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.



Friday again. My condolences to Essendon supporters – it’s been a tough week for you. Good news though, it looks like the Banned Drinkers Register might come back in the NT (see bloody good drinkers). I’ve had a good week.

On women giving sermons

Just go to John Dickson’s facebook page for all the latest. I can’t keep up.

On Catholicism

George Weigel Evangelical Catholicism for christophobic times

On indigenous incarceration

Gino Vumbaca No hard sell needed to rehabilitate, not lock up, indigenous offenders

On asylum seekers & persecuted Christians

If we want to support the persecuted church, welcoming our asylum seekers would be a good place to start. New Matilda is doing a series of stories from women asylum seekers detained on Manus Island. Many of the women say they became refugees because they converted to Christianity.

I am a 26-year-old woman. I have left my country because of thousands of different problems in the society which I used to live in and also due to the lies and lack of security, safety, and freedom of expression and justice. My uncle was killed by order from the government and that created many problems for my family…

I wasn’t even able to announce my Christianity in public because changing my beliefs from Islam to Christianity in my country is a serious offence. I could be sentenced to hanging for that reason. There was a world of psychological and emotional pressure on me as the government would consider us infidels. I only shared my conversion to Christianity with some of my university friends and that caused me a lot of troubles and I had to defer my university career even though I hadn’t finished it yet because I would be persecuted otherwise…

On gay marriage

I don’t agree with everything they said, but at least they’re thoughtful – Roger Scruton & Philip Blond Marriage equality or destruction of difference?

On Allain de botton and Douglas Adams

Nathan Campbell Total perspective: De Bottom, Douglas Adams and God

We don’t get in the box and perceive the universe, the God who created the universe perceives us.

On misremembering

Matthew Rindage Stop celebrating Martin Luther King Jr

On evil octopuses through the ages

You must check out all these octopus maps – every conflict seems to have one, every major power gets their turn at being represented by an evil octopus. Donna Seger Teaching with tentacles – she’s contemplating teaching a whole semester of world history through octopus maps.

Octopus Map

On disability

Heidi Rome Sparks of light that keep hope alive, from a Jewish perspective.

My son, Ethan, is 7 years old. He is a brother, grandson, nephew and cousin. He also has autism. I’d like to share with you a bit about our experience and what it’s been like to live with a child with autism.

First, I had to wrap my head around the fact that Ethan had a condition that wasn’t just going to go away and that would need comprehensive, intensive, long-term care. I never expected to have a child with special needs. That was something that happened to “other people.” I had always considered myself as a strong someone doing the magnanimous giving; certainly not a someone doing the weak, frightened, overwhelmed, isolated receiving.

Donna McDonald on the National Disability Insurance Scheme –  NDIS for under 65s: ageism or a battle over priorities?

On Richard III

It’s been a good week for Richard. You can now follow him on twitter (@HMRichardIII). Here’s Peter Sellers doing the Beatles in the style of  Laurence Olivier’s Richard III.



Finally Friday. I’ve been visiting Sydney this week, which means I’ve spent most of my time sitting in traffic or on the train, not blogging. How was your week?


(thanks xkcd)

On the Catholic Church

Waleed Aly It’s Essential we Think Outside the Confessional Box

Mark Coleridge Humility and Faith: How the Church should respond to the Royal Commission

Simon Smart Whatever it Takes; Sexual Abuse and the Church

Michael Mullins The Church should Accept its Humiliation

On technology

Ben Collins Aboriginal Language Decline; the Digital Intervention.

I’ve been visiting an Aboriginal community for my fieldwork. When surveyed on what they want their linguistic centre to offer there was an overwhelming consensus – language on ipads! Fair enough, I want an ipad too. This technology could be great for Bible translation and the gospel. AuSIL , of course, is on to it already – they’ve got a whole lot of dictionary phone apps.

The Hoopla The Day that Einstein Feared

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.

On the psychology of evil

Alex Haslam Rethinking long held beliefs on the psychology of evil. Rather than the ‘banality of evil’ theory, he looks to the power of charismatic leaders to convince people that the ends justifies the means. What do you think? Is it something for Christians to look out for (it perhaps explains things like the cover-up of sexual abuse)?

On how to read the Bible

Imonk Magic Books, Grocery Lists and Silent Messiahs: How Rightly Approaching the Bible Shapes the Entire Christian Life

On disability

Here’s Helen Keller teaching Charlie Chaplin the manual alphabet.

helen keller

On important days

This week we had World Toilet Day and International Men’s Day. Here’s an article on toilets as a feminist issue. And this is What Men Want.

On Baptism

A friend once mentioned to me that she didn’t want to get baptised because she didn’t want people to think you need to be baptised to be saved. But then why are we commanded to be baptised? Josh Stahley Does the Bible Separate Salvation from Baptism – he argues it’s a sign of salvation.

On war

Pray for Palestine and Israel – thank God for the ceasefire. This man lost his son. It’s just awful.


Tracey Spicer The Futility of War.

Australian New Testament Scholar Most Likely to be Mistaken for Brad Pitt

Spot the difference:

oh Con. We’ll miss you.

For twenty-somethings on our fear of not achieving everything we hoped

Sarah Lebhar Hall The Key to a Purposeful Life (it’s in Christ).

On single parents and Newstart

Eva Cox Sole Parents are not a Workforce

And finally – on Santa

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school attendance makes no difference

School attendance in remote indigenous schools is only very loosely related to reading outcomes. It’s an irrelevant factor.

That was according to John Guenther from Flinders university who I heard speak today. He’s the principal researcher in the Remote Education Systems Project through The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation.

He’s looked at the stats, done the maths and there’s no correlation, barely any relationship at all. Attendance does not equal educational outcomes.

This means that strategies used to increase school attendance won’t improve kids’ NAPLAN scores. It’s just ‘flogging a dead horse’, as he said. So while a community bus which gets kids to school is great, it’s not the answer.

Even worse, current punitive measures to get kids in school like the SEAM (where the government threatens to cut off families’ centrelink payments if their kids wag school) are a waste of time.

The SEAM disrupts already disadvantaged families – cutting off the family income for a teenager’s bad behaviour is hardly going to improve the teenager’s relationship with relatives. It alienates parents from schools – what parent is going to trust teachers if they’re they ones reporting them to centrelink? Not only this, but the objective (school attendance) is useless. If kids don’t want to be there, they’re not going to learn. The kid who’s been rounded up by the police and sent to school is hardly going to be receptive to learning that day.

Guenther suggested that governments start considering learning that goes on outside school, learning which is connected with what kids need to survive in their own community. If kids aren’t attending school, it doesn’t mean they’re not learning; they’re learning something different. As long as we’re equating attendance with performance we’ll ignore what kids learn outside the classroom and neglect to improve what goes on inside the classroom.

He reckons we need to re-think the whole rhetoric around remote indigenous disadvantage. We need to celebrate things that NAPLAN doesn’t test – art, music, initiative, ability to cooperate (us Westerners are obsessed with testing the individual), traditional knowledge, practical skills (he actually met the bush mechanics fixing their Toyota by the side of the road during his research, you can’t learn that stuff at school).

So what can we change so that showing up to school does make a difference? And how can we celebrate learning outside the classroom? Those are the next questions.


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