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Check out Noel Pearson's opinion piece in The Australian 10/3/07. He suggests that the two most important pieces of work in "saving" Indigenous languages so far have been the language documentation work undertaken by linguists (yes!) sponsored by AIATSIS, and the translations of the Bible done mostly by Summer Institute of Linguistics linguists. (And to this let's add the importance of gospel song writing mentioned by Bulanjdjan and Wamut). He gently makes the point that linguists' grammars are often inaccessible to speakers. We should listen; we can do better.

Pearson's a Queenslander. Queensland hasn't had the bilingual education programmes which have given recognition and support to some of the languages which are still spoken by children - Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri, Yolngu Matha. Nor has Queensland had long-term effective language centres such as Wangka Maya or the Katherine Region Language Centre. That's probably why he doesn't mention these as sources of support for language maintenance.

Amidst the glow created by Pearson's support for what we do, one of his recommendations needs discussion. Again, his Queensland background is probably the source. While he argues that speakers of Indigenous languages need to be literate in their own languages for the survival of their languages, he buys the line that initial literacy in traditional languages compromises attaining English literacy. Of course bilingual transfer literacy programmes are not appropriate if the children do not have a strong command of the traditional languages. And that's the case in most of Queensland.

Children should have access to both languages from the start - but that doesn't mean that they have to learn to be literate in English from the start - give them time to learn the language - THEN start the English literacy. In the meantime, if there are resources to do this effectively, introduce the concept of literacy through the mother tongue with a more transparent spelling system. English spelling is horrible, and if you don't know English, it is just another barrier in the way of learning to read.

The onus is on purveyors of the English-only literacy line to provide the evidence that learning a second language and learning the concept of literacy through that second language is an easier task than learning the concept of literacy through one's first language. Where to find the evidence is obvious - comparing adult speakers of strong languages (e.g. Alyawarr) who have gone through English-only literacy schools with speakers who of strong languages who have gone through transfer literacy programmes (e.g. Warlpiri). Is there any significant difference in how good their literacy is? And how important are other factors such as mobility, quality of teaching, health, hope for the future?

Why hasn't this testing been done?


Jane, you're so right re: onus being on the English-only camp to prove their argument. I feel so free at the thought of it! I've always accepted that this notion had to be challenged (with evidence!), rather than even proven in the first place!

Speaking of evidence, I am under the impression that there is existing research showing the benefits of teaching literacy first in L1 and then transferring literacy skills acorss to L2 (English).

Only, I have no idea of who did it, or where it is to be found! There was a professor at Edith Cowan University (can't remember his name just now...) who did a lot of research on Aboriginal Englishes and education, I think...

I've commented on Noel's article on my blog.

Excellent post, Jane! While Pearson's piece makes some good points you really nailed the holes and misunderstandings in it.

At the risk of repeating myself, there has been and continues to be huge support for work on Australian Aboriginal languages and music to the tune of millions of Australian dollars, from overseas funding agencies such as the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the Volkswagen Foundation DoBeS project. It is a shame that Pearson did not mention them.

There are heaps of things I didn't mention in Pearson's manifesto that would be excellent to debate - e.g. his very first point - about recognising Indigenous languages officially. Such recognition would gain respect for the languages that's hard to imagine now. But what I CAN imagine are the arguments about which languages should be listed, and how their names should be spelled.

Do check out Bulanjdjan's post which engages with other points in Pearson's manifesto: excited recognition of the importance of distinguishing between first and second language acquisition, and justified caution over techno-fixes (e.g. pouring money into MultiLocus's black box Visual Communication Solutions).

And thanks Peter for the point about the large overseas sponsorship (see the blogroll for some links). The rest of the world recognises what locals don't. Pearson's point perhaps is that we haven't had Australian public figures forcefully and publicly talking about what can be done for endangered languages - be they in Australia or in the Pacific. A job for Australia's local Melinda and Bill Gates? Or for Kevin Rudd?

The rest of the world recognises what locals don't.

Which is all the more reason why we need an Aussie version of Waka Reo, to boost awareness and understanding!

Waka Reo is a reality show about learning endangered languages, which screens on Māori TV:

"Reality series where 14 strangers are stranded on a remote South Island marae and thrown down the ultimate language challenge – learn to speak reo Māori better than the others and win $10,000."

(yes, I'm obsessed with the idea!)

i haven't read pearson's bit too closely, but my initial thought was mentioned by Jane already - that a lot of what he says is influenced by the fact that our (me n Noel's) state government doesn't give an official shit about Aboriginal languages.

That's not to say that he's off track, but i think it's influenced what he's saying.

When is Queensland going to get its act together?

Yeah, I find the disparity quite surprising.

There are a number of linguists working in and around Cape York, and from my vague understanding, there was a bit of a movement to get a language centre established there. Does anyone know any more about its progression?

There's a considerable literature on test scores and bilingual education in the US (some of which controls for other factors like income) - I'll post links on my blog in a few days as soon as I have a little time. The summary from memory (from when I did a TESOL qualification) was that kids do significantly better when learning to read in their first language, that test scores in bilingual ed classes are lower in the lower primary levels, equal by upper primary, and ahead by high school, and that one of the biggest problems in accurately measuring effects was finding out what type of bilingual ed classroom the stats referred to (e.g. two-way immersion, transfer, etc).

The bilingual education test scores are important for the claim that English-only advocates need to defend their position, rather than vice versa. However, there's a problem of comparability of programmes. In an English-speaking country it's a lot easier to run a French first language literacy programme than a Warlpiri programme, since there are heaps of books in French and other resources and programmes. The advantage that first language Indigenous languages programmes SHOULD have in Australia is a pool of enthusiastic native speaker teachers. But school systems are not always designed to support people who struggle to complete teaching diplomas. So, the test scores from Australia when they are eventually done may not show striking differences from the English-only programmes, but this may be due to other factors. In any case, the work needs to be done!

he buys the line that initial literacy in traditional languages compromises attaining English literacy.

Hah. Having learned English as a foreign language -- meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of each word at the same time --, I make far fewer spelling mistakes than, it seems, most native speakers. The English orthography is so wacky that speaking the language makes learning to spell it more difficult. By all means, if children have the opportunity, they should first learn how reading and writing work in an alphabetic script, and then how to wrestle with English spelling conventions.

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