'There's often a tension about a whitefella teaching them the language'

John Giacon's decades-long dedication to the revitalisation of indigenous languages has been a sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding pursuit.

The Australian National University lecturer and researcher's work saw him recognised last week with the the Patji-Dawes Award - Australia's top honour for language teaching.

"I used to be a schoolteacher and I think this is probably way more valuable than teaching people mathematics and coaching football teams," Dr Giacon said.

Dr Giacon first started working on Gamilaraay and the closely-related Yuwaalaraay after moving to Walgett in northern New South Wales in 1994.

With the help and blessing of Uncle Ted Fields, now deceased, the Christian Brother travelled the nearby bush and documented vocabulary lists.

After instituting a language program at a Walgett school with some success, Dr Giacon worked to organise community language meetings in nearby towns where he shared language, teaching strategies and curriculum.

While working in the communities he witnessed the restorative power of language.

"There were plenty of people in Walgett who were punished in schools and in other ways for using language - one person I was talking to one day said 'My father had the choice of keeping his language or keeping his job and feeding his kids'," Dr Giacon said.

"There was active destruction of language. To me, people talk about it being culture, but to me it's more about identity, that it's OK to be black and we can assert blackness in public.

"At one stage I was walking down the street in Walgett and someone said yaama, and the fact that people used an Aboriginal language in public where that wasn't allowed previously, for an Aboriginal person it's an assertion of their identity, for a white person it's a statement of respect."

Dr Giacon later moved to Canberra to further study and teach Gamilaraay.

International, Aboriginal and white students show interest in his classes, with some Gamilaraay students going on to teach the language themselves.

Teaching and researching indigenous languages could be, he said, "a place where things are messy".

There are tensions that come with being a white man of Italian heritage learning and teaching an Aboriginal language.

"Because this is about people's own identity and something that they feel white people took away from them, there's often a tension about a whitefella teaching them the language," he said.

"For me, if I can try to understand where this tension's coming from, I think it makes it easier to work with.

"You've got to say this is the reality, this is how Aboriginal people have been treated, this is cross-generational trauma."

Ted Fields jnr, Mr Fields's son, last week approached Dr Giacon to develop a new language program aimed at making Gamilaraay more accessible to Gamilaraay people.

Mr Fields jnr paid tribute to the dedication of Dr Giacon in revitalising the language.

"In an ideal world we wouldn't have to go through this," Mr Fields jnr said.

"It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time and work to be able to use the language.

"It's being widely used and I would say used daily right across north-west New South Wales at least, so that's based on the efforts of John and his collaboration with my dad."

The ANU's ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language director Nick Evans described the revitalisation of Gamilaraay - documented in a Gamilaraay learner's guide, dictionary, picture dictionary, teachers' resource books and song books, as "a significant part of [Dr Giacon's] life's work".

"He continues to inspire other teachers of Gamilaraay who pass the language on to the next generation," Professor Evans said.

This story 'There's often a tension about a whitefella teaching them the language' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.