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Nov 20, 2008

Classroom English will be the death of Aboriginal languages

Retention of Aboriginal languages should matter to all of us, says longtime NT teacher Wendy Baarda.

I can see why NT Minister for Education Marion Scrymgour’s announcement that only one hour of classroom time per day may be conducted in children’s Aboriginal language might seem like a good idea to many people who’ve never lived and taught in an Aboriginal language speaking community.

This could be their logic: Aboriginal employment is very low because their education level is very low. The key to educational success and participation in the mainstream is English proficiency. They are not learning English while they are speaking their own language. Therefore we will force them to use English in school for four and a half hours a day.

There are many flaws in this logic.

Low education levels are not the only reason for low employment levels. There are the bureaucratic regulations that demand completion of a literacy based course before allowing a person to work at fixing taps, bandaging sores or any of the many practical tasks which used to be done by Aboriginal people in communities. There is three generations of welfare dependence causing children to grow up never expecting to work. There is the imperative to employ outside contractors to do nearly all the work on Aboriginal communities.

English proficiency in primary school is not the key to better educational outcomes and is very unlikely to be produced in this proposed way — teaching children in a language they don’t understand or understand very poorly.

Decreeing that children be taught in English for four and a half hours a day will not mitigate all the other factors contributing to low education levels. Poor attendance is likely to be poorer. Children say they get headaches from listening to English. Parental support and involvement is likely to be less.

The turnover of teachers will probably be greater. It’s not a rewarding task, trying to impose a foreign culture on children in a language they barely understand — being a lone English speaker in a class of children speaking another language, never knowing why children are laughing or crying, why fights suddenly erupt, why they sometimes refuse to sit or do anything you say. Providing relevant curriculum and materials that children can relate to becomes almost an impossibility.

In fact, if the aim was to make children, parents and teachers hate school, this four and a half hours a day of compulsory English would be the way to go.

It must be obvious from the previous track record on retention of Australian languages, and hunting society languages world wide, that all these languages are at risk. Marion Scrymgour’s policy is not aimed at eliminating indigenous languages. But she suggests that children can maintain their first languages at home and in the one hour a day allocated in school in the afternoon when attendance is the lowest, attention is the poorest, the temperature is the highest and when most traditional Aboriginals are asleep.

English is a very seductive language. It’s the language of the powerful and the world youth culture. Teenagers quickly pick up the songs and the cool expressions, banter among themselves in pseudo English. But if the first language is firmly established, and is the accepted medium of interaction between Aboriginal speakers in or from their community, it will still be the language passed on to children.

The problem of English-only for most of the school day is that new things taught in English may be only able to be thought about and talked about in English. The new learning may never be related to the first language or situations outside school. Terms and phrases in the first language for dealing with similar problems may never be recognized or learnt.

Children who spend most of their school day hearing and responding in English may begin to use English in the playground, a sign of success to the English teacher, but the beginning of the end of a language which was customarily always used between speakers of that language. This kept it separate from English and gave it a role and a time slot in everyday life. English is used for speaking to English speakers. When children habitually use English or a version of it between themselves, the indigenous language is then only used for speaking with older speakers.

As these gradually pass away, English or Aboriginal English is the only language passed on to children. Language loss can occur over one generation as has been documented. It’s very sad for the old people, the last speakers of their languages who grew up in communities where their language was spoken by everyone. They mourn the loss of their language. They cry when they hear it spoken.

Even Aboriginal people many generations removed from their language-speaking ancestors, mourn the loss of their language. There is a huge difference between migrants who lose their language and Aboriginals. Migrants come knowing they must take on another language. They have made that choice. Aboriginal families have not made that choice. Unlike migrants who know that their language is being continued in their country of origin, Aboriginal communities know that when their language fades out of use it is gone forever.

I know many people think that Aboriginal languages, (and probably Aboriginal people) are doomed to die out and it doesn’t really matter. It does, of course, matter to the people themselves. A language is a large part of identity, self esteem and a sense of belonging in your own society. Stripped of these, a person is far less able to venture out into the mainstream for work or any other form of participation.

A language embodies a particular, unique way of seeing, thinking and being. Losing a language doesn’t mean that you automatically take on someone else’s way of seeing and being and access the advantages of that other language group. Many Aboriginals caught between cultures describe themselves as lost. Aboriginals in communities where traditional languages are no longer spoken (such as those in the Barkley area) are not achieving higher levels of education.

Aboriginal languages carry information on the plants, creatures, landforms and seasons of their environment. Many of the drugs we use today contain active ingredients from plants that were once someone’s bush medicine.

