I read Wendy Baarda’a item in yesterday’s Crikey with a mixture of frustration and sadness. Ms Baarda, while right in some areas, misses the boat completely in some and is screamingly condescending and patronising in others. Learning English “gives the children a headache”, teachers “trying to impose a foreign culture”.

Isn’t this is just a bit over the top ? There are many things adults of all races make their children do when young because it will benefit them in later life, going to school is one of them. What child hasn’t used the “headache routine” to try and get out of school ? That trick is something well beyond racial background.

I live in Alice Springs, where there are more than half a dozen local languages (I’m not sure of the exact number) and to some of the residents of the outlying communities English is a third or a fourth language if they can it speak at all. I see every day how this lack of English skills limits people. For example, I recently watched a man trying to buy some “AA” batteries for his walkman, he was having to use a child of four or five to interpret for him. This was proving frustrating to everyone concerned as the child was limited in his ability to interpret by his age, experience and own linguistic skills.

It’s situations like this that cause “the Rage” that Germaine Greer was pilloried for writing about.

Lack of proficiency in English not only effects a person’s education, it effects the entire way they interact with the world. If a person’s first language is spoken by less than a thousand others that is a very small base to learn “life” from and discuss new ideas and philosophies. It effects their employability and even their ability to communicate with other indigenous people. This is also a reason why contractors are used on the communities, to comply with OH&S Laws a person has to be able to understand instructions and notices and communicate effectively with their fellow workers.

Not being able to speak the major language of a country is a disability equivalent to being profoundly deaf. Limiting a person’s access to and knowledge of, the major language of a country in the name of “cultural purity” borders on the criminally insane. How can a person learn and grow if the only language(s) they can speak is as relevant to the modern world as ancient Babylonian?

Does Pitjantjatjara have words for “Computer Program”, “Hypotenuse” or the basic mathematical constant “Pi” or any of the other concepts and “facts of life” that are necessary to know if you want to live more than a basic existence in today’s world ? If it does I am genuinely interested in finding out the words, their etymology and direct translation.

Having many friends from non-English speaking backgrounds, including indigenous, I understand how important language is to a feeling of self and culture. Contrary to Ms Baarda’s opinion, I’ve found that many immigrant families are bi-lingual to even the second and third generations, English is spoken in the street and at school, but the “old” language is spoken at home. Some ethnic communities even provide after school coaching in the original language, it all depends on the enthusiasm of the parents whether the children are raised bilingual or not.

Being proficient in English does not seem to effect a person’s “Greekness”, “Turkishness” or “Leboneseness” so why should it effect another person’s “Aboriginality”?

Peter Fray

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