We should be embedding Indigenous language in everyday life / by Simon Mould

Kia ora koutou katoa.

I've spent the past few weeks in New Zealand, attending a conference on river science and working with likeminded colleagues at Auckland University.

It's my first time on the North Island, and the first thing that stood out to me is how deeply embedded Maori language is in the everyday life of New Zealanders.

The ubiquity of Maori terms and phrases in scientific presentations, on street signs and in everyday conversations was a surprise to me. Even toilet doors invite 'Tane' before 'Men'.

At first, it felt a little isolating – I don't know any of these words. But it had a powerful effect: it made me look up these words and try to understand the conventions and protocols that were being followed.

Widespread use of Maori language made me think about what we're doing back home in Australia, and how invisible Indigenous languages are to non-Indigenous Australians like myself. Sure, many place names are Aboriginal, but many of them have been naturalised into – and corrupted by – the English language to the point that most people do not recognise them as belonging to Indigenous languages.

Wouldn't it be great to see more local Indigenous language in our everyday lives? Of course, the diversity of Indigenous languages in Australia would make this more challenging than in New Zealand. But on the other hand, what an exciting opportunity this would be to give a unique sense of place to different locations in Australia through connection with language.

The place to start is with schooling, and it's great to see that some schools are teaching local Indigenous language. But this needs reinforcement in broader communities, and public/private signage is a very effective way of doing this.

Making language visible invites connection and questioning with culture, and that can only be a good thing.