Language learning connects to culture and country

By Kirli Saunders in conversation with Right Now in conversation with Kirli Saunders | 12 Feb 19
Kirli Saunders poet

Kirli Saunders is a children’s author, poet, educator and First Nations cultural consultant. In 2018 she founded the Red Room Poetry’s Poetry in First Languages project, an initiative that celebrates, shares and preserves knowledge of First Nations languages and culture through poetry, music, dance and art. She took the time to share some thoughts with Right Now about her upcoming poetry book and the importance of language and creative expression to First Nations peoples.

You can also read her poem “Unbind” at Right Now.

You have a collection of poems coming out with Magabala Books in 2019 called Kindred. Could you describe some of the key themes of the collection and the inspiration behind it?

Kindred is to be released by Magabala Books in May, 2019. This collection has been six years in the making, and explores the unity between culture, country and community. It unpacks my own experiences in the realms of identity and examines the dispossession and removal of my family from the Gunai, Biripi and Yuin Nations – as late as the 1960s/70s.

Kindred reflects my relationship with those around me, as well as my connection to the earth, and the role of the Mother Earth in healing intergenerational trauma.

You are the founder of the Poetry in First Languages Project. How did the project come about? Why is there a need from projects such as these?

Raised with little First Nations language, I was really interested in providing ways for our poets and young people to learn our languages. After chatting with our Artistic Director at Red Room Poetry, I was given creative license to design a project that would support language learning.

Delivered by Red Room Poetry, Poetry in First Languages (PIFL) supports First Nations students in creating poetry in first languages by connecting them to First Nations poets, Elders and Language Custodians on country. The focus is to strengthen the connection of First Nations students to country, language and community in order to empower students to feel pride in their cultural identities resulting in enhanced wellbeing overall.

Over three years, commissioned poets will connect with their Elders to create poems in language. They then teach workshops on country with Elders and Custodians, supporting students to write poems that are published on the Red Room Poetry website. We’re also working towards an anthology and resources featuring these poems in language for teachers.

PIFL has innovative publication outcomes, allowing First Nations languages to be highly visible on bus backs, in murals and in public art installations like Tumbalong Gatherers and Cookaroo Flow.

What as been the reception of the project? Can you talk about a time when you could see the impact of the project (with the kids, the families or the wider community)?

The project has been received really positively. I’ve loved seeing our young people’s eyes light up with pride when they see their poem published on the website and as public art. Teachers are really excited to be able to access the curriculum in meaningful ways, and schools are connecting with the local community to form powerful ongoing relationships.

Publishing PIFL commissioned poems on buses, trains and for Tumbalong Gatherers light boxes has meant that during their daily commute the wider community is engaging with languages and dialects they might not often see.

The project is being researched by Bailey & Yang and by Masters student, Eleanor Carless at UTS. This project is the first of its kind, so it’s paving the way for language learning through the arts and particularly through poetry.

At the moment there’s a fundraising campaign with the Cultural Fund that the community have been generously supporting. It’s heart-warming to see that the benefits of language learning are widely noticed.

Why are poetry and cultural expression in particular important in the teaching and learning of language?

From a teaching and learning perspective, poetry provides a meaningful outcome for students, allowing them to apply their learning of language to the arts. More broadly, language learning connects us to our culture and country in profound ways – we form new words to articulate our identity. When we think and speak the language of the Country that we’re living on, we’re deeply connected to that earth and our ancestry.

Have you seen a change in First Nations languages teaching in the education system over the years? What would you like to see change in the teaching (or incorporation into the curriculum) of First Nations languages in Australia?

We’ve come a really long way, just one to two generations ago PIFL would not have existed, and the speaking of First Nations languages was banned in schools and the wider community. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and to pay respect to those ancestors, educators and activists who’ve bought about that change. There’s still a long way to go in regards to language learning. It’s brilliant that the curriculum has included many First Nations languages and I’d love to see all of our languages endorsed and taught in this way. In my ideal world, Custodians and Elders would be employed in every school to teach language, culture and connection to country. We’d be learning more outside, we’d be learning Dreaming stories and implementing the ancient wisdom that has carried us for 60,000 years. This year is the International year of Indigenous Languages, so there will be lots of things happening in communities all over the world to celebrate language. I’m off to PULiiMA conferece to share PIFL, and hopefully see the project and others like it paving the way to bring about these much needed changes in First Nations language learning in the classroom.