought to mean "full of bullock's dung". (Many present-day indigenous people of the area, however, will tell you that particular translation is itself a load of bullock's dung, and the word ‘Coonamble' actually means "full of dirt", a reference to the arid nature of the environment.)

Aboriginal language and culture makes up an important part of Coonamble TAFE. I learned a lot during my fairly brief stay from three delightful women – Hayley, Natalie (a primary school teacher and a teacher's aide respectively) and "Aunty Beth" who joined in the conversation via video conference from Dubbo. Aunty Beth was the first indigenous language teacher employed by TAFE NSW and she's clearly very passionate about her work.

The Certificate I in Aboriginal Language/s focuses on the three local languages – Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaalayaay. It occurred to me that many non-indigenous Australians might wonder why such a course exists in the first place. The answer came to me very quickly as I was talking with Hayley, Natalie and Aunty Beth.

Part of the reason that so many indigenous children disengage with their schooling is because of a clash of languages. With only 14 characters in the indigenous alphabet, the mere pronunciation of many common English words can lead to confusing discrepancies between what an indigenous child has been taught by their parents and grandparents and what the teacher says is right. For example, with no equivalent of the letter ‘v', an indigenous child would say "I went swimming in the ribber". Being told they're wrong and that's it's "river, not ribber" is often the first step towards disengagement with schooling, which then leads to limited job options and a whole cycle of poverty and underachievement.

In other words, it all starts with language. Which is why the work being done at Coonamble TAFE is so crucially important for the future of local indigenous populations. And as Aunty Beth put so eloquently; "The language has been dormant for so long. And culture is important to the language."

True words indeed.