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. Frank Baarda

    If only…. Steve. What has the Warlpiri and other residents of Yuendumu (that were or are involved in the school) up in arms is that what is being proposed is: 4 hours of English only in the morning, and a maximum of one hour of Warlpiri in the afternoon…. not exactly a “well-designed bilingual education programme”.
    And Greg, I quote from Wendy’s article:… “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…”
    Two mechanisms to encourage school attendance come to mind… the carrot and the stick.
    In Yuendumu school attendance over the years has fluctuated wildly. Attendance was far greater a decade or two ago when half the school staff was Warlpiri (including qualified teachers- now mostly retired and not replaced).
    Another factor that has been left out of this discussion is the self-respect and dignity that flow from having your language recognised and valued.
    Eso lo siento en mi alma y mi corazón. Hablár, escuchar, leér, escribir y sentír castellano es sér castellano. Es el mismo caso con el Warlpiri y ellos tienen el derecho de serlo.

  2. steve martin

    Frank Baarda writes ‘children in well-designed bilingual education programmes acquire academic second language as well as, and often even better than, children in programmes that use the second language only’. Precisely. Is not that what is proposed- Local language for two hours, then English in the afternoon. I am not sure that you can use QED mate.

  3. Frank Baarda

    I quote from an article by David Wilkins in which he refers to a 2005 Unesco publication:
    “Teaching in the language of the communities does not slow down learning of the second language, whether that be the national language or an international language. Using the home language for instruction across a range of subject matters and for the introduction of literacy helps learning and literacy acquisition in the second language. Acquisition of literacy and reading skills is faster in the first language, and these transfer readily to the second language. Kosonen reports that ‘several studies show that children in well-designed bilingual education programmes acquire academic second language as well as, and often even better than, children in programmes that use the second language only’. From a family and community point of view, use of the home language in education allows the parents and other family and community members to participate in the education of their children”.
    At Yuendumu there is a (unfortunately small) group of now middle aged people that went to school when the bilingual programme was at its peak. They can read and write in Warlpiri and guess what?! : they are also our best English speakers, readers and writers. Q.E.D.

  4. Greg Angelo

    Cultural identity is one thing language proficiency is another. Notwithstanding the desire to preserve culture, if one cannot be proficient in the commonly spoken language of the country, one suffers a severe disadvantage. Is not only indigenous Australians who suffer this disadvantage, it is every person in the country with English as a second language. ESL is a significant barrier in the workplace notwithstanding desire for cultural equity. I have had significant exposure to very well educated workers with ESL and they operate at a significant disadvantage notwithstanding their abilities.

    It may be necessary to consider that indigenous Australians spend more time at school to facilitate both maintenance of their cultural identity, and to achieve mainstream proficiency in English. However this could only be offered to the willing participant. There it is significant anecdotal information to the contrary that indigenous Australians wish to spend less time in the classroom.

    Consequently we have one of the many conundrums in indigenous affairs. In order to maintain economic equity, we would be seen to be coercive in the process of improved acquisition of language skills. Hence there is no practical outcome for this problem until the indigenous community as a whole realise this and encourage increased school participation.

  5. Ellen

    Steve Martin, I think you missed the point about being bi-lingual. They migrant child might manage quiet well but how many of their children are bi-lingual? I think Wendy’s point is that the language will be lost and it is only questionable that it will solve the problems of low employment/low education.

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