From Ourimbah to Vanuatu: documenting a disappearing language

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Documenting an endangered Oceanic language wasn’t exactly what Amy Dewar saw in her future whilst working as a funeral director, but it’s precisely where her extraordinary journey with the University of Newcastle (UON) has led her.

Amy is one of more than 800 UON and TAFE students graduating from UON’s Ourimbah campus this week. Armed with a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction, she will grace the stage on Friday to share her new-found passion for linguistics with the graduating class.

“My journey to university was a bit convoluted. I started university in Victoria straight out of school for six months before I decided it wasn’t for me at that time.

“A job opportunity brought me and my husband to the Central Coast, where I focused on my career and having a family before I discovered the beautiful Ourimbah campus,” she said.

With an exceptional entry score, Amy started at UON as a mature-age student under the Faculty of Education and Arts’ Scholars Program. A keen interest in English and writing turned into a new-found passion for the mechanics behind language.

“I am so taken by the idea language is the vehicle of culture and, if lost, the knowledge and tradition that accompanies it can be totally lost too – it’s the driving force of a community.”

Now completing her Honours year under the supervision of Dr Catriona Malau, Amy’s research has led her to the tiny island of Emae in Vanuatu, where less than 400 people are left speaking the local Indigenous language of Fakamae.

Earlier this year, she spent a month living with a local family and documenting the language, which is under threat of disappearing.

“The people there were so welcoming and eager to contribute to the project. The Fakamae community shares a strong pride in their language, and a desire to keep it alive in spite of increasing influence from other languages.

“Many speakers make a conscious choice to make it the lingua franca at home so that children continue to be exposed to it.”

Currently documenting possession in Fakamae for her Honours project, Amy ultimately plans to produce outputs that are useful to community, such as a functional dictionary and learning materials.

“Obviously, losing a language has a huge impact on future generations and ultimately, their culture. Whole chunks of heritage can be lost, so I really hope I can play a part in strengthening the chances of Fakamae’s survival,” she said.

Amy is already planning a trip back to Vanuatu next year under the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme to complete her PhD. She will graduate from the Faculty of Education and Arts at UON’s Ourimbah campus on Friday 7th July at 10am.

Ceremony details:

Thursday, 6th July

  • 10am – Faculty of Business and Law, Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment, Faculty of Science
  • 1.30pm – Faculty of Health and Medicine
  • 5pm – English Language and Foundation Studies & TAFE NSW

Friday, 7th July

  • 10am – Faculty of Education and Arts

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