Nathan Schrieber

A man of his word: revitalising an Indigenous language

3 April 2019
Students of Yarrabah embrace the Gunggay language
At the start of European settlement, there were two hundred and fifty Aboriginal languages. Today, only twenty are widely spoken. Nathan Schrieber's language, Gunggay, was about to be lost until he made it his mission to bring it back.

“I’m trying to find a way of putting all the language I’m learning into a song, just like our ancestors have always done," says Nathan Schrieber.

Dinner with the family is a chance for Nathan Schrieber (MIndigLangEd ’18) to speak the Gunggay language with his four children, aged between three and 12.

New words are regularly added to the conversation, but the best sign the language is finding new life is Nathan’s youngest. He is effectively becoming bilingual, speaking to Schrieber in Gunggay as effortlessly as he converses in English.

“I think back to before the Anglican Church came here. It was just our people, and our language was an everyday thing," says Schrieber. "I can really see that in my youngest son.”

There are few better ways to undermine a people than by forbidding them to speak their own language, as happened in many Aboriginal communities. Language connects people with the cultural nuances of their lore, history, art and ideas. It is a foundation stone of community strength and pride.

Schrieber is one of Queensland’s Gunggandji people, and their language, Gunggay, is among the more endangered of the world’s 2000 plus disappearing languages. “In terms of fluent speakers, I’d be hard-pressed to find five,” says Schrieber, who is spearheading efforts to revitalise his language.

One way he does this is by teaching Gunggay to the students at Yarrabah State School. Yarrabah is Schrieber’s home town, an hour north of Cairns. After driving through lush, mountainous rainforest, you descend into a welcoming place where the front doors are open and the people mingle easily in the streets.

The Gunggay school classes are lively, with lots of laughter and Schrieber weaving Gunggay into the action. Ask the kids and they say Schrieber is funny; away from class he has great warmth but also a reserve, a sense of seriousness, as he does everything he can to make his traditional language more present in the community.

A dialect of the Yidiny language, Gunggay originated in the area around Cairns. Though Yidiny is one of a hundred Australian Aboriginal languages that have fallen out of daily use, it is not considered to be 'extinct' by community members. Still, it wasn’t something Schrieber thought about much until he was at university in Queensland in 2007. Prompted by a lecture on Indigenous perspectives, he began looking for the reasons behind the demise of his language.

Nathan Schrieber on the beach

Nathan at home in Yarrabah.

He found answers in early records from the Anglican mission set up in Yarrabah. The use of Gunggay plummeted soon after missionary John Gribble established the mission in 1892. Gribble died in 1893 but his son Ernest set up dormitories at the mission school, separating children from their parents and teaching them English.

“Instead of trying to learn our language, he forced English upon our ancestors,” says Schrieber, who is rebuilding Gunggay with the help of his community Elders who have held onto some of the language.

After first contact, the use of Gunggay diminished and a hybrid language, Yarrie Lingo, emerged. A creole built from English and Yidiny languages, it’s still spoken by many Gunggandji people and is far more prevalent than its traditional predecessor.

Growing up in Cairns as the son of an Indigenous Queensland public servant, Schrieber spoke English but had brushes with his first language, mostly through overhearing conversations among his Elders. “We weren’t formally being taught. The language was just floating around within earshot,” he says.

Schrieber started pursuing these subconscious words while still an undergraduate and had a eureka moment at his university’s library. There he found two 50-year-old field recordings of Gunggay songs. “I just struck gold,” he says.

After a four-year stint in Cairns, Schrieber returned to Yarrabah to teach, and continue building on the 350 Gunggay words he identified at university. In 2013, the Yarrabah State School principal asked him to become a dedicated language teacher, an opportunity he grabbed eagerly while knowing there was still much to learn about Gunggay and how he could best pass it on to younger generations.

Off the back of advice from friends and colleagues, he enrolled in the University of Sydney’s Master of Indigenous Languages Education (MILE) program. A one-year fulltime course, he completed it through intensive lecture weeks on campus while he continued his fulltime teaching role. The postgraduate degree was instrumental in improving Schrieber’s grasp on the structure of Gunggay.

“Finding out that the way our language is structured is similar to the majority of other Aboriginal languages in the country was fascinating,” he says. Some words are also similar. For example, the Gunggay word for kangaroo is kangoola.

Nathan Schrieber and students

Yarrabah, Nathan's hometown, is an hour north of Cairns on Queensland's north coast.

At Yarrabah State School, he teaches Gunggay to most students. “Singing and dancing has always been part of our culture; our kids love singing and dancing. I’m trying to find a way of putting all the language I’m learning into a song or making a dance out of it, just like our ancestors have always done.”

Primary school students receive half an hour a week of language teaching and high school students have 70-minute weekly lessons. He incorporates the two songs he found at the beginning of his linguistic journey to help with pronunciation and motivate learning.

It’s an ever-evolving process, with Schrieber passing on new language to students as he learns it.

“I’ve only been on my journey for 10 years and the school has only been on its journey for six years,” says Schrieber. “Every day we’re coming up with new ways to use the language.”

Revivers of other languages, like Gumbaynggirr in the Coffs Harbour region and Kaurna in Adelaide, have created new words for contemporary ideas using knowledge of their traditional languages. This is on the cards for Gunggay speakers but is still some way down the track.

“I’m sure we’ll do it because there are so many new things to talk about,” says Schrieber. “I think the feeling in our community is that we want to make use of every single word we currently have because we know where it’s come from, and we know that it’s always been living here on our Country.”

Schrieber says he pinches himself when he considers his good fortune in being a qualified teacher with a postgraduate degree in teaching his first language, who works in a supportive school environment.

“I feel honoured and blessed that I can go about this important business of revitalising my first language.”

Recognising outstanding alumni

Nathan was awarded the Sister Alison Bush Graduate Medal for his contribution to the Indigenous community at the 2019 Alumni Awards. Read more about the other winners at the Alumni Awards website.

Hear more about Nathan's story

Written by Jocelyn Prasad 
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim

Read more alumni stories