Something very worrying is happening in the Northern Territory. The NT Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, recently announced that indigenous languages can not be used in NT classrooms, except for one hour a day in the afternoons.

This announcement has come as a shock to the indigenous community schools which use a bilingual program. There are nine bilingual schools across the Territory, such as Yirrkala and Maningrida in the Top End and Yuendumu and Areyonga in the Centre. These schools operate in remote communities where people do not speak English as a first language. These communities also happen to be some of the few places left in Australia where indigenous languages are still spoken fluently.

The Minister’s decision to dismantle the bilingual programs is apparently an effort to address poor educational outcomes in indigenous communities. However, out of about 60 remote schools only nine are bilingual. And yet results across all the remote schools are below that of their mainstream counterparts. In fact, the bilingual schools have marginally better results in English than the English-only remote schools. So shutting down the bilingual programs makes no sense whatsoever.

If improving results is the aim, then more remote schools should be resourced to run bilingual programs. Not to mention the other benefits that flow from bilingual education, such as maintaining indigenous languages, employing of indigenous staff, and allowing indigenous children to have their languages valued and recognised as being a legitimate part of their education.

When English-speaking children from Sydney or Melbourne first start school, they get to learn reading, writing, maths etc in the language that they understand, the same language that is spoken out in their community and which their families use at home. It allows them to gradually build on the knowledge and language skills they have acquired in their first few years of life.

Bilingual schools allow indigenous children to have this same experience of education. They begin to learn reading, writing and maths concepts in the language which they understand, the same language their families use at home. English is introduced gradually, and by upper primary, the children are taught primarily in English. Bilingual education does not hamper children’s learning of English, in fact, research shows that children who are literate in their first language are better able to acquire literacy in a second language and it aids in children’s overall cognitive development.

If decision-makers spent a little time in remote classrooms they would realise that speaking loudly in English for longer is not going to overcome the language barrier or improve outcomes.

Here at Areyonga, the community is deeply hurt by the plan to stop their kids from learning Pitjantjatjara. Community elders gathered at the school to express their anger that such a significant decision is being made without anyone speaking to them first. Areyonga School has two classes and both are taught by qualified Anangu teachers. They are upset that they are being asked to speak to the children only in English, and can not see how this will benefit their students.

The teachers and the community are adamant that their children learn to read and write in Pitjantjatjara as well as English. They are insulted at the way in which their language is being devalued by forcing them to reduce Pitjantjatjara lessons to an hour at the end of the day.

In a letter to Minister Scrymgour, Areyonga community members are demanding that she speak to them face to face about this issue:

Peter Fray

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