Accessible Page Links

Page Tools

Main page Content

Woorabinda SS Language Project

​Teaching Traditional Language at Woorabinda

“For 25 years the people of Woorabinda have been talking about getting their language back” (John Waterton – Gungabula Elder).  This finally began to happen in 2012 when the school introduced traditional language into the curriculum.  Woorabinda State School, like all other schools in Queensland, was required to teach a Language Other Than English (LOTE).  It seemed logical that this should be a traditional language rather than a foreign language.  This decision posed some major challenges that the school needed to work through in order to “bring language back to Woorabinda” (John Waterton – Gungabula Elder). 

History of Language in Woorabinda

When Woorabinda was established in 1927, Aboriginal people were moved from all around Queensland to live in the mission.  In this process families and language groups were separated.  During the mission period people were discouraged from speaking language.  “The white population, especially government people, objected to you speaking language, they wanted you to speak English so they could understand you” (Tim Kemp – Ghungalu Elder/Traditional Owner).  As a result of this, more than 80 years later, there are no fluent speakers of the traditional languages that were originally spoken in the Woorabinda area. 

Fifty-two Languages

The population dispersal that occurred in the early 20th century under the Aboriginal Protection Act resulted in 52 language groups living within the Woorabinda community.  In a community with a population of around 1300 this has created a very complex dilemma for the school -  How to decide which language or languages are taught. 

Language Situation 2012

Steve Kemp (Ghungalu Elder/Traditional Owner) comments that “The majority of the language was basically gone, but they were still using bits and pieces of it, not so much the younger people but the older people. There were very few words that were used”. This limited vocabulary and the loss of local knowledge about the grammar and sentence structure of the language meant that the school was essentially trying to revive a language that was almost extinct.

Language Group 

A community based language group was formed to provide guidance for the process of implementing traditional language teaching in the school.  This language group continues to meet on an as needed basis.  The membership of the group is not fixed, meetings are widely advertised in the community and any interested community members are welcome to participate. 

Language Group Meeting Protocol

An important element of the Language Group success has been the group’s meeting protocol.  The protocol is about respecting decisions made by the group.  If a member misses a meeting, then they need to respect any decisions that the group makes in their absence.  This protocol has enabled the language group to keep discussions and decision making processes moving forward.  

Which Languages 

The language group decided that “to show respect for the traditional owners of this country where Woorabinda is, that the languages taught in the school should be the two local languages Ghungalu and Wadja” (Beresford Domic - Principal). 

Teaching Language

From 2012 to 2014 John Waterton (Gungabula Elder) conducted language classes in the school.  In 2015 Steve Kemp (Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner) joined John and together they form the current language teaching team.  The language classes for Year 5 and 6 follow the LOTE time requirements expected by Education Queensland.  Language lessons are also conducted with the Prep to Year 3 classes.   

Finding the Language

To be able to teach the language requires having the language to teach.  Knowledge of the local languages has grown dramatically since the language program started.  This has occurred through a number of sources including: the knowledge of local elders; the language resources of the State Library of Queensland; and most significantly through the work of linguist, Gavan Breen.  
In the 1960’s and 70’s Gavan had documented 51 Aboriginal languages in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. 

Language workshops

A consistent feature of implementing the traditional language program has been an ongoing program of language workshops.  Initially, members of the Woorabinda community attended workshops at the State Library and in Alice Springs.  As the program developed, workshops were held in Woorabinda with linguists Gavan Breen and Dr Margaret Florey.  Regular workshops are also conducted in Woorabinda by the Gidarjil Central Queensland Language Centre.

Inspiration from Native America

The task of reviving a language that is no longer spoken seems almost impossible, however it has been done before.  John Waterton (Gungabula Elder) tells the story of a Native American woman who, over a period of 30 years, brought her language back from having no speakers to 6000 people learning their language.


Beresford Domic (Principal) acknowledges that “we’ve got lots of people who are supporting us right across the country, both indigenous and non-indigenous, who can see the value of these kinds of programs”.  The development and implementation of the language program would not be possible without the support of the following organisations.
Regional Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD) -
Gidarjil – Central Queensland Language Centre – Bundaberg - ​

State Library of Queensland -​

Indigenous Knowledge Centre

Woorabinda State School is part of the Queensland State Library’s network of Indigenous Knowledge Centres. An added benefit of the development of the language program has been the bringing together of historical information.  Access to records such as Removal Lists, and Marriage and Death Registers has given the people of Woorabinda the ability to trace their own personal histories.​

 Beresford Domic

(Principal - Woorabinda SS)
An Overview of the Language Program
Beresford talks about the language program


 John Waterton

(Gungabula Elder)
Reviving Tradition Language in Woorabinda
John talks about the beginning of the language program and the support and inspiration that came from other people and places.​​


 Steve Kemp

​Information about Language
(Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner)
​Steve talks about bringing together language for the program.


 Steve Kemp

​Teaching Language and Culture
(Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner)​
​Steve talks about teaching language in the school and its link to aboriginal knowledge and culture.


 Steve Kemp

Language History and Family Connections
(Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner)​
​Steve talks about how the language program has helped people in Woorabinda find out about their own family histories.​


 Tim Kemp

​Language Recollections
(Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner)​
Tim talks about language and his experiences in his early life and his recollection of stories and songs.


 Tim Kemp

​History Stories
(Ghungalu Elder and Traditional Owner)​​
​Tim talks about moving to Woorabinda in 1926 when he was five years old and stories from his life growing up in the mission and how he got to leave Woorabinda.​