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Pitjantjatjara people in South Australia are thinking of abandoning their experiment with monolingual English education after fifteen years. At the same time, some communities in the Northern Territory are suffering from dysfunctional schools which happen to be bilingual, and so are thinking of abandoning their bilingual education programs, and the attendant teaching positions for community members. Churn churn. It's not about whether the program teaches English literacy and numeracy only. It's about children understanding what is happening in the classroom, and it's about communities understanding language shift. The evidence is that dropping bilingual education is no magic silver bullet for a miraculous improvement in children's English language and literacy.

But there's more evidence that bilingual education can produce better results than monolingual education. In The Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter Number 103, September 2006 (thanks David!) is an article by Ute Eickelkamp On a Positive Note: The Anangu Education Service Conference. Ute describes a conference held in Alice Springs in which half of the more than 200 delegates were Anangu staff and tertiary students "and many discussions and workshops were held in Pitjantjatjara". Yes!

Ute reports the argument made by Mrs Katrina Tjitayi, (an Anangu teacher who is Director of the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Education Committee (PYEC)), "for a return to bilingual and bicultural education on APY Lands". In the late 1980s Anangu chose to give up bilingual education (which had been going since the foundation of the Presbyterian mission at Ernabella in 1937), and focus on English-only education. This choice was supported by an "Accelerated Literacy" project Scaffolding literacy for Indigenous students (Brian Gray and Wendy Cowey, Some Reflections on the Literacy Development of Children at Amata School, 1998-2000), which reported improved outcomes in children's education.

But 16 years after the introduction of the monolingual English program, Anangu such as Mrs Katrina Tjitayi apparently now believe that the children had better literacy and numeracy under the earlier bilingual academic program. And they want a different kind of education - Ute quotes Mrs Tjitayi saying: "We want an education that helps us strengthen our identity, not weaken it."

Of course, many factors, including changes in society, may have resulted in poorer educational outcomes on the APY Lands. And other factors may be relevant to the desire to bring back bilingual education, such as the greater authority given to Indigenous teachers in bilingual schools. But, at the very least, Mrs Tjitayi's proposal suggests that proponents of monolingual English education should be taking a good look at what's happening in schools on the APY Lands to see why Anangu people are revisiting the advantages of bilingual education. This is not to argue against Accelerated Literacy (which education departments have now invested heaps in), since an explicit systematic approach to teaching any subject is almost alway an improvement on a grab-bag approach, and chopping and changing has a big cost. The argument is against seeing it as a substitute for bilingual education, that is, for explaining ideas to young children in their mother tongue. ( I suspect that Anangu teachers are desperate for tools which help them teach, and a consistent explicit framework - and that's what AL provides.)

And the second story comes from South Africa, a test case for bilingual-denialists, since mother-tongue language education was bound up with apartheid, and abandoned along with it. It's a thesis recently announced on Linguist List which looks quite relevant to this issue. Halla Bj∅rk Holmarsdottir's University of Oslo dissertation Title: From Policy to Practice: A study of the implementation of the Language-in-Education Policy (LiEP) in three South African primary schools, has this to say about English-medium schools, among other things:


In spite of a very progressive language in education policy (July 1997) that enables learners or their guardians to choose the language of instruction, schools catering for learners who are speakers of African languages still use English as their medium of instruction from the fourth grade. [...] As part of this empirical investigation the observations show that in the township schools both teachers and students are struggling with using a language as a medium of instruction that is foreign and additionally a language that neither is proficient in. The result is that learners are left with partial subject knowledge and little or no real knowledge in the foreign language. Observations showed that Xhosa was generally used for most of the talk time in the classrooms with teachers utilizing code alternation strategies to assist learners. Moreover, learners employ a number of coping strategies in dealing with a foreign medium. Ultimately, how can we expect children and adults to acquire knowledge and skills when they are taught through a language they do not understand?


Clearly the time has come to put aside ideological differences and concentrate on what works in schools. The evidence should be clear to the most hardened supporter of English language teaching that the first languages of the children and the teachers must be taken into consideration when introducing literacy and language teaching into a school.

Bilingual education has been on the decline in many Indigenous communities in Australia, in part because of the myth that monolingual English education always improves children's English more than bilingual education does, and in part because of the lack of resources. Improving English literacy is about consistent teaching, community involvement in the school (as the doco Bush School shows), and teachers who stay for more than a year - especially trained local people. And everyone needs to understand that if kids spend all their school-days learning English every school day every year, and see no place in the wider world for their family's language, then that language will probably not survive (see earlier post).

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