Passion for indigenous language leads to national award

10 May 2017

John's relationship with the Gamilaraay people began not as a linguist but as a teacher who was concerned for the well-being of Indigenous people.

ANU academic and lecturer Dr John Giacon has won the Patji-Dawes award, Australia's premier award for language teaching.

Dr Giacon, a Christian Brother, researches and teaches Gamilaraay, an Indigenous Australian language being revitalised. It is the traditional language over a large area of north central NSW and Queensland.

The Patji-Dawes award recognises outstanding achievements in language teaching by an accomplished practitioner in Australia, whether teaching in primary or secondary school, university, language schools or language centres.

Nominations for this year's award came from students inspired by many language teachers including those teaching French, German, Mandarin, Italian and Indonesian.

Dr Giacon began working on Gamilaraay, and the closely related Yuwaalaraay, when he moved to Walgett in 1994. He has often taught these languages, including Gamilaraay courses at the University of Sydney since 2006 and at ANU since 2012. He has been untiring in his efforts to promote the teaching of Indigenous languages at universities, and to involve the traditional owners of Gamilaraay in the revitalisation and teaching of Gamilaraay. A number of Gamilaraay have completed his courses and gone on to teach also.

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at ANU Professor Nick Evans, said Dr Giacon's ability to teach Gamilaraay was an outstanding achievement given that when Dr Giacon first began working with Gamilaraay people, even the oldest speaker had found it difficult to recall lengthy sentence structures and much of what had been recorded was single words and shorter sentences.

"John's relationship with the Gamilaraay people began not as a linguist but as a teacher who was concerned for the well-being of Indigenous people, particulary those he was living with in Walgett," said Professor Evans.

"He gradually came to realise how much growing back the language is part of healing the terrible wounds of the past. Whenever possible he has tried to do this by employing old recordings to let the voices of elders now departed be heard in the classroom. But he has also been ingenious in filling in gaps in our knowledge by drawing on knowledge of the closely-related language Yuwaalaraay material.

"As Bonnie pointed out in her nomination, John's work has led to a Gamilaraay grammar, a learner's guide, dictionary, picture dictionary, teachers' resource books, and song books. He continues to inspire other teachers of Gamilaraay who pass the language on to the next generation. It really is an outstanding achievement - Gamilaraay's revitalisation has been a significant part of his life's work."

As part of the prize, they will attend a conferring ceremony at the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers (FMLTA) conference on the Gold Coast on July 6.

The Patji-Dawes award is named after Aboriginal woman Patyegarang and her Eora language student, First Fleet Lieutenant William Dawes. They shared a student-teacher relationship that saw Lt Dawes master the Sydney-region language in the earliest documented instance of a settler learning an Indigenous language.

The prize is administered by the ARC Centre for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL). It is co-sponsored by FMLTA and the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities (LCNAU).