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.

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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.

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