Greg Dickson writes…

My language skills are poor? How good's your Pitjantjatjara?

On Monday I got a phone call out of the blue from a journalist from The Australian. Initially, I felt a bit chuffed being cold-called by a big newspaper. I soon realised however that the journo was asking me about stuff that wasn’t really my area of expertise. She wanted to know about ESL teaching in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands. This is out of my area geographically (desert rather than Top End) and professionally (education rather than linguistics).

When I started to explain that I wasn’t going to be terribly helpful to her, she said “Oh. Well I just got your contact details. I don’t really know what you do”. That should have been a big enough clue to realise that there wasn’t going to be much good journalism going on.

When I saw the resulting story, I learned that she didn’t do a good job of reporting on the issue at all. The story, Language skills poor in 40pc of APY children, can be found here.

It’s a prime example of how not to report on Indigenous education. The result is a misleading and negative article. Ultimately, it contributes no worthwhile information to the issue and serves only to perpetuate misconceptions and prejudices many Australians already hold.

The entire premise of the article is flawed. It claims that 40% of children in the APY lands have ‘poor language skills’ – a claim based on census data of children from 0-14. It implies that it is newsworthy that 225 of those 600 children are not proficient in English. In actual fact it is entirely acceptable, predictable and expected that children in the APY lands up to the age of 5 – which probably number around 225 – would be proficient only in their own Indigenous language. Children are not expected to start to develop English proficiency until they enter the schooling system. The Australian has disappointingly opted for a dramatic sounding headline based on not much news at all.

Regarding that headline – Language skills poor in 40% of APY children – this is again misleading. It assumes that “language skills” means only English skills. It ignores the fact that all children in that age bracket would have perfectly adequate oral language skills in their mother tongue – Yankunytjatjara or Pitjantjatjara. By ignoring the skills children have in their own language and claiming that they have poor “language” skills (when they really mean “English” skills), it falsely perceives them as deficient. Their Indigenous language skills and knowledge become invisible.

It should also be noted that 225 out of 600 is actually 37.5%, not 40%. Okay, not a big difference, but that’s actually falsely adding 15 kids to the total of kids with ‘poor language skills’. That’s nearly a classroom of kids.

I emailed the journalist earlier this week with these concerns and haven’t received a response. If I don’t hear from her, I at least hope that she now realises her approach to the topic was flawed and that she avoids making similar mistakes next time. Aboriginal people are regularly fed messages by media that tell them they are unsuccessful in education and many other aspects of life. It is not nice that Sarah Martin has created another of these messages based on insignificant ABS data while at the same time ignoring important language skills that these children have.

Of course, I’m not the only person to comment on negative and misleading reporting on Indigenous issues and its potential affect on Aboriginal people’s lives. This Inside Story article by Melissa Sweet quotes an Aboriginal academic at a health conference who said, “We’re tired of being told that we are helpless, hopeless and useless”. The article also quotes Professor Fiona Stanley who advocates for more positive reporting on Aboriginal issues: “The more that the dominant culture reports negative stories about Aboriginal people, the more that Aboriginal children feel bad about being Aboriginal” says Stanley. She goes on to say:

“I have these fantasy conversations with Rupert Murdoch and say, ‘you could actually turn around Aboriginal people if you could change the way you report, even if you just made just 50 per cent of your articles positive, you could reduce suicide rates.’”

I would happily have that same conversation. If not with Rupert Murdoch, then at least with Sarah Martin.

Originally published at that munanga linguist.