Talking Tiwi: local languages helping Indigenous customers

The Tiwi Islands are 80 kilometres off the coast of mainland Northern Territory. It’s only a short distance from Darwin but the series of Islands are a world away from city life.

Bathurst Island, one of the two largest Islands that make up Tiwi, is predominantly populated by Indigenous communities where English is often their second or third language.

Jessica Mullins manages the Department of Human Services’ Remote Service Centre on Bathurst Island, and is one of four staff that use Tiwi to deliver services to locals.

Bathurst Island staff (L-R): Tiffany Parker, Joachim Tipiloura, Jessica Mullins, Russell Yunupingu

The majority of their communication is in the local language, so people can understand the Centrelink and Medicare payments and services they need. Jessica describes the way the language is spoken as going on a journey.

“When you speak in Tiwi, whatever you’re saying needs to have a story around it,” Jessica said.

“It has to be told in a way that tells the whole picture, for example, you couldn’t just say ‘I went to the shops’ like you would in English.

“You’d have to tell it in a way that describes each thing that happened, and all the people you met along the way.

“We don’t have a Tiwi word for a lot of the things typically said in a Centrelink office, which means we have to find a substitute, and that can often be hard.”

We celebrate the importance of language on Mother Language Day (21 February), and this year coincides with the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages.

AIATSIS CEO, Craig Ritchie

CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and Aboriginal man of the Dhunghutti and Biripi nations, Craig Ritchie says language is intrinsic to life.

“Language maintains identity, sustainability, vitality and strength of Indigenous cultures around the world,” Craig said.

“On an individual level, knowledge of one’s mother language strengthens cultural identity and improves health and wellbeing.

“It is currently the International Year of Indigenous Languages and is a time to raise awareness of the crucial role language plays in people’s daily lives.

“I am inspired to see how much community-driven work is already underway around the country to keep our languages alive, much of it using opportunities presented by modern technologies.

“For over 65,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages have carried dreaming stories, songlines and unique systems of knowledge, which are are fundamental to our nation’s story.

“It is essential that we preserve and revitalise them for those who came before us, and those who will follow.”

Remote Service Centre Manager, Jessica Mullins

Jessica’s story is just one way the department is helping to preserve Indigenous languages by delivering services in a community’s native tongue.

“I’m a strong believer that when the message is delivered in Tiwi, we help the people here to understand it better,” said Jessica.

“When it’s delivered in our own language you can just see it on their face – they get it.

“It helps local people understand the reasons behind what we’re saying and why decisions are made.”

The department employs 27 staff across Australia like Jessica, who are based in communities and provide services in local Indigenous languages.

These staff are instrumental in increasing understanding, and making services and support more accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Jessica is thankful for the opportunity to combine both her culture and work.

“I think it’s fantastic that the department supports us to use our own language. I get a real thrill out of helping my community and advocating for them,” Jessica said.

“By speaking Tiwi, I know that we’re delivering the right messages that people understand.

“The community has great pride that we’re speaking their language.”

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