our land our languages

Most Aussies are pretty bad at languages. For those of us who use English at home, we tend to assume that everyone else will just learn English. Most of us got a smattering of languages at school (for me it seemed to be a new language every year – Japanese one year, then German, Latin, French, Mandarin – adding up to nothing of any). It gets a bit embarrassing when we go overseas (apparently it’s not normal to be educated but still monolingual), but luckily all the locals have learned a bit of English. Other than that, I’m not sure we’re often very aware of our strange monolingualism or how it affects us.

But our presumption of English affects indigenous kids in remote areas and is getting in the way of their education.

You probably didn’t notice (it’s not your fault, it didn’t get much media attention), but a House of Reps committee conducted an ‘Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities’ last year – Our land our languages. The report started with something everyone knows is a fiction – terra nullius.

The Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia on 3 June 1992 legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land that existed prior to colonisation. The Mabo decision recognised that ‘terra nullius’, the concept that Australia was unoccupied at the time of colonisation, is a fiction.

But it pointed out another fiction about the country, one that’s gone under the radar – the fiction that we all speak English.

Similarly, the notion that Australia is a monolingual nation and that only Standard Australian English can benefit a person is a fiction. Estimates show that at the time of colonisation there was an estimated 250 Australian Indigenous languages being used and today there are about 18 languages, strong in the sense of being spoken by significant numbers of people across all age groups.

That fiction about English – as well as a knee-jerk reaction to poor NAPLAN results – that was behind the 2009 decision to get Aboriginal languages out of indigenous schools in the NT. When the NT government mandated that schools only use English for the first 4 hours of the day, school attendance dwindled:

Evidence shows that Lajamanu School has suffered since its bilingual education program was removed in 2009 under the First Four Hours policy. Attendance figures have barely risen above 45% since mid-2009, down from 60% (and above) between 2006-2008.

Forget ‘no pool no school’, it seems it became a case of ‘No Warlpiri No School‘ at Lajumanu.

But the report also found evidence of positive links between incorporating indigenous languages into school and school attendance (though language is no silver bullet). It’s not really surprising that kids prefer school when they understand what the teacher is saying. According to the Kimberly Education Office, introducing language meant kids actually came to school and made parents happy:

I cannot really talk about attendance data, but some principals have commented to me that ‘We did nothing else last semester that was different. The only thing we did was introduce an Aboriginal language, and our suspensions have dropped and our attendance is up.’ That is anecdotal but that is strong, and parents who say, ‘I had a choice and I could enrol my kid at school A or school B but I enrolled in that school B because I know they teach an Aboriginal language.

(you may note I’ve referenced research earlier which says that school attendance made no difference to academic results in remote indigenous communities. The evidence referenced there was for schooling in English, not in language.)

Using language in school isn’t some kind of neo-colonial attempt to keep Aboriginal kids separate from non-indigenous kids, to give them a separate syllabus and keep them in their box. It’s actually the best way to enable kids to learn to read and write in English.

Putting my historian cap on, educationalists and linguists have known since the 1930s (they did studies in Mexico with SIL/Wycliffe) that the best way to learn to read and write in a second language is to learn in your own language first. Teaching kids to read their own language means they can learn the concept of reading and writing in a way that makes sense  – connecting sounds to script – before they move onto learning English as a second language. So using indigenous languages in the early years of school actually helps kids understand and read English better.

This is important because when Aboriginal kids grow up to read English and learn the ‘secret English’ used by bureaucrats and lawyers, they’ll be in a better position to negotiate and represent their interests and their cultures. It’s not about assimilation (see Nakata on indigenous education for more) or keeping people trapped in a box, it’s about equipping people.

But it’s also a basic issue of respect. English is not the only language of value, there are many Australian languages and their speakers deserve a quality education.

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