Miliwanga Sandy remembers her first days at school in the Northern Territory, sitting in a classroom and wondering what the teacher was babbling about in English, a language she didn’t then understand.

She asked her friends.

“I don’t know,” one of them answered, “but don’t talk, she’s coming to hit us.” Later, when she understood English, Sandy worked it out. The teacher was yelling: “Don’t speak that mumbo-jumbo.”

On Indigenous Literacy Day 2009, the message for children in communities such as Sandy’s at Wugularr in the Northern Territory, is not all that different.

In 2008, in response to poor results in the National Benchmark testing, the then Northern Territory Education Minister Marion Scrymgour made the decision that the first four hours of each day be taught in English — a decision that has been given effect in most of the bilingual schools in the Northern Territory. (And one that Scrymgour admits has been misrepresented.)

This solution has been rejected by many communities — several have been boycotting schools and attempting to start their own independent schools — and that has been taken by some as a rejection of the mainstream and its language.

“I think it’s terrific if we can preserve these [indigenous] languages but the first duty of the school … is to equip the kids to operate in the Australian mainstream,” Tony Abbott said on last week’s Q & A.

But equipping kids to operate in the mainstream — that is, to speak Standard Australian English (SAE) — would be a lot easier if the mainstream realised that indigenous languages are more of a going concern than Abbott’s “preserve” might indicate.

“The majority of indigenous students in remote communities speak forms of English as a second or third language,” says Deb Dank, a former teacher and now literacy development facilitator at the Fred Hollows Foundation, which has partnered with the book trade for Indigenous Literacy Day. “Many students go to school being multi-lingual — speaking their own language, perhaps a dialect or combination of other local languages and then a form of Aboriginal English.”

“This means that students are entering school already being experienced language learners. Unfortunately, they are then faced with systems which have little real understanding of how their language makes meaning of their world and how this affects learning…

“Aboriginal people realise that Standard Australian English is the language of the mainstream and this is the language which will offer most choice for the level of interaction in mainstream community,” says Dank. “No one is suggesting for a moment that SAE not be taught…”

Dank says it’s the way indigenous kids interpret English through their own languages and way of seeing the world that needs to be taken into account. “SAE is a binary system and most indigenous languages are a matrices system.”

“In a binary system of language, there are two general ‘groups’ from which meaning is made — this is called binary opposition: good/bad, yes/no, male/female, black/white … meaning is made of one group by it NOT being the other. Good is good because it is not bad. But a matrices system has more than the two group system operating.”

For example: SAE has binary “grandmother”/”grandfather”. But many indigenous languages have “father of my father”, “father of my mother”, “mother of my mother” and “mother of my father”.

When trying to learn and speak English, many indigenous children quite literally do not have the words in English to express this way of seeing the world.

“There is significant translation happening in the heads of Indigenous students in classrooms and this impact a student’s ability to listen to directions and continue to keep pace with the general flow of learning,” says Dank. “Teachers are always told that indigenous students use longer ‘think time’ — teachers are very rarely told why.”

Dank has a lot of sympathy for teachers in remote schools, who she says often “cop a battering from all sides” — and too many of whom are not fully equipped to teach students for whom SAE is a second, or third, or fourth language. This shortcoming, she says, reflects a wider social failing.

“We as educators appear to have learned very little about language, about the way language impacts on ways which all students, but particularly indigenous students, learn,” says Dank.

The author Richard Flanagan, speaking on Q&A with Abbott, pointed out: “We should never forget that a language isn’t just a dialect, it is a whole way of looking at the world, the universe…”

Miliwanga Sandy, now an accomplished linguist, was furious when she worked out what “mumbo-jumbo” meant. Her reaction: “This is my language. This is real, this is true.”

Until we acknowledge this, we’re all missing out.