Language teacher rewarded
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Language teacher rewarded
In 1825 the Reverend Lancelot Edward Threlkeld of the London Missionary Society (LMS) went to Newcastle to set up the society's first Australian mission. He chose a site at Lake Macquarie because it was known to be a meeting place for a large number of the local Aboriginal people. It was a beautiful location, well stocked with game and food plants, a favourite place for festive occasions.
It was the policy of the LMS to have their missionaries learn the local language and to use that knowledge in converting people to Christianity. Threlkeld was an ardent supporter of the use of vernaculars in the mission process and, before coming to Australia, had had experience with the LMS mission in the Society Islands. He began his study of the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie district language, known now as 'Awabakal', as soon as he was settled. According to Threlkeld awaba was the local name for Lake Macquarie and meant 'a plain surface'; -kal or -gal is a suffix meaning 'from'.  Threlkeld often accompanied the people on hunting expeditions so that he could increase his knowledge of the vocabulary for the local flora and fauna. However, Threlkeld acknowledged that he owed much of his success in learning the language to Biraban, an English-speaking Aboriginal man who became his friend and teacher:
An Aboriginal of this part of the colony was my almost daily companion for many years, and to his intelligence I am principally indebted for my knowledge respecting the structure of the language. Biraban was his native name, meaning 'an eagle-hawk', but the English called him M'Gill. ... He had been brought up from his childhood in the Military Barracks, Sydney, and he understood and spoke the English language well. In 1830 Biraban was given public honour for his assistance to Threlkeld when he was presented with an inscribed brass gorget by Governor Sir Ralph Darling at the annual meeting at Parramatta. The inscription read: 'Barabahn, or MacGil, Chief of the Tribe at Bartabah, on Lake Macquarie; a Reward for his assistance in reducing his Native Tongue to a written Language'.  Biraban became a very practised language teacher according to the colonists who met him. Horatio Hale, a scientist with the United States Exploring Expedition in 1831, wrote that 'it was very evident that M'Gill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of anything he pronounced the word very distinctly, syllable by syllable, so that it was impossible to mistake it'. 
Biraban was an influential man amongst the Aboriginal people of the district. Hale observed that he was 'always a prominent leader in the corroborees and other assemblies'.  His influence extended far beyond his immediate circle and it appears that he attempted to spread Threlkeld's Christian teachings among the wider Aboriginal community. In 1837 Threlkeld 'met at Hinton, the junction of the River Paterson and Hunter, a small tribe of Blacks who exhibited much surprise at being addressed in their own tongue ... they concluded that the speaker must be the person of whom M'gill the Aborigine had spoken, and they appeared to be apprised of the nature of my pursuits'.  A little later, in 1838, Threlkeld wrote 'last week I was speaking to some blacks at Morpeth on the subject of Death, Judgement, and a Righteous god who punishes iniquity, when on asking if they understood the reply was, O yes! M'gill had informed them before!' 
With Biraban's help Threlkeld produced the earliest substantial descriptions of an Aboriginal language. He published many papers and small books about the language and they were collected in a volume edited by John Fraser in 1892 called An Australian Language as Spoken by the Awabakal the People of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an Account of their Language, Traditions, and Customs: by LE Threlkeld.
- J Troy, The Sydney Language, the author, Canberra, 1993.
- Threlkeld 1850, J Fraser (ed.), An Australian Language as Spoken by the Awabakal the People of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an Account of their Language, Traditions, and Customs by LE Threlkeld, Government Printer, Sydney, 1892, p. 88.
- N Gunson (ed.), Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 2 volumes, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.
- H Hale in N Gunson (ed.), Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 2 volumes, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.
- Hale in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.
- Threlkeld in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 135.
- Threlkeld in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 140.