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Lala Gutchen

First languages program facilitator

As a First Languages program facilitator Lala Gutchen works to build, understand and archive language – and today, that means utilising technology

By Lala Gutchen with Danika Davis

We live in two worlds. Our language is for our world and our cultural practice and tells the rest of the world we were here first. You also need the English language to survive and to get an education. And education is important. One day you’re going to need English and mathematics skills. You also have to learn technology for jobs.

My Father and many Elders told me that when some Island families left the island to the mainland Australia, they wouldn’t be back on the Islands for a while. They left for work and pursued better life for their families on the mainland. Some we would hear them speak the language including Youmpla Tok and English. Unfortunately, some now don’t speak the language anymore including those of us on Erub island. However, I have come across lots of families across the Torres Strait and on the mainland whom still hold on to their cultural practices through songs and dancers. I am more focused on building understanding and archiving our Erub Mer language as a written language now for the Erubam and Ugaram people.  Our language was only oral from our Ancestors time and started to be written down during the arrival of the missionaries in the late 1800’s throughout the Torres Strait.

I am more focused on building understanding and archiving written language. Our language was only oral, it was never written down. In this era now, we’re here to teach the language and revive it, but the next generation will decide if they want to continue it. If not at least it will be written and archived for the future.

Digitising language

I continue the work after my father who taught for several years at the local primary school in Erub, and also around the community of Erub, with his uncle.  My father is one of the few last speakers of the Erub Mer language. At the moment, what I do is more on language and culture, teaching children the sound system in language and balancing it with the Australian school language system.

I worked with my grandfather and my dad – I still work with them to this very day – to document language. In my work with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) – we are recording the language and putting it into a digital platform. 

ALNF introduced me to the Living First Language Platform five years ago with an Aboriginal fella who knew Mob who had used it on the mainland for their language – the team showed us and taught us. We were the first to use it in the Torres Strait Islands. When they came, we learned it quickly. Ten years ago I was using a flip phone, and now I’m using a smartphone to scan and convert text! 

Living in Saltwater Country

I took on teaching work after I had big dreams for other things. Actually, I wanted to be a tugboat skipper or go to the mines. I enjoyed being out in Saltwater Country. But my Mum explained to me: that was taking resources from Aboriginal Country. She used cultural knowledge to change my mind. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ Now I have my own dingy and can cruise around on my Country. I always refer back to that, because if I went that way I would have been destroying someone else’s Country. 

I studied through Year 11 and Year 12 – English is not my first language so it was very hard for me. I had to take it step by step. I was an artist so I went on with that. I studied a diploma at TAFE. There was a lot of storytelling, language and culture involved. That’s when I realised language and culture were really important for me. 

I had jobs offered to me on the mainland because of my cultural knowledge, but I want to be here on Erub Island with my people and my ancestors, practicing my culture and my language. I had my daughter and we came home, and I saw my father transitioning out of teaching the language. He told me, ‘I need one of you or your siblings to step up’, and I did. I took over the language teaching.

My Dad just turned 67 and he retired from work. I bought him a laptop for his birthday and myself and my sister taught him how to type. Now he’s recording language on the laptop. He called us ‘the technology generation’ – we can’t run the world manually anymore. To teach it in a digital world to people living in WA, all over Australia, technology helps a lot. I have cousins now on the mainland who can pronounce the language. I’m happy I went down that road.

Most of our families are on the mainland now. I have to adjust everything in language work and put everything on a digital platform. I teach them through technology. That’s how life is – you have to adjust.

Lala’s pathway

  • Language and culture learning from family
  • Certificate IV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts
  • Diploma in Visual Arts
  • On-the-job learning use of digital platforms

A version of this profile also appears in our upcoming issue of Careers with STEM: Indigenous. Sign up to our newsletter to receive updates on its launch date.

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