What do you do with a classroom full of children who all speak Kunwinjku? Greg Dickson looks at how the NT Government is treating Aboriginal languages and English teaching in remote schools.
The traditional languages of Aboriginal and Islander Australians have had a rough trot ever since Europeans arrived and decided to stay for good. Long the subject of ridicule, denigration and oppression, the original languages of Australia are now known to be amazingly complex, diverse and, well, just plain clever. In his book Dying Words, linguist Nick Evans tells how in Kunwinjku, a language currently spoken by a few thousand people in the Kakadu region, there are not only distinct words for each species of kangaroo but there are different verbs describing various hopping styles of different macropods – thus a male antilopine wallaby kamawudme (renderable only as “it hops” in English) while the female of the species kadjalwahme (English: “hops”). A wallaroo, on the other hand, kanjedjme (again, “hops”) and an agile wallaby doesn’t move in any of these ways but rather kalurlhlurlme (hmm… “hops”?).
Whereas an enlightened government might choose to celebrate a language like Kunwinjku and linguistic diversity in general, the Northern Territory government’s Education Department has gone the other way. Given the task of operating classrooms full of schoolchildren who speak excellent Kunwinjku or other Aboriginal languages, the NT Government created a policy in 2008 excluding these languages from being used as the language of instruction for the first four hours of every school day in every NT school.
Now infamously known as the “First Four Hours” policy, it was established without consulting any Indigenous language speaking educators, elders or communities. And it ignored extensive research, as well as plain ol’ common sense, showing that kids learn better when they are taught in their first language.
What the NT Government did say was that they were deeply concerned about the English results coming from students in remote schools. They felt that this provided a mandate to impose English-only delivery for the first four hours of every school day. This was misguided for multiple reasons. Firstly, only nine out of over sixty remote government schools had bilingual programs. The vast majority of remote schools were already “English only” but producing equally poor, if not worse, outcomes for remote students. Secondly, the government implied that bilingual education is somehow in opposition to good English outcomes. In fact, bilingual education does not kill off English learning or literacy - the reverse is true. Mother-tongue or bilingual education allows students to move from the known to the unknown by using kids’ first language to teach all parts of the curriculum while their English skills are still developing.
Shamefully, by implementing the “First four hours of English” policy the NT Government is in breach of several international conventions supported by the Australian Government. As a signatory to the Universal Human Rights Declaration:
“parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”.
By imposing this policy without consultation and little negotiation, Aboriginal parents were denied this right. In April 2008, the Rudd government endorsed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has turned a blind eye to breaches of Articles like 14.1:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”
And the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states that:
“... education of the child shall be directed to… (c) the development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate and for civilizations different from his or her own ...”.
The establishment of the “First Four Hours” policy was a turnaround for Labor, who in the early 1970s rolled out bilingual education in NT schools after then Federal Minister for Education Kim Beazley Sr visited remote NT Schools. He saw how well students performed when being taught bilingually in Western Arrarnta and English at Hermannsburg, and noticed the contrast when visiting English-only classrooms. Of his visit to Hermannsburg, Beazley said:
“if I went into their classroom where the teacher was teaching in Aranda, . . nobody swung around and looked at me. Their focus was on what the teacher was saying”.
In a Ministerial media release in 1974, Beazley demonstrated leadership, compassion and an understanding of bilingual education barely evident among current politicians, stating:
“The bilingual program does two things. It expresses respect for Aboriginal languages, hence for the rights of Aboriginal people. It effectively teaches English and enables Aborigines to that extent to cope with Australian society.”
Since then, bilingual education has been embraced by many Aboriginal parents and elders in the NT and has brought significant benefits, such as resourcing many Aboriginal languages with teaching materials, developing good numbers of bilingual and bi-literate children and adults, drastically increasing the number of Indigenous teachers in remote schools and creating a never-before-seen sense of pride and involvement in bush schools by parents and elders. Students and workers in bilingual schools include many prominent Aboriginal people including Mandawuy Yunupingu and AFL star Liam Jurrah along with dozens of unheralded local heroes such as Anita Painter, bilingually educated student and now principal of Barunga School who was praised in NT Parliament for her speech at the opening of the 2009 Barunga Festival.
Thirty kilometres down the road at Wugularr community, Anita’s relative Miliwanga Sandy is not so praising of her government:
“What we want is both-way teaching in the school – not only for two hours a week but every day there should be both-way teaching… That policy of speaking English only at the school is the wrong thing – it is not good for our children … they will forget their language”
The NT Government’s decision to enforce English-only teaching for most of the school day is a knee-jerk, uneducated reaction to the poor results coming out of bush schools. It makes Aboriginal language education an unnecessary scapegoat. Never mind that there were only nine schools (out of 68) still struggling to maintain bilingual programs and never mind that results in the English-only schools were no better and certainly no-one’s idea of best practice English teaching methodology.
The following quote from TJH Strehlow, who worked with Arrernte people for most of his long career, is unfortunately still as relevant today as it was when he made it in 1958:
“Above all, let us permit native children to keep their own languages, -those beautiful and expressive tongues, rich in true Australian imagery, charged with poetry and with love for all that is great, ancient and eternal in the continent ...Today white Australians are among the few remaining civilized people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement.”
Greg Dickson is a linguist currently lecturing at the Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics, a division of Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Northern Territory.