It’s just not possible to record and archive all of Aboriginal traditional language, knowledge, social organization and arts. The questions we may need to answer may not have been thought of yet. Just as stands of original wilderness around the world have yielded solutions to control of feral plants and creatures, communities of traditional hunting peoples may provide answers to future problems. In starvation prone Niger, fast growing Australian acacias are grown for firewood and holding the soil. Aboriginal knowledge allowed them to harvest and eat the seeds of these trees, which must first be roasted before they can be ground.

Retention of Aboriginal languages should matter to all of us. All humans were hunters when language evolved. Aboriginal languages have stayed free of outside influences for a very long time. They are a window into how language was first used and constructed, where it sits in the brain, how societies attain cohesion, pass on skills and knowledge, the role of art, music and dance, the psychology of human attachment and many aspects of human communication. We can’t truly know ourselves until we know where we came from.

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15 thoughts on “Classroom English will be the death of Aboriginal languages

  1. Mirek

    Thanks, Wendy! Many good and valid points in a heart-felt article. Basically, language is a cultural and a social expression of human beings, wherever they are, That`s why the language is a force for social cohesion and has such an ability to draw people, including between generations, together. You see quite a lot of migrant children losing their native language after a relatively short time. Consequences are twofold: firstly, there is a barrier created between parents/grandparents and their offspring, leading to isolation of each and social and family problems, and secondly, a loss of cultural identity and tradition, also reinforcing the sense of alienation. Parents frequently react to that situation by withdrawing onto themselves, the children taste the outside Anglo Saxon world and `freedom` However, in many of them there is an uncertain but persistent sense of loss, and some after many years begin to re-learn their parents` language, even going back to visit the `old country`. Of course, as Wendy points out, their country is right here, and after the language is dead, nothing will bring it back, and the loss will be even greater not only for indigenous people, but for Australia as a whole.
    Marion Scrymgour’s move smacks not only of cultural insensitivity, but of paternalism and downright racism. It will do nothing to reverse the fruits of 200 years of exclusion, humiliation, expulsion from their land and cultural genocide practiced on the First Australians.

  2. Claudia

    Steve, the ability and right of Aboriginal people to be bilingual is what is under attack by the NT govt policy to restrict teaching in Indigenous language.

  3. Frank Baarda

    Bonjour Ms.Scrymgeour. Nous allons maintenant vous apprendre à lire et à
    écrire et à faire des sommes. Étant donné que les Français ont envahi ce
    pays, de son au mieux de vos intérêts que nous utilisons la langue française
    pour enseigner avec vous. Maintenant, deux plus deux est de quatre et de la
    lettre ‘m’… mmmm prononcé est écrit comme ça. Maintenant rentrer à la
    maison et parlez-en à votre famille combien vous aimez l’école et combien
    vous avez appris aujourd’hui.
    Its not all about being bilingual or indeed multilingual. How do you expect children to learn anything if their teachers speak to them in what to them is a foreign language?
    As for Wendy’s article I can’t see how it is patronising. I know her well, and patronising she isn’t!
    Ngula juku

  4. steve martin

    Just about every migrant child from a non English speaking background manages to be bi-lingual. This article, with due respect to the qualifications of the writer appears to me quite wrong – even patronising.

  5. steve martin

    John Roberts says “Passing on the culture and attitudes is tied so much to ‘place’…something I am sure our aboriginals would readily identify with.” and I concur it is tied to place and the people in that place, so there is no reason for the local language to die out, just because the locals are bi-lingual – unless of course the speakers chose for this to happen.

  6. Djimitj

    Scrymgour should resign.

    Scrymgour’s announcement means that it is now more probable than not that all Australian Indigenous languages will die out. The only real questions are: ‘When?’ and ‘What is the cost to Australia?’ The costs to Indigenous people are simply incalculable. The cost to non-Indigenous people is the loss of cultural diversity and richness, and the disgrace which goes with the ongoing destruction of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. Is this really the best we can all do?

    My only qualification to the above would be if the Indigenous communities concerned said, ‘No, we want our children to learn only English, and to learn only in English.’

    The one hour a week is a virtually useless political sop to a destructive decision.

    Frank Baarda, your french words reminded me of a TESL training program I attended (over thirty years ago!) The first session on day one started with the course organizer talking to us in Swahili and then becoming exasperated with us, and then sneering at our stupidity for not following simple directions. It was a lesson I will never forget.

    Wendy, I trust that the soundness of your arguments will help reverse a tragic decision.

  7. Shane

    I do agree with Wendy although my arguments may differ:
    1. Australian hysteria over the English language proficiency and the numerous tests imposed on i.e. migrants is ridiculous in view of the fact that our teachers fail to teach basic literacy skills to ‘true-blue white Australian’ kids.
    2. English tests, and the IELTS , are basically fraudulent. They test everything but English.
    3. By all means, the Indigeneous Australians should be encouraged to be fluent in English, but they should also be encouraged to be bi-lingual. Just wondering who is going to prepare English teaching programs for the remote communities.
    4.In Europe, when I was working as a British Council teacher of English, the courses run by the Brits were very attractive and friendly, and, all modern teaching methods were implemented. In Australia, English classes are boring void of any methods.
    5. Patronising attitude towards Aboriginal kids reminds me of a 19th century orphanage ran by spinsters. 6. What’s the guarantee that the learned Aboriginal kids will be paid for their jobs? How many native Australians work in i.e. supermarkets?
    6. Being a migrant myself, from a non-English speaking country I find that native Australians are very often treated like migrants. English is very often used as an excuse NOT to give a job or sack someone on the basis of ‘poor English’ or ‘strong accent’.
    7.Teachers who haven’t done full developmental psychology course should not be allowed to teach at all.
    It seems very strange that most professionals and tradespeople in Australia are under very strict monitoring system and individual performance is under constant scrutiny of licensing and registration bodies as well as the public, and private clients. For some reasons a teacher’s performance does not really matter as long as he/she is not found out to be i.e. a pedophile.

    One might get a fancy idea that Australia is a country full of Shakespeares.

  8. John Roberts


    Oh so true. I can read that you understand so intimately they problem. The mono-lingual attitudes in Australia severely limit us. I have some empathy for those that are trying to preserve what they can of their language. My wife has 6 different language (she is from Mozambique) 4 are tribal languages and they only exist in the spoken form. Sadly, it is nigh impossible to live in Australia and pass them on to our children. Passing on the culture and attitudes is tied so much to ‘place’…something I am sure our aboriginals would readily identify with.

  9. Terry Mills

    Let us try and keep this debate about Aboriginal languages and the teaching of English in perspective. Of course traditional languages will be spoken in the home and community but in the classroom, in Australia, it must be English, spoken, written and read.
    I have a Papua New Guinean friend whose children speak four languages (as do all of the children in their village). They speak Ples-tok (place-talk), the language of their region: they speak Motu as the common patois of the Papuan people : they speak tok-pisin or Pidgin English, the lingua franca of PNG and they speak, write and read in English. In school it is all English, not to the detriment of their other tongues but with the full knowledge and acceptance that, to get on in today’s global village, to access great literature and participate in commerce and technology a working knowledge of English is essential..

  10. Frank Baarda

    What is happening to Aboriginal Australia bears no comparison to the Nazi Final Solution or the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields. The ‘boiling frog’ allegory better describes the situation. The monolingual assimilationists have turned up the heat with their multi pronged attack – the Intervention, the imposition of shires, the proposed long-term leases and now the attack on bilingual education.
    The end result is the same: cultural genocide.
    Chapter 5 of Richard Trudgen’s excellent book (‘Why Warriors Lie Down and Die’) is titled ‘What Language Do You Dream In?’. Last night I ‘slept on’ this discussion. I did so in what linguists call my L3 (English). I love the English Language. I think I’m reasonably good at it. I wish all Warlpiri children a firm grip on it, so they may derive as much enjoyment from it as I do. The fact that I do not dream in my L1 (Dutch) doesn’t perturb me. Last night around the world millions dreamt in Dutch. Only a few thousand dreamt in Warlpiri. No one dreamt in a Tasmanian language. Zonde.
    Are all “the Aborigines” of Yuendumu upset by the attack on bilingual education? Of course not! In this respect Yuendumu is no different to Casterton in Victoria. Are all Castertonians upset by the degradation of the Murray Basin? As the famous Joni Mitchell song puts it: “…you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone….” .
    The concerned citizens I do discuss this with tell me that next week they will be meeting with Marion Scrymgeour in Alice Springs (and don’t tell me they don’t care, Alice Springs is 300 Km away). The consensus seems to be that: “She is Stolen Generation, she doesn’t understand”. A bit unfair in that she wasn’t stolen (her father was).
    Cultural (and therefore Linguistic) diversity to me is the crowning glory of humanity, lets celebrate it.
    Is the attack on bilingual education driven by malice or ignorance? (“…forgive them father…”). Doesn’t matter, in the end the same result: a boiled frog.