I have just returned from a fabulous trip to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and China. My sister lives in New Zealand and I was going to visit her and spend some time sightseeing. Being a languages enthusiast with a special interest in minority languages, I was keen to find out more about the Aboriginal and Maori languages in Australia and New Zealand. In preparation for my short visit to China, I had some Mandarin lessons before I went.
My first stop was Sydney, Australia which was good to visit in January being the Australian summer and British winter! I only had a few days to spend here so I spent it by taking a half day walking tour, exploring Abbey’s (the largest languages book shop in Australia) and taking an excursion into the Blue Mountains and to Featherdale Wildlife Park where I was able to feed animals such as wallabies, pademelons and kangaroos and I had my picture taken with many of the animals including a koala!
I enjoyed my visit to Abbey’s, the foreign language book shop. I specifically wanted to buy a book on an Aboriginal language. Luckily, the shop had a few and I bought a short story book with a translation in English and a glossary at the back.
The book is written in Noongar (sometimes written as Nyungar) which is spoken in the south west of Australia. There are only around 200 native speakers left. The European settlers started to document the language in the early 1800s to improve communication with the Noongar people. If you would like to learn more about Noongar, there is an official website about promoting the Noongar Language and Culture. The website also provides a link to the Noongar-English Dictionary. You can learn some basic Noongar vocabulary by listening to the mp3 file on this website. In addition, there is a singer called Gina Williams who sings in Noongar, which is her native language. Here is a video of one of her Noongar songs. Noongar is now being taught in some primary schools in the area. In the rest of Australia, there are still 150 Aboriginal languages in daily use which is a decrease from between the 350 to 750 that existed in the 18th century.
There are ongoing projects similar to the Noongar language project in other parts of Australia for other Aboriginal languages. Currently, around 80 Aboriginal languages are taught in schools in Australia and from 2016, a new school curriculum is being introduced with more provision for Aboriginal languages.
The next part of my trip was to South Island, New Zealand. I was based in Christchurch where my sister lives. I hired a car and travelled down to the stunning Lake Tekapo which has the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd on its shores.
I also went to Akaroa, a French colonial town about an hour away from Christchurch. The town was founded by French settlers in the 1840s who bought the land from the local Maori people. One of their original cottages still stands which can now be visited as part of the museum as well as the old Court House and the Customs House.
Some British settlers arrived around the same time as the French and although the town still has descendants from the original French settlers, the English language began to dominate as early as the 1860s. Nowadays, Akaroa still has a French feel.
The streets have French names and the restaurants serve good French cuisine. They also hold a French Festival every year.
Moving on to the Maori language, I picked up a phrasebook to have a look at the language. I found a Maori TV channel with subtitles in English and I spoke to a local resident who told me about the Maori language education he had in primary school. The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch contains a lot of information and artefacts from the Maori people. Interestingly, there was also a section about the Chatham Islands whose indigenous inhabitants were the Moriori people. The Moriori people had their own Polynesian language which unfortunately died out after the Maori invasion in the 1820s, although some texts still exist. It is similar to the Maori language. You can watch a short video here about a group of people sailing to the Chatham Islands. It’s in Maori with English subtitles.
Maori is an official language in New Zealand now and has around 30,000 native speakers with many more capable of having a conversation. Over 1000 schools in New Zealand teach Maori and in 2015 there were 115 schools offering full Maori medium education which means the students are taught the full school curriculum in Maori.
The last stop on my trip was a stopover in Hong Kong with a trip into southern China. I had originally thought about learning some Cantonese but I found resources and skype tutors to be quite scarce compared to Mandarin and as I knew I was going to China too, I opted for Mandarin. I went into mainland China from Hong Kong on a group tour with a local guide.
Our first stop was a kindergarten for children aged 3 to 5 in Shenzhen. The guide explained to us that all education is done in Mandarin and not Cantonese even though there are a lot of Cantonese speakers in the region. This was good news for me as I was able to practise my basic Mandarin with the children and ask them some questions. We were then taken to see some pandas before having a traditional Chinese lunch in Guangzhou. Compared to the big, modern skyscrapers of Shenzhen, Guangzhou had a much older, traditional feel and I enjoyed the visit we had to the 6th century temple.
Even though these cities are in the Cantonese speaking part of China, much of the population speaks Mandarin as many people from other parts of China have moved here for work. On returning home, I am continuing with my Chinese lessons and hope to return one day once my Mandarin is a much better level. I am currently doing the Add1Challenge in Mandarin where I will have a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker and record it on video after 90 days of learning